Summit preparation is steaming aheadTwo-track preparations for a second North-U.S. summit seem to be speeding along, with Kim Yong-chol, a top North Korean official, heading to Washington this week and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui possibly meeting with her U.S. counterpart in Sweden.
According to U.S. and Chinese sources Tuesday, Kim, the vice chairman of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, was scheduled to depart from Beijing around 6:30 a.m. Thursday from Beijing Capital International Airport and arrive at Washington’s Dulles International Airport around 6:50 p.m. Thursday on a United Airlines UA808 flight. He was also booked for the same route the following day.
It has been seven months since Kim’s last trip to the United States in late May, when he landed in New York for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then visited the White House in Washington.
Kim is expected to lead a delegation of some 10 North Korean officials. This is significantly larger than his team for his last U.S. trip, which helped set up the first summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“The size of the [North Korean] delegation to Washington is expected to be much larger than that during the New York meeting,” said a source familiar with the North-U.S talks. “Depending on if a meeting with Trump is confirmed for Jan. 18, the level can be raised.”
Kim Yong-chol’s visit will be the first time for a high-ranking North Korean official to fly directly into Washington.
He is expected to be accompanied by officials who attended the New York meeting, including Kim Song-hye, a senior North Korean official of the United Front Department in charge of reunification and Choe Kang-il, a deputy director-general for North American affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry.
After arriving in Washington Thursday evening, Kim is likely to hold talks with Pompeo Friday and then meet with Trump in the White House.
Kim may deliver a letter from Kim Jong-un in the White House meeting. This could hold the North Korean leader’s response to Trump on the details of a second North-U.S. summit, such as a date and venue. Trump has sent a letter to Kim Jong-un over the weekend, according to CNN.
Trump was said to have written that Washington would consider Bangkok and Hanoi, Vietnam, as possible locations for a second summit.
In October 2000, Jo Myong-rok, a North Korean vice marshal, visited Washington to meet with Bill Clinton, who was the U.S. president at the time. He flew into San Francisco, where he stayed one night, then stayed in Washington for four days.
Kim Yong-chol arrived in New York on May 31 for his talks with Pompeo, then visited Washington the next day. CNN reported Wednesday that Kim is expected to meet Pompeo and Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, Friday, citing U.S. sources familiar with the negotiations.
Likewise, Choe Son-hui was headed to Sweden for an international conference, leading to speculation that she could finally meet with her U.S. counterpart Biegun in Stockholm.
There was also talk Thursday that Choe could fly to Washington and join Kim Yong-chol for two-plus-two discussions with Pompeo and Biegun. However, the source said, “Working-level talks between Biegun and Choe Son-hui are expected to happen in Sweden.”
The White House likewise appears ready to receive the North Korean delegation despite the longest-ever U.S. government shutdown. Kim Yong-chol’s visit could be an indicator that the North Korea denuclearization dialogue is moving along.
“The State Department, since last weekend, has been working busily,” a diplomatic source said. “Secretary Pompeo’s decision to return early [from his Middle East tour] is linked to Kim Yong-chol’s Washington visit.”
BY JUNG HYO-SIK, CHUN SU-JIN AND SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]