Thursday 21 November 2019

Top North Korea aide delivers letter to Donald Trump at White House

Kim Yong Chol is the most senior North Korean to visit the presidential residence in 18 years.

Chief of staff John Kelly and Kim Yong Chol at the White House. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Chief of staff John Kelly and Kim Yong Chol at the White House. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

By Zeke Miller, Josh Lederman and Jonathan Lemire in Washington

A top aide to Kim Jong Un has met US president Donald Trump in the Oval Office to deliver a letter from the North Korean leader as the two sides try to revive an axed summit.

Kim Yong Chol was greeted at the White House by chief of staff John Kelly and then whisked into the Oval Office.

He is the most senior North Korean to visit the White House in 18 years, a highly symbolic sign of easing tensions after fears of war escalated amid North Korean nuclear and missile tests last year.

President Donald Trump has called off a summit with Kim Jong Un (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Kim Yong Chol’s arrival in Washington — in a small caravan of vehicles from New York — came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that he was confident negotiations with Pyongyang were “moving in the right direction”.

“Our two countries face a pivotal moment in our relationship, and it would be nothing short of tragic to let this opportunity go to waste”, Mr Pompeo said in New York after meeting with the envoy.

Mr Pompeo would not say that the summit is a definite go for Singapore on June 12 and could not say if that decision would be made after Mr Trump reads Kim Jong Un’s letter.

However, his comments were the most positive from any US official since the meeting was axed last week after belligerent statements from the North.

The two countries, eyeing the first summit between the US and the North after six decades of hostility, have also been holding negotiations in Singapore and the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas.

Early on Thursday, Mr Trump told reporters “we are doing very well” with North Korea.

He added there may even need to be a second or third summit meeting to reach a deal on North Korean denuclearisation but still hedged, saying “maybe we’ll have none”.

Kim Yong Chol left his hotel in New York City early on Friday for the trip to Washington in a convoy of vehicles.

Mr Pompeo, who has travelled to North Korea and met Kim Jong Un twice in the past two months, said he believed the country’s leaders are “contemplating a path forward where they can make a strategic shift, one that their country has not been prepared to make before”.

John Kelly with Kim Yong Chol as he arrives at the White House (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Yet he also said difficult work remains including hurdles that may appear to be insurmountable as negotiations progress on the US demand for North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.

“We will push forward to test the proposition that we can achieve that outcome,” he said.

Kim Jong Un, in a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister on Thursday, complained about the US trying to spread its influence in the region, a comment that may complicate the summit plans.

“As we move to adjust to the political situation in the face of US hegemonism, I am willing to exchange detailed and in-depth opinions with your leadership and hope to do so moving forward,” Mr Kim told Sergey Lavrov.

Kim Jong Un met Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Pyongyang (Valery Sharifulin/TASS News Agency Pool Photo via AP)

North Korea’s flurry of diplomatic activity following an increase in nuclear weapons and missile tests in 2017 suggests that Mr Kim is eager for sanctions relief to build his economy and for the international legitimacy a summit with Mr Trump would provide.

But there are lingering doubts on whether he will ever fully relinquish his nuclear arsenal, which he may see as his only guarantee of survival in a region surrounded by enemies.

Mr Trump views a summit as a legacy-defining opportunity to make a nuclear deal, but he has left the world guessing since cancelling the meeting last week in an open letter to Mr Kim that complained of the North’s “tremendous anger and open hostility”.

North Korea’s conciliatory response to that letter appears to have put the summit back on track.

PA Media

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