US-North Korea summit: Senior Pyongyang offical Kim Yong Chol 'on way to New York' ahead of Singapore meeting

Former spy chief is spotted at Beijing airport as officials cross the globe to prepare for the encounter

Jon Sharman
Tuesday 29 May 2018 12:12 BST
Top North Korea official arrives in Beijing ahead of Trump-Kim summit in Singapore

A senior North Korean official is on his way to the US as preparations continue for the proposed meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Kim Yong-chol, a former top spy and currently a vice-chairman of the ruling party’s central committee, was spotted in Beijing airport on Tuesday by the Associated Press.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency had first reported that it saw his name on a passenger list for a flight to Washington DC, though later said his plans had changed and he would fly to New York, where North Korea’s mission to the UN functions as a well-known back channel between the US and Pyongyang.

General Kim’s visit was confirmed by Mr Trump on Tuesday morning. He tweeted: “We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea. Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York. Solid response to my letter, thank you!”

Gen Kim is the most senior North Korean to meet with US counterparts on their home soil in 18 years. In 2000, special envoy Jo Myong-rok met then-president Bill Clinton on a goodwill visit, and secretary of state Madeleine Albright later accepted his invitation to visit North Korea.

Gen Kim was pictured standing near Ivanka Trump during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year, as the current thaw in tensions between the north and south was first beginning.

The general’s reported trip came after US officials held talks in the border village of Panmunjom designed to prepare the ground for the planned Trump-Kim summit in Singapore – which the billionaire cancelled only days ago before later suggesting it could still be held.

The leaders are in dispute over what the term “denuclearisation” means to either side, but the major falling-out took place over what, in a letter to Mr Kim, Mr Trump called the North’s “open hostility”. Comments by Mike Pence and John Bolton referring to the “Libya model” were poorly received in Pyongyang and one official called the US vice president a “dummy”.

The demise of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is seen by North Korea as an example of how dealing with the West can go awry.

In the letter Mr Trump warned Mr Kim the American nuclear arsenal was “so massive” but left the door open for a change of heart. On Sunday he tweeted: “I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day [sic]. Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!”

A Kim Jong-un impersonator takes selfies in Singapore’s Merlion Park. The world is gearing up for the planned summit between Mr Kim and Donald Trump as officials from both sides criss-cross the globe
A Kim Jong-un impersonator takes selfies in Singapore’s Merlion Park. The world is gearing up for the planned summit between Mr Kim and Donald Trump as officials from both sides criss-cross the globe (AFP/Getty)

Mr Kim had held a surprise meeting with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, on Saturday in a bid to revive the on-again, off-again summit.

Preparations appeared to be back on track this week. Mr Kim’s de facto chief of staff Kim Chang-son flew to Singapore on Monday night, Japanese media reported, while a US “pre-advance” team, including the White House deputy chief of staff for operations, Joe Hagin, was also on its way to the city-state, the White House said.

Analysts believe Washington is trying to determine whether North Korea is willing to agree sufficient steps towards denuclearisation to allow the meeting to take place. Mr Trump has called for Pyongyang to relinquish all its atomic weapons.

North Korea defends its nuclear and missile programmes as a deterrent against perceived aggression by the US, which maintains some 29,000 troops in South Korea half a century after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce but not a permanent peace treaty.

The North has long claimed it is open to eventually giving up those weapons if Washington withdraws the troops and ends its “nuclear umbrella” alliance with Seoul.

Reporting on annual military drills held earlier this month, called Max Thunder, was limited as diplomatic efforts were ramped up ahead of the planned summit.

Additional reporting by agencies

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