Saturday 23 March 2019

Pace of diplomacy quickens as North Korea officials head for US and Singapore talks

Donald Trump performed an apparent U-turn over the talks. Photo: AP
Donald Trump performed an apparent U-turn over the talks. Photo: AP

Nicola Smith

Former North Korea spy chief and senior official Kim Yong-chol is heading to the US after stopping over in Beijing, presumably for talks with US officials regarding a possible summit between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency said yesterday.

Kim Yong-chol, one of the most influential North Koreans outside the Kim dynasty, has been closely involved in talks with South Korea.

His visit to the US would further indicate preparations for the historic summit, initially planned for June 12, are moving ahead.

The trip, if confirmed, would come just days after President Trump cancelled the one-on-one meeting with Kim Jong-un, citing North Korea's "hostility".

But after a conciliatory response from Pyongyang on Friday and an impromptu meeting on Saturday between the North Korean leader and Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, in which Kim Jong-un expressed his commitment to progress on denuclearisation, the talks now seem to be on again.

Mr Trump has since said he has reconsidered, and that officials from both countries are meeting to work out details.

As part of ongoing efforts to find common ground, the US has also reportedly decided to defer the launch of another round of severe sanctions against Pyongyang.

Kim Yong-chol is due to fly to New York today after speaking to officials in Beijing, Yonhap reported, citing diplomatic sources.

He would be the most high-profile North Korean official to visit the US since 2000.

Kim Chang-son, another top aide to the North Korean leader, arrived in Singapore yesterday for meetings with a delegation of senior White House officials, including Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff for operations, reported Japan's NHK.

When Kim Chang-son, known as Kim Jong-un's "butler", was asked at Beijing airport if he was flying to Singapore for talks with the US, he said he was "going there to play", according to footage from Nippon Television Network.

However, officials from both sides are believed to be engaging in the intense logistics of arranging the first ever summit between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.

Separately, a US team led by veteran negotiator and former ambassador to South Korea, Sung Kim, has been meeting with North Korean officials in the demilitarised zone dividing the Korean peninsula to discuss the summit agenda and the wording of a possible communique.

Moon Jae-in, who has lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Mr Trump and Kim Jong-un, has battled to keep the summit alive.

Despite Kim Jong-un's apparent eagerness for a summit with Mr Trump, there are lingering doubts over whether he would ever agree to fully relinquish his nuclear weapons when he may see them as his only guarantee of survival.

Mr Moon has insisted Kim Jong-un can be persuaded to abandon his nuclear facilities, materials and bombs in a verifiable and irreversible way in exchange for credible security and economic guarantees.

But US and North Korean officials are racing to bridge a gulf between the two sides over the definition of denuclearisation before the two leaders meet.

At Kim Jong-un's conciliatory first meeting with Moon Jae-in at the Demilitarized Zone that separates North Korea and South Korea on April 27, they agreed to seek the "complete denuclearisation" of the Korean peninsula, but used vague wording that did not clearly define it.

Since then, North Korea has rebuffed US demands for it to unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons programme, which it views as a deterrent against perceived aggression by the US, which keeps 28,500 troops based in South Korea.

Washington, meanwhile, is trying to determine whether Pyongyang is willing to agree on sufficient steps that would allow the two sides to proceed with the summit.

Before cancelling the event, Mr Trump had indicated that he may be open to a more phased approach.

'The New York Times' reported on Monday that Siegfried Hecker, a leading federal adviser who has repeatedly visited the North's sprawling atomic complex, has warned that the disarmament process could take up to 15 years.

Daily Telegraph

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