Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea's former military intelligence chief opened talks Thursday to try to salvage an on-again, off-again summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump told reporters the talks were going well, and that North Korean officials may come to Washington on Friday with a letter from Kim.
Pompeo was meeting with Kim Yong Chol, one of the North Korean leader's closest aides, at the three-bedroom apartment residence of the U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations in New York. Kim is the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the U.S. in 18 years. The two officials had discussions over dinner on Wednesday.
Pompeo, who spoke with Trump on Wednesday night and with national security adviser John Bolton early Thursday, was accompanied by Andrew Kim, the head of a CIA unit assigned to work on North Korea, and Mark Lambert, the head of the State Department's Korea desk. It was not immediately clear who accompanied Kim Yong Chol on the North Korean side.
"We are doing very well with North Korea," Trump told reporters at Joint Base Andrews before departing on trip to Texas.
"Our secretary of state is having very good meetings. I believe they will be coming down to Washington on Friday. A letter being delivered to me from Kim Jong Un. It is very important to them."
"I think it will be very positive. We will see what happens. It is all a process. Hopefully we will have a meeting on the (June) 12th," Trump said, adding there may be multiple meetings but "maybe we'll have none."
Pompeo talks with Kim Yong Chol - the most critical of three tracks of negotiations currently taking place between the two governments in the U.S., in the heavily fortified Korean Demilitarized Zone, and in Singapore - are aimed at determining whether a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un, originally scheduled for June 12 but later canceled by Trump, can be restored.
"The potential summit between @POTUS and Chairman Kim presents #DPRK with a great opportunity to achieve security and economic prosperity," Pompeo tweeted shortly before Thursday's meeting began. "The people of #NorthKorea can have a brighter future and the world can be more peaceful."
But Kim, in a meeting with Russia's foreign minister on Thursday, complained about "U.S. hegemonism," a comment that may complicate the discussions in New York. "As we move to adjust to the political situation in the face of U.S. hegemonism, I am willing to exchange detailed and in-depth opinions with your leadership and hope to do so moving forward," Kim told Sergey Lavrov.
North Korea's flurry of diplomatic activity following a torrid run in nuclear weapons and missile tests in 2017 suggests that Kim Jong Un is eager for sanctions relief to build his economy and the international legitimacy the summit with Trump would provide. But there are lingering doubts on whether Kim will ever fully relinquish his nuclear arsenal, which he may see as his only guarantee of survival in a region surrounded by enemies.
Pompeo, Trump's former CIA chief, has traveled to Pyongyang twice in recent weeks for meetings with Kim Jong Un, and has said there is a "shared understanding" between the two sides about what they hope to achieve in talks. South Korean media speculated that Pompeo could make a third trip to Pyongyang and that Kim Yong Chol was carrying a personal letter from Kim Jong Un and might push to travel to Washington to meet with Trump.
Trump views a summit as a legacy-defining opportunity to make the nuclear deal that has evaded others, but he pledged to walk away from the meeting if he believed the North wasn't serious about discussing dismantling its nuclear program.
After the North's combative statements, there was debate inside the Trump administration about whether it marked a real turn to belligerence or a feint to see how far Kim Jong Un could push the U.S. in the lead-up to the talks.
Trump had mused that Kim's "attitude" had changed after the North Korean leader's surprise visit to China two weeks ago, suggesting China was pushing Kim away from the table. Trump's open letter to Kim last week canceling the summit, the aides said, was designed to pressure the North on the international stage for appearing to have cold feet.
White House officials maintain that Trump was hopeful the North was merely negotiating but that he was prepared for the letter to mark the end of the two-month flirtation. Instead, the officials said, it brought both sides to the table with increasing seriousness, as they work through myriad logistical and policy decisions to keep June 12 a viable option for the summit.
Kim Yong Chol is a vice chairman of the North Korean ruling party's central committee. The last official of his stature to visit the United States was Jo Myong Rok, the late first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, who visited Washington in 2000, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.
The White House emphasized that it has remained in close contact with South Korean and Japanese officials as preparations for the talks continue. Sanders said Trump will host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on June 7 to coordinate their thinking ahead of the summit. Trump hosted South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week.
Moon, who has lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong Un, held a surprise meeting with the North Korean leader on Saturday in an effort to keep the summit alive.
Previously, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and high-ranking North Korean official Kim Yong Chol enter a second day of meetings in New York.
The two men left a 90-minute private dinner at a New York apartment on Wednesday night without providing details about their conversation. Another round of talks was scheduled for Thursday, with Pompeo expected to leave New York that afternoon.
There were reports earlier on Wednesday that South Korean officials were noting “quite significant” differences between the United States and North Korea over denuclearization.
The awaited summit
US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un had been scheduled to hold an unprecedented summit in Singapore on June 12. Disputes between Washington and Pyongyang led Trump to cancel the meeting, only to see a renewal of diplomatic efforts in recent days.
Kim Yong Chol, a close aide of Kim Jong Un and vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, is the most senior North Korean official to meet top US officials for talks in the United States in nearly two decades.
In return for giving up its nuclear weapons, Washington could potentially loosen sanctions on Pyongyang, leading to possible food and other aid to impoverished North Korea and improved ties with South Korea.
A senior State Department official briefed reporters separately as Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol met late on Wednesday. The official, who asked not to be identified, said North Korea is “going to have to make clear what they are willing to do” in response to Washington’s demands.
Trump, the official said, “can make a fly or no-fly decision anytime he wants,” referring to the possible Singapore summit.
If not enough progress is made to lead to a productive meeting between Trump and Kim Jung Un, the official said, “we will ramp up the pressure on them and we’ll be ready for the day that hopefully they are ready.”
The two Koreas have technically been at war for decades, even though the Korean War’s military combat ended in 1953, because a peace agreement was never signed.