US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and high-ranking North Korean envoy Kim Yong-chol met in New York City to set the stage for an historic summit between their leaders on nuclear disarmament.
The discussions came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov touched down in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, for talks with his counterpart Ri Yong-ho.
Kim and Pompeo left a 90-minute private dinner at a Manhattan apartment on Wednesday night without providing details about their conversations. Another two rounds of talks were scheduled later on Thursday.
“Good working dinner with Kim Yong Chol in New York tonight,” Pompeo tweeted. “Steak, corn, and cheese on the menu.”
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been scheduled to hold an unprecedented summit in Singapore on June 12. Disputes between Washington and Pyongyang led Trump to cancel the meeting – only to see a flurry of diplomatic efforts in recent days.
Kim – the right-hand man of the North Korean leader and vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee – is the most senior leader from Pyongyang to visit the US in nearly two decades.
Tong Zhao, a fellow with the Nuclear Policy Programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, told Al Jazeera despite differences between the two sides the Singapore summit will likely happen.
“There is strong clear commitment from both sides to have this summit on time on June 12,” Tong said.
“Even though there is still major substantive issues for them to work out. They still face a major gap in their respective positions, but I think there is more than a 50-50 chance the summit will take place on time in Singapore.”
Washington is pressing North Korea to quickly give up all its nuclear weapons in a verifiable way in return for lifting sanctions and economic incentives.
But analysts say North Korea will be unwilling to cede its nuclear deterrent unless it is given security guarantees that the US will not try to topple the regime.
A senior State Department official briefed reporters as Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol met. The official, who asked not to be identified, said North Korea is “going to have to make clear what they are willing to do” in response to Washington’s demands.
Trump, the official said, “can make a fly or no-fly decision anytime he wants”, referring to the possible June 12 summit.
If not enough progress is made to lead to a productive meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un, the official said, “we will ramp up the pressure on them and we’ll be ready for the day that hopefully, they are ready”.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov engaged in discussions with his counterpart Ri after arriving in Pyongyang on Thursday, North Korea’s state media reported.
The two foreign ministers met at the Supreme People’s Assembly building in Pyongyang, Russian news agency TASS reported.
Lavrov called for the phased lifting of sanctions on North Korea, indicating Pyongyang would not give up its nuclear weapons until that happens.
“It is absolutely obvious that – as we start discussions on how to resolve the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula – it is understood that the solution cannot be comprehensive without the lifting of sanctions,” Lavrov said in a press conference.
“This cannot be achieved at one go. There can be no immediate denuclearisation – this should be done step-by-step and all sides should go halfway during every single phase of this process.”
Despite having a border with North Korea and relatively cordial relations that President Vladimir Putin seems to want to develop further, Russia has so far remained on the sidelines as the US-North Korea confrontation escalated over the past year.
Lavrov also spoke to Pompeo – the former head of the CIA – by telephone for the first time on Wednesday ahead of the secretary of state’s dinner meeting with Kim.