Top North Korean heading to U.S. for talks, Trump confirms

The U.S. "continues to actively prepare" for an "expected summit" between President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un in Singapore, the White House said, as diplomatic efforts are underway on two continents to prepare for the historic meeting.

Kim Yong-chol would be the most senior North Korean official to visit the United States in 18 years

Kim Yong-chol is shown in a Feb. 27 photo in Paju, South Korea. South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Washington and Pyongyang were engaging in talks to arrange a possible summit despite the cancelling of a June 12 meetup. (Korea Pool/Newsis via AP)

The U.S. "continues to actively prepare" for an "expected summit" between President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un in Singapore, the White House said, as diplomatic efforts are underway on two continents to prepare for the historic meeting.

Trump confirmed Tuesday that a top North Korean official, Kim Yong-chol, is headed to New York for talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It marks the latest sign that prospects for the summit are growing, just days after it was ostensibly called off by Trump, as teams of U.S. officials have arrived at the Korean demilitarized zone and in Singapore to prepare for the meeting.

Kim Yong-chol would be the most senior North Korean official to visit the United States in 18 years, South Korea's Unification Ministry said. He is a former military intelligence chief and now a vice-chairman of the North Korean ruling party's central committee. 

Trump withdrew from a planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un last Thursday, citing hostile North Korean comments in an open letter, but he has since said the meeting in Singapore could still happen. White House officials have characterized the letter from the president to Kim as a negotiating tactic, designed to bring the North back to the table.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that since the letter, "the North Koreans have been engaging," with the U.S.

"The United States continues to actively prepare for President Trump's expected summit with leader Kim in Singapore," she said in a statement Tuesday.

South Korean media had reported earlier that Kim Yong-chol's name was on the passenger list for a flight Wednesday from Beijing to New York. Kim was seen in the Beijing airport on Tuesday by Associated Press Television.

Pompeo has travelled to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, twice in recent weeks for meetings with North Korean leader Kim, and has said there is a "shared understanding" between the two sides about what they hope to achieve.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, while in his previous role as CIA director, met with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Meanwhile, a team of American diplomats are holding preparatory discussions with North Korean officials at the DMZ. The group first met with their counterparts Sunday and was seen leaving a Seoul hotel on Tuesday, but it was unclear whether they went to Panmunjom, a village that straddles the border inside the Demilitarized Zone. The U.S. officials are led by Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, who formerly was the U.S. ambassador to Seoul and a top negotiator with North Korea in past nuclear talks. It includes senior officials with the National Security Council and the Pentagon.

Trump to meet Japan's Abe next week

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 co-ordinate their thinking ahead of the summit.

South Korean media also reported that a North Korean delegation arrived in Singapore on Monday night, where other U.S. officials, led by White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, are preparing for the summit.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Washington and Pyongyang were engaging in "working-level" talks to arrange the possible summit, but said it couldn't confirm specifics. Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk also did not say whether Seoul knew of any U.S. plans regarding Kim Yong-chol's possible visit, such as whether he and Pompeo had plans to meet.

President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have enjoyed a cordial relationship. The pair will meet again on June 7, a potential precursor to a U.S.-North Korea summit. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong-un, met with the North Korean leader in a surprise meeting on Saturday in an effort to keep the summit alive.

In their second meeting in a month, Moon said Kim expressed willingness to co-operate to end confrontation and work toward peace for the sake of a successful summit with Trump. But Kim also said he was unsure whether he could trust the United States over its promise to end hostile policies against North Korea and provide security assurances if the country does abandon its nuclear weapons, according to Moon.

Denuclearization pace, drills debated

At their first meeting on April 27, Kim and Moon announced vague aspirations for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and permanent peace, which Seoul has tried to sell as a meaningful breakthrough that increases the chances of successful talks between Kim and Trump.

Their second meeting came after inter-Korean relations had chilled in recent weeks, with North Korea cancelling a high-level meeting with Seoul over South Korea's participation in a two-week military exercise with the United States that ended last week. The Koreas have agreed to put high-level discussions back on track with a meeting on Friday. But that did not stop North Korea's state media from continuing its criticism of allied military exercises on Tuesday, saying if Washington "sincerely hopes for the talks, it should stop the acts of threatening its dialogue partner by force."

Since the 1970s, the United States and South Korea have been holding a major summertime exercise called Ulchi Freedom Guardian that involves tens of thousands of troops. South Korea's Defence Ministry said Tuesday there have been no discussions yet between Washington and Seoul on modifying the drills, which usually take place in August.

Kim Yong-chol, left, is seen with Kim Jong-un, right, during talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a handout picture provided by South Korea's Blue House on May 26. (The Presidential Blue House via Reuters)

Despite Kim's apparent eagerness for a summit with Trump, there are lingering doubts about whether he will fully relinquish his nuclear weapons, which he may see as his only guarantee of survival. Moon has insisted Kim can be persuaded to abandon his nuclear facilities, materials and bombs in a verifiable and irreversible way in exchange for credible security and economic guarantees.

U.S. officials have talked about a comprehensive one-shot deal in which North Korea eliminates its nukes first and receives rewards later. But Kim, through two summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March and May, has called for a phased and synchronized process in which every action he takes is met with a reciprocal reward from the United States.

Seoul has been advocating an alternative approach in which the North's comprehensive commitment and credible actions toward denuclearization are followed by a phased but compressed process of inspection and verifiable dismantling. Before he cancelled the summit, Trump did not rule out an incremental approach that would provide incentives along the way to the North.