North Korea

North Korea’s ex-spy chief heads to New York for summit talks after stopover in China

Kim Yong-chol would be the most senior North Korean official to step onto US soil since Vice-Marshall Jo Myong-rok met President Bill Clinton in 2000

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2018, 11:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 12:17am

North Korea’s former spy chief was headed to the United States and a top aide to leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Singapore on Tuesday, the latest indications that the on-again-off-again summit with US President Donald Trump was going ahead.

“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!” Trump said in a Twitter post Tuesday.

Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, was expected to fly to the United States on Wednesday after speaking to Chinese officials in Beijing, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing an unidentified source.

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Kim Yong-chol, who held talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang earlier this month, is believed to be leading arrangements for the planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Trump cancelled the summit in a sharply worded letter to the North Korean leader last Thursday before quickly reviving hopes of holding it as originally scheduled in Singapore on June 12.

US negotiators, headed by Washington’s current ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, met North Korean counterparts in the truce village of Panmunjom that divides the two Koreas on Sunday.

The US State Department said a separate team of White House officials has also headed to Singapore to sort out logistics for the historic meeting.

Kim Yong-chol would be the most senior North Korean official to step onto US soil since Vice-Marshall Jo Myong-rok met US President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Cha Du-hyeogn, a visiting scholar at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said there could be two scenarios behind Kim Yong-chol’s US visit.

“The first possibility is that negotiations between the US and North Korea went well, so Kim Yong-chol is going to the US as Kim Jong-un’s representative to confirm the outcome of the negotiations,” he said.

The other possibility was that negotiations did not go well and Kim was sending his representative to the United States to “reach a big deal”.

Cha said it was also possible that Kim Yong-chol would meet the Chinese officials during his stopover in Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that she had no information on Kim Yong-chol’s visit.

Kim Yong-chol has long been a right hand man to North Korea’s leader, playing a front-seat role during recent rounds of diplomacy aimed at ending the nuclear stalemate on the Korean peninsula.

He sat next to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is also a White House aide, during the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang which was a turning point in the nuclear crisis.

He also accompanied Kim Jong-un on both of his recent trips to China to meet President Xi Jinping.

Kim Yong-chol has a background in military and civilian intelligence agencies and is a deeply controversial figure in South Korea.

During his tenure as a senior intelligence official, he was accused by South Korea of masterminding deadly attacks on a South Korean navy ship and an island in 2010, and was linked by US intelligence to a cyberattack on Sony Pictures in 2014.

North Korea denied any involvement in the attack on the ship and on Sony Pictures.

Due to sanctions against him, Kim Yong-chol is banned from visiting the United States normally. His visit to the United States would indicate a waiver was granted.

The United States and South Korea blacklisted Kim Yong-chol for supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programmes in 2010 and 2016, respectively.

Meanwhile, Kim Chang-son, a senior official of North Korea’s State Affairs Commission who South Korean media refer to as Kim Jong-un’s “butler”, flew to Singapore via Beijing on Monday night.

When Kim Chang-son was asked by a reporter at the Beijing airport if he was flying to Singapore for talks with the United States, he said he was “going there to play,” according to footage from Nippon Television Network.

It followed a flurry of diplomacy over the weekend. Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise meeting on Saturday at the border village of Panmunjom, during which they agreed the North Korea-US summit must be held.

Moon said on Monday that there could be more impromptu talks between the two Koreas in the lead-up to the summit.

In Kim and Moon’s first, upbeat meeting on April 27, they agreed to seek the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula – but did not define what that meant, or how that would proceed.

Since then, North Korea has rejected US demands for it to unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons programme that experts say could threaten the United States.

Pyongyang also demanded the United States halt future joint military drills with South Korea if it truly wishes for talks with North Korea, the North’s Rodong Sinmun said on Tuesday.

In response to reporters’ questions regarding the report, South Korea’s defence ministry said it does not have plans to change joint exercise schedules with the United States military.

Analysts believe Washington is trying to determine whether North Korea is willing to agree on sufficient steps towards denuclearisation to allow a summit to take place.

North Korea defends its nuclear and missile programmes as a deterrent against perceived aggression by the United States, which keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

It has long said it is open to eventually giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States withdraws its troops from South Korea and ends its “nuclear umbrella” alliance with Seoul.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Kyodo, Bloomberg