North Korea’s former top spy was bound for New York City and will reportedly meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday.
General Kim Yong-chol, the right-hand man of North Korea’s leader, will hold high-level talks as preparations for an historic June 12 nuclear summit in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un gather pace.
Pompeo’s spokeswoman said it would be the third meeting between Pompeo – who opened contacts with the isolated Pyongyang regime when he was still CIA director – and General Kim.
“We’re still finalising exactly what these meetings will look like,” she said.
The North Korean envoy was at Beijing airport on Wednesday for his flight to New York, a day after arriving in the Chinese capital.
Pompeo has travelled to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, twice in recent weeks for meetings with North Korea’s leader, and has said there is a “shared understanding” between the two sides about what they hope to achieve.
US officials familiar with the planning said Kim was scheduled to meet Pompeo on Thursday, The Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, Russia announced Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit North Korea on Thursday and hold talks with his counterpart about the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Flurry of diplomacy
Chung Sung-yoon, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said General Kim would be the most senior North Korean on US soil since Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok met then-President Bill Clinton in 2000.
The trip is part of a flurry of diplomacy before the on-again, off-again summit.
On Sunday, US negotiators, headed by Washington’s ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, began meeting North Korean counterparts in the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. A team of US officials was also in Singapore for preparations.
General Kim is a notorious figure in South Korea, where he is blamed for masterminding the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan navy vessel that killed 46 South Korean sailors – an attack for which North Korea denies responsibility.
From 2009 to 2016, he also headed North Korea’s General Reconnaissance Bureau, the unit tasked with cyber warfare and intelligence gathering.
During that period, North Korea ramped up its hacking programmes, and even managed to wage a largely successful effort to infiltrate the computer network of Sony Pictures Entertainment, a major Hollywood studio, to block the 2014 release of a movie that satirised Kim.
General Kim is one of several North Korean officials under US sanctions, but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she was sure appropriate administrative steps had been taken to allow him to visit New York undisturbed.
If the June 12 date stands, officials have only two weeks to finalise details such as where in Singapore the talks will take place and how internationally sanctioned North Korean officials will travel there.
The key task is to settle the agenda. The main stumbling block is likely to be the concept of “denuclearisation” – both sides say they want it, but there is a widening gap between their definitions.
Washington wants North Korea to quickly give up all its nuclear weapons in a verifiable way in return for sanctions and economic relief.
But analysts say North Korea will be unwilling to cede its nuclear deterrent unless it is given security guarantees the US will not try to topple the regime.