This past weekend, US President Donald Trump reportedly sent a personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and head of the WPK’s United Front Department, is expected to visit Washington, D.C., as early as Jan. 17 or 18 to hold high-level talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On Jan. 15, CNN quoted an anonymous source as saying that Trump had sent a personal letter to Kim last weekend. CNN reported that the letter was hand delivered in Pyongyang. This might be a response to the personal letter from Kim that Trump displayed during a cabinet meeting on Jan. 2, but the letter’s content was not disclosed. According to CNN, the source said that Kim Yong-chol “could visit Washington as soon as this week to finalize details of the upcoming summit.
”In connection with this, a diplomatic source who is familiar with the status of North Korea-US dialogue said on Jan. 15 that Kim Yong-chol was likely to visit Washington on Jan. 17-18 for high-level talks with Pompeo. During Kim’s first visit to the US at the end of May 2018, he began by meeting Pompeo in New York before heading to Washington for an interview with Trump.
In related news, Kim Yong-chol reserved his plane ticket for Washington, DC, departing from Beijing Capital International Airport on Jan. 17 with United Airlines. Kim is likely to travel from Pyongyang to Beijing via a Koryo Air flight in the morning before transferring to his United Airlines flight.
When asked by the Hankyoreh whether the meeting would be held this week, however, the US State Department said it had no meetings to announce.
Considering that Trump said the second North Korea-US summit would be held in the “not-so-distant future” when he announced his personal letter from Kim Jong-un at the beginning of the year, the letter he sent likely contains an affirmation about the second summit. The fact that Kim Yong-chol is heading straight to Washington is being taken as another positive signal. One of the reasons the high-level talks scheduled for Nov. 8, 2018, were canceled was reportedly that Kim’s interview with Trump had fallen through. Since Kim will be traveling directly to Washington this time, diplomatic sources say, he’s more likely to have a chance to meet Trump.
“The central element of Kim Yong-chol’s visit to the US is his meeting with President Trump,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Once again, Kim Yong-chol is expected to carry a personal letter from Kim Jong-un.
Considering that the primary purpose of these high-level talks is apparently preparing for the second North Korea-US summit, they’re also expected to include a discussion of the summit’s timing, location and agenda. “The time and location can be decided in the high-level talks,” said a South Korean government source who is familiar with the North Korea-US negotiations.
Since between four and six weeks are reportedly needed to carry out the practical preparations for the summit, the summit is expected to be held in mid- or late February, and the US press is reporting that Hanoi, Vietnam, and Bangkok, Thailand, are potential hosts for the event. As for the agenda, US Vice President Mike Pence suggested in Nov. 2018 that that summit would deal with a roadmap for disclosing, inspecting and dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program.
“This will provide a way to finalize not only the halting of the production of nuclear weapons mentioned by Chairman Kim in his New Year’s address and the halting of ICBM production recently hinted at by Secretary Pompeo but also the halting of the production of nuclear materials,” predicted Cho Sung-ryul, a senior research fellow for the Institute for National Security Strategy.
The “corresponding measure” by the US that has received the most attention is a liaison office that would function as a base for inspecting North Korean nuclear facilities. A partial relaxation of sanctions also remains within the realm of possibility.
Choi Son-hui spotted at Beijing Capital International Airport
Another big question is whether North Korean and American working-level officials will also meet separately, as they did before the first summit, in order to get into the specifics. Coincidentally, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, who manages technical negotiations with the US, was sighted at Beijing Capital International Airport on Jan. 15. When reporters at the airport asked Choe where she was headed, she told them they could talk to her at an international conference in Sweden.
Choe’s movements are notable since she’s the counterpart of US State Department Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun in working-level negotiations, but it hasn’t been confirmed whether she will meet with the Americans in Sweden.