The administration has not announced the envoy’s visit, which comes amid wrangling within the administration over terms for a second Trump-Kim meeting and the promised eradication of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Trump has been upbeat about a second round of face-to-face negotiations with Kim, despite a lack of measurable progress toward disarmament.
“With North Korea, we have a very good dialogue,” Trump said Jan. 6. “I’m going to not go any further than that. I’m just going to say it’s very special. And anybody else but me, you’d be in war right now.”
If announced soon, the summit would probably take place in March or April, with Danang, Vietnam, seeming to be the most likely venue, according to people familiar with the flurry of diplomatic activity over the past month. Trump and Kim have exchanged letters in recent weeks, two people briefed on aspects of the diplomacy said.
“We are working to make progress on our goal of achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea, and the president looks forward to meeting Chairman Kim again at their second summit at a place and time yet to be determined,” said a White House spokesperson, who like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.
Kim Yong Chol, who is scheduled to arrive Thursday night, is also expected to meet with CIA Director Gina Haspel, who has become more involved in matters related to Pyongyang’s nuclear threat in recent months.
If the two sides make progress, U.S. officials are hoping to establish the first working-level talks between America’s special representative to the negotiations, Stephen Biegun, and his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Choi Sun Hee.
North Korea has repeatedly given Biegun the cold shoulder and denied meetings with him, but people familiar with the deliberations said the two could meet shortly in Western Europe if Kim Yong Chol’s visit goes well.
North Korea is believed to have solidified its negotiation strategy following meetings between Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last week.
Biegun, through a State Department spokesperson, said: “We have no meetings to announce at this time.”
North Korea remains under heavy U.S. sanctions, which include limits on travel, so Kim Yong Chol’s trip could only take place with high-level approval. His role showcases the unorthodox way Trump has dispensed with protocol and usual step-by-step diplomacy, in which high-level meetings are a reward for specific action.
Kim Yong Chol abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November, appearing to derail a presidential summit amid disagreements over what North Korea would agree to give up and whether the United States would offer additional incentives.
Pompeo is expected to meet the North Korean official on this visit, but it’s clear Pyongyang’s goal is to speak directly with Trump, diplomats and others who follow the rogue regime closely said.
“I think the North Koreans have come to the conclusion that the only one they can deal with is Trump,” said Ken Gause, a North Korea expert at the Center for Naval Analysis. “They believe this is a leader-to-leader relationship and the only reason that they would be meeting with Pompeo or even Biegun is to set up logistics.”
A flowery letter from Kim, hand-delivered to Trump by Kim Yong Chol in June, is widely credited with Trump’s decision to reinstate the first summit in Singapore, after Trump had canceled it in protest of what he called hostile North Korean rhetoric.
Trump has credited his personal outreach to Kim for a lull of more than a year in North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing, and is sensitive about criticism and news coverage questioning whether he was naive.
Trump has overridden concerns among aides, including national security adviser John Bolton and former defense secretary Jim Mattis, about North Korea’s sincerity in getting rid of nuclear weapons, people familiar with the diplomacy said.
“Different parts of the administration have different views on the path forward,” a person familiar with the deliberations said.
Bolton and others have argued for maintaining the hard line articulated last year — the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, that person said.
However, U.S. officials have used that language less frequently lately, which some observers take as a sign that the ground may be shifting toward a U.S. concession, with the goal of reaching a deal that Trump sees as otherwise impossible.
“There needs to be a starting point for both sides, where both sides get a clear win,” the person familiar with the deliberations said.
The administration is debating whether to engage in what many North Korea hawks see as a risky move of offering the regime relief from sanctions or other incentives up front, diplomats and other officials said.
“Basically the U.S. position is gravitating toward the North Korea position, which has always been for a phased, reciprocal process that does not involve giving up the nuclear capability on the front end,” Gause said. “The North Koreans are not going to give up something for nothing.”
Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that the United States is likely to make an announcement soon that the yearly joint military exercises with South Korea have again been scaled back, a move Mattis had opposed. It’s also possible the exercises will be renamed, Kimball said.
One possible North Korean move, he added, would be to decommission the Yongbyon nuclear plant to show it is making concessions.
Kim Yong Chol’s visit will probably not be a negotiating session, but a necessary step “to discuss and agree on a second summit date, a venue and maybe broad outlines of what corresponding steps the U.S. may be prepared to take,” Kimball said.
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.