TOKYO — A top North Korean official is on his way to United States for talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about a landmark summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, as efforts to the make the meeting happen go into overdrive.
He was initially booked on an Air China flight to Washington but changed it to a Wednesday flight bound for New York, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported. That would have him arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday.
In a morning tweet, Trump confirmed that the general was on his way to New York — and a White House aide later said that Pompeo plans to meet him there later this week.
“We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” the president tweeted Tuesday morning. “Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York.”
Kim Yong Chol is one of the vice chairmen of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the communist organization through which the ruling family controls North Korea, but is not technically the No. 2 behind Kim Jong Un.
He has, however, emerged as one of the leader’s closest aides and has been at all the talks this year that have led to the current rapprochement.
He will be the highest-ranking North Korean to visit the United States since Gen. Jo Myong Rok went to the White House to see President Bill Clinton in 2000, part of a denuclearization effort that went nowhere.
Although Trump has not officially announced that the summit is back on, his staff is acting as though it is. Trump abruptly cancelled the summit Thursday in a letter to Kim Jong Un that cited “the tremendous anger and open hostility” of recent North Korean statements.
During a television interview in Washington on Tuesday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said that if the summit does not take place on June 12, as originally scheduled, it could be held soon afterward.
Speaking on “Fox & Friends” on Fox News, she credited Trump’s letter last week canceling the summit for creating the “kinetic energy” needed to get the parties talking more seriously.
“Ever since then practically, North Korea, South Korea and the United States have been making very positive moves,” Conway said. “But let’s see what happens, as the president says. If he’s satisfied, then it will go forward.”
The White House also on Tuesday distributed to reporters a list of ways in which the United States “continues to actively prepare for President Trump’s expected summit with leader Kim in Singapore.”
That includes a meeting planned at the White House on June 7 between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That visit is expected to provide a chance for Trump and Abe to coordinate their strategy amid concerns in Tokyo over the prospective peace talks.
A U.S. team led by Sung Kim, a former American negotiator with North Korea who currently serves as ambassador to the Philippines, was to continue holding on the northern side of the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. Officials began discussing the substance of any summit agreement, focusing on the thorny issue of denuclearization, with a North Korean team led by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui on Sunday.
Separately, an advance team headed by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin is in Singapore making logistical plans for the summit, should it go ahead. The North Korean side is led by Kim Chang Son, who effectively serves as chief of staff to Kim Jong Un.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, is also talking with his counterparts in South Korea and Japan “virtually every day.”
And Sanders confirmed that Pompeo plans to meet later this week in New York with Kim Yong Chol. Both are former spy chiefs and met in Pyongyang during Pompeo’s visits there in April and again this month.
While Pompeo is based in Washington, the North Korean diplomats accredited to the United Nations are based in New York and are not allowed to travel outside the city without special dispensation, making it the easiest place for meetings to be held.
Kim Yong Chol was directly sanctioned by the Treasury Department for his involvement in North Korea’s nuclear program and illicit activities while he served as director of intelligence, so the United States would have had to grant a waiver to allow him to enter the country.
He now serves as head of the United Front Department, the arm of the ruling Workers’ Party that handles relations with South Korea. In this role, he traveled to the South in February during the Winter Olympics, which provided the springboard for the current diplomatic frenzy, and was prominent during an inter-Korean summit on April 27.
He is widely believed to have masterminded a 2010 attack on a South Korean naval corvette, the Cheonan, that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
As the rapprochement with the United States has picked up pace, Kim Yong Chol appears to have taken on a broader remit to deal with the Trump administration.
He holds a number of senior positions within North Korea’s communist hierarchy. He is a member of the Workers’ Party Politburo and the powerful State Affairs Commission, and he also serves on the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
“This combination of positions in the party and state makes Kim one of the most powerful figures in North Korea,” according to North Korea Leadership Watch, a website that tracks senior regime figures.
Wagner reported from Washington.