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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

US 'continues to actively prepare' for North Korea summit

A top North Korean official is headed to New York for talks with Mike Pompeo

President Donald Trump gestures as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base. The White House is "actively preparing" for a summit with North Korea. Andrew Harnik/ AP Photo
President Donald Trump gestures as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base. The White House is "actively preparing" for a summit with North Korea. Andrew Harnik/ AP Photo

The US "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 on Tuesday as diplomatic efforts were under way on two continents to prepare for the historic meeting.

Mr Trump confirmed 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 Mr Trump. In addition, teams of US officials have arrived at the Korean demilitarised zone and in Singapore to prepare for the meeting.

The summit had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, but Mr Trump announced last week that he had decided to "terminate" the meeting following a provocative statement from the North and its decision to skip planning talks and ignore preparatory phone calls. White House officials have characterised the letter from the president to Mr 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 US.

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

South Korean media had reported earlier that Kim Yong Chol's name was on the passenger list for a fight on Wednesday from Beijing to New York. Mr Kim was seen in the Beijing airport on Tuesday by Associated Press Television. US officials familiar with planning said he was scheduled to meet Mr Pompeo on Thursday.

"We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea," Mr Trump tweeted on 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. Solid response to my letter, thank you!"

Kim Yong Chol is a former military intelligence chief and now a vice chairman of the North Korean ruling party's central committee. He will be the highest-level North Korean official to travel to the United States since 2000, when late National Defence Commission First Vice Chairman Jo Myong Rok visited Washington, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.

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

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

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The White House emphasised that it has remained in close contact with South Korean and Japanese officials as preparations for the talks continue. Ms Sanders said Mr Trump will host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on June 7 to co-ordinate their thinking ahead of the summit. Mr Trump hosted South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week.

South Korean media also reported that a North Korean delegation arrived in Singapore on Monday night, where other US 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.

White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said on Tuesday morning in an appearance on Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends that the president had "sent over two delegations – one for logistics and one for more diplomatic purposes that are on the ground making the logistic preparations for June 12.

"But, as the president has said," she added, "if it doesn't happen June 12 it could happen thereafter".

Mr Moon, who has lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Mr Trump and Kim Jong Un, held a surprise meeting with the North Korean leader on Saturday in an effort to keep the summit alive.

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

At their first meeting on April 27, Kim Jong Un and Mr 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 Mr Kim and Mr 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 US that ended last week.