Top Aide to Kim Is Bound for U.S., Trump Says
Posted May 29, 2018 10:11 a.m. EDT
BEIJING — The top nuclear weapons negotiator for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was headed for New York on Tuesday and expected to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as officials race to settle on an agenda for a June 12 summit meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump in Singapore.
Trump said on Twitter that Kim Yong Chol, one of the most trusted aides to the North’s leader and a former intelligence chief, was “heading now to New York.” In a reference to the moves made since he canceled the on-again-off-again summit meeting, the president added, “Solid response to my letter, thank you!”
The former intelligence chief, who is 72, has been at the side of the North Korean leader, 34, during a recent whirl of diplomacy, meeting with the South Koreans in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula and with the Chinese.
Kim’s trip to the United States starts the most important negotiating track leading up to the summit meeting. Over the weekend, a team of U.S. diplomats met with North Korean officials in the Demilitarized Zone and White House logistics experts have been talking with North Koreans in Singapore about arrangements for the leaders’ meeting there.
But a trip to the United States by Kim Yong Chol — who has served the three leaders of the Kim dynasty that has ruled the North — signaled that negotiations were reaching a critical point.
Kim would be the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the United States since 2000, when Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok invited President Bill Clinton to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, with the prospect of sealing an agreement on curbing the North’s missiles that never came to fruition.
A diplomat in Beijing, where Kim stopped overnight Tuesday, said it was not immediately clear whether the negotiator would meet with the Chinese again before going on to New York, where he is expected to arrive Wednesday.
China’s Foreign Ministry would not confirm the former spymaster’s presence in Beijing, even though video footage showed him at the airport after his arrival from Pyongyang.
In recent weeks, China and the United States have been vying for the attention of Kim Jong Un, with Trump accusing China of contributing to a toughened North Korean stance on denuclearization after the North Korean and Chinese leaders met this month.
If the former spy chief met with senior Chinese officials in Beijing, he might risk angering Trump again, diplomats said. His stop in Beijing could also be related to his presence on a sanctions list that bars him from entering the United States.
A U.S. diplomat said a waiver would have to be granted for such an individual to enter the United States, although it was likely one would automatically be given under extraordinary circumstances like these.
Kim Yong Chol was probably headed to New York, where North Korea has a mission to the United Nations, rather than to Washington because it was easier for him to get a visa there, another U.S. diplomat said. North Korean diplomats and officials are not allowed to travel more than a few miles outside New York City.
Kim has already met Pompeo twice in Pyongyang. On the second visit, Pompeo expected to come away with a set of details for the Singapore summit meeting relating to the denuclearization of the North, but failed to do so. After that second meeting, Pompeo returned to Washington with three Americans who had been detained in North Korea.
In his most recent meeting with Pompeo, Kim struck a defiant tone, saying at a luncheon that North Korea’s willingness to enter into talks was “not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from the outside.” But he reminded the visiting Americans that North Korea intended to focus “all efforts into economic progress in our country.” Kim has served as a senior manager of the North’s intelligence operations for nearly 30 years, according to North Korea Leadership Watch, a website that specializes in North Korean politics.
Kim’s rare combination of senior positions in the North’s highly stratified political and military apparatus makes him “one of the most powerful figures in North Korea,” it said.
He is also one of the longest serving senior officials of the Kim dynasty. Kim was involved in the 1990s in one of the earliest efforts to limit the North’s nuclear weapons. According to an account in “The Two Koreas,” by Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin, Kim was the toughest of negotiators on an accord that eventually failed in 1992.
At the time, Kim accused a South Korean diplomat of composing 90 percent of the language in the accord, it says. “This is your agreement, not our agreement,” Kim is quoted in the book as telling the South Korean diplomat.
In the mid-2000s, he was assigned as head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North’s spy agency, and paid particular attention to operations against South Korea. When he was chief of the North’s intelligence service in 2010, South Korea accused Kim of being responsible for blowing up a South Korean navy vessel, killing 46 sailors. Five months later, the U.S. Treasury put Kim on the sanctions list.
In February, Kim was sent to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea. He appeared in photographs seated behind Ivanka Trump, a stern expression on his face.
Over the past few months, the United States and North Korea have come closer than ever to holding the first summit meeting of the country’s leaders. In March, Trump surprised many people when he accepted Kim Jong Un’s invitation to meet, which was relayed through South Korean envoys. But on Thursday in a letter to the North Korean leader, Trump abruptly canceled the meeting.
He then changed course again Friday, saying that the meeting might take place as scheduled. Officials from the United States and North Korea have since started a whirlwind of working-level diplomacy to try to narrow a gap over how to denuclearize the North and salvage the planned meeting.