The right-hand man of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to meet this week with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and possibly even President Donald Trump — as deadlocked denuclearization talks look to get a fresh injection of momentum.
Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, Pompeo’s counterpart, was heading for Washington on Thursday and Friday for discussions on the agenda and venue for a second meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders, multiple South Korean media reports said, citing diplomatic sources.
Asked about the prospect of Kim Yong Chol visiting Washington for the second time in less than a year, the U.S. State Department demurred, telling The Japan Times that it did not have any meetings to announce.
However, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol could meet this week, while CNN reported that a North Korean delegation could also visit “as soon as this week.” The CNN report, which also cited an unnamed diplomatic source, said plans had not been finalized. It said that ahead of the possible meetings, a letter Trump sent to Kim Jong Un was flown to Pyongyang and hand-delivered over the weekend.
Separately, the Chosun Ilbo daily reported the same day that there was a “strong chance” that Kim, a former spy chief and current head of the North’s United Front Department — which oversees relations with South Korea — could meet Trump.
Pompeo, who made several trips to Pyongyang last year, had sought to meet his counterpart in November, but those talks were called off at the last minute.
Washington and Pyongyang have yet to decide on a time and location for a second Kim-Trump summit but are aiming for early this year, according to U.S. officials. Vietnam has reportedly emerged as a top contender to host the site, but Thailand and Hawaii have also been mentioned as candidates. Pompeo told CBS News on Sunday that the two sides are “working out” the details.
Speculation has grown that the White House is seeking to break the nuclear deadlock by backing off its demand for the North’s “final, fully verified denuclearization” and is instead looking into a deal that would at least partially ease crushing sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons and missile programs in exchange for a cap on long-range missiles believed capable of striking the United States.
According to the Chosun Ilbo report, “the U.S. has been discussing with the [South] Korean government the possibility of a partial easing of sanctions in exchange for North Korea giving up its intercontinental ballistic missiles and freezing its nuclear weapons development.”
Officials from both the U.S. and South Korea have suggested that such ideas are interim measures and not an end result.
But recent comments by Pompeo about conversations with the North have stoked concern that the Trump administration may be eager to reach a quick deal that focuses on the threat to the U.S. and hands the president a diplomatic win in a time of need.
“We’re moving forward in these conversations, lots of ideas about how we might continue to decrease the risk to the American people,” Pompeo said Friday in an interview with Fox News. “Remember … at the end that’s the objective; it’s the security of American people. And so reducing the threat from North Korea, whether that’s by our success to date in stopping their missile testing, stopping their nuclear testing, those are the important elements.”
Experts said that any visit by Kim Yong Chol was almost certainly a signal that the two sides were nearing agreement on terms for a second U.S.-North Korea summit that Pyongyang can accept.
“Kim wouldn’t come and meet with Pompeo — and possibly Trump — if he thought he was coming to get the short end of the stick,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “That probably means cosmetic compromises at best but no major substantive concessions on either side, though Kim will probably want to make the case that big steps forward on denuclearization from North Korea are possible but only with some reciprocal measures, particularly sanctions relief, on the U.S. side.”
If this week’s visit does come to fruition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top priority will be to assure that Japan is closely consulted ahead of a second summit — and to make sure the Japanese public knows it, Oba said.
“That might mean Prime Minister Abe will move to secure a phone call with President Trump as soon as possible after a summit announcement is made, perhaps even a U.S. visit,” he added. “But with Abe re-elected as LDP leader this fall, scandals fading away, and U.S.-Japan trade tensions abated for now, a lot of the domestic political pressure that made it so urgent for Abe to seem looped in with Washington on North Korea has gone away.”
Regardless, if there is any real prospect of a U.S.-North Korea deal, especially one that would leave Pyongyang still in possession of its arsenal of shorter-range missiles capable of hitting Japan while also sidestepping the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s, Tokyo will likely attempt to enter the fray.
“Japan doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage here, but the more comprehensive and more serious a deal becomes, the more Japan could matter, because it has a lot of the economic goodies that could serve as part of a major agreement,” Oba said.