One of North Korea’s most powerful figures will meet President Trump at the White House on Friday as high-level talks in New York wrapped up with growing signs that the stalled nuclear disarmament summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could take place in less than two weeks.
Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean spy chief and four-star general who is under U.S. sanctions, will deliver a personal letter to Trump from Kim Jong Un, the president told reporters in the latest whirlwind of high-stakes diplomacy aimed at reviving the proposed summit.
“I look forward to seeing what’s in the letter,” Trump said. Asked if an arms control deal was coming together, he said: “I think it will be very positive.… The meetings have been very positive.”
Trump said he still hoped to sit down with Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, as originally scheduled, but he suggested follow-up meetings may be necessary to hammer out a disarmament deal.
“I want it to be meaningful,” Trump said of a possible summit. “It doesn’t mean it gets all done at one meeting. Maybe you have to have a second or a third. And maybe we’ll have none.”
The cliffhanger approach further highlights how Trump has tossed out the conventional playbook for his nuclear summitry. Aides say Trump believes his personal commitment and negotiating skills can help break the cycle of failure that have marked U.S. attempts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program since the 1990s.
Adding to the suspense, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Kim Yong Chol for about 4½ hours in a U.S. diplomat’s home in a New York skyscraper, and later said the logistics, security and an agenda for a summit could be completed in days.
“We’ve made real progress in the last 72 hours toward setting the conditions,” Pompeo told reporters. The flurry of logistical meetings have taken place in New York, Singapore and in the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, each with different agendas.
“Our two countries face a pivotal moment in our relationship in which it could be nothing short of tragic to let this opportunity go to waste,” Pompeo added.
Pompeo outlined what he called “a brighter path for North Korea” if it agrees to nuclear disarmament. “We envision a strong, connected and secure, prosperous North Korea that maintains its cultural heritage but is integrated into the community of nations.”
He conceded the two sides still had not determined what steps they must take to satisfy the U.S. demand for what it calls “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, and North Korea’s demand for ironclad security guarantees and easing of sanctions.
On Wednesday night, Pompeo hosted Kim Yong Chol, a 72-year-old North Korean usually described as leader Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man, for a dinner of filet mignon, Burrata buffalo milk cheese and corn puree in New York.
They held formal talks Thursday morning at the residence of the U.S. deputy representative to the United Nations, an apartment with a spectacular view of the East River. A second round of talks in the afternoon was scrubbed, though Pompeo denied a problem. “We didn’t end the talks early,” he said.
Pompeo sounded optimistic though not forthcoming about details.
He urged Kim Jong Un to “seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” adding that he thought the North Korean leader could prove his commitment in coming “weeks and months” — a remarkably short time for what would be an unprecedented nuclear disarmament effort.
“I believe they are contemplating a path forward where they can make a strategic shift, one that their country has not been prepared to make before,” Pompeo said. “They will have to chose a path that is fundamentally different."
He also acknowledged the obstacles of trying to wring a major disarmament deal with one of the world’s most reclusive states.
“There will be tough moments, there will be difficult times,” he said. “We’re decades into this challenge, and so one ought not to be either surprised or frightened or deterred … by challenges and difficulties, things that can’t be bridged. Our mission is to bridge them so that we can achieve this historic outcome.”
Still, Pompeo would not say the June 12 summit is definitively back on, nor when the world would know for sure.
Prospects for the Singapore summit have careened up and down as both sides threatened each another and engaged in diplomatic brinkmanship. After several days of escalating rhetoric, Trump announced on May 24 that he was pulling out — and then jumped back in less than a day later.
With his travels to New York and Washington, Kim Yong Chol is the highest-ranking North Korean to visit the United States since 2000. Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok went to the White House then in another period of hope and invited President Clinton to Pyongyang to seal an accord to curb its ballistic missiles. Neither the visit, nor the deal, occurred.
Kim Yong Chol marks an unusual visitor to the White House, however. In 2010, the Obama administration placed him on a blacklist as chief of North Korea’s premier intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, and its role in the illegal export of arms and military equipment.
In 2015, the Obama administration blamed Gen. Kim for the cyberattack on Sony Pictures. South Korea has sanctioned him as well, accusing Gen. Kim of orchestrating several attacks on South Korean targets, including the torpedoing of a warship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors. The European Union also has sanctioned him.
Because of the sanctions, he needed a waiver from the State Department to visit New York, and another to travel to Washington to deliver the letter to Trump.
Despite the intense diplomacy, veteran Korea watchers cautioned against becoming overly optimistic given the complexity of the challenge, North Korea’s record of breaking agreements, and Trump’s evident lack of preparation or expertise.
“I liken [this] to a kid who has been in a class all term and hasn’t been preparing, and now is cramming for the exam,” said Jonathan Pollack, an Asia scholar at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “We have to suspend cumulative judgments of history to believe this will work.”
Pollack said Kim wanted to buy time, stave off any military attack and revel in the international spotlight focusing on him now. Trump wants something fast, a flashy victory that he can tout in the midterm election, he added.
Going into the talks, the Trump administration wants Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal — an estimated 20 to 60 bombs — as well as its weapons building infrastructure and development programs. It wants Pyongyang to submit to intrusive international inspections and monitoring to ensure the shift is permanent.
Privately, there is increasing acknowledgment in the administration that any disarmament could take years, perhaps even a decade or more, and would require U.S. concessions along the way — a step-by-step process that some senior White House aides have previously rejected.
For its part, North Korea wants ironclad security guarantees and the easing of punitive economic sanctions that the United States and the U.N. Security Council have imposed to isolate it diplomatically and strangle its economy.
Pompeo, who was confirmed as secretary of State last month after 15 months as CIA director, had dangled the possibility of economic aid if North Korea cooperates, although Trump has suggested he’s not interested in U.S. payments.
In the past, North Korea has also demanded that the Pentagon reduce its military presence in South Korea, where about 30,000 U.S. troops are based, but the Pentagon and South Korea are likely to resist any major drawdown.
Both governments also have an interest in enacting a final peace treaty for the Korean War, which halted with an armistice in 1953 but never formally ended. Technically North and South Korea still are at war.
Although it shares a short border with North Korea, Russia has appeared on the fringe of the diplomacy so far. Trump has chiefly reached out to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in for support and coordination.
White House officials thus watched warily when Kim Jong Un welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang on Thursday in the first meeting between a senior Russian official and Kim as head of state.
During the meeting, Lavrov invited Kim to visit Russia. "Come — we will be very happy," Lavrov said, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
“You are very outspoken and we are always ready to negotiate with the Russian side on this matter,” Kim told Lavrov, adding that North Korea was interested in improving relations with Moscow, the Russian news agency reported.
Special correspondent Sabra Ayres in Moscow contributed to this report.