Diplomats hustle to prepare for still-uncertain Trump-Kim summit in Singapore

North and South Korea's leaders held surprise talks on May 26 to get a historic summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump back on track.
(AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration moved on multiple fronts Tuesday to prepare for a possible nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore next month, as U.S. diplomats scrambled to revive the meeting that President Trump had publicly scrapped last week.

Most importantly, the White House said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would travel to New York on Wednesday to sit down with Gen. Kim Yong Chol, considered Kim Jong Un’s closest aide. The former intelligence chief, whom Pompeo met during his two visits to Pyongyang, presumably can speak directly about whether the North Korean leader is serious about nuclear disarmament.

Other U.S. teams huddled with North Korean officials in Singapore and planned to meet in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas in a push to assemble the complex logistics and still-unformed agenda of a major arms control summit, which is tentatively back on the calendar for June 12.


Pompeo’s meeting in New York could produce a final decision in the White House as to whether Kim Jong Un will ultimately give up his nuclear arsenal and whether the still-stalled summit can proceed. Pompeo was known to harbor deep doubts about Kim’s intentions after his second visit to Pyongyang.

“I think how that meeting goes [in New York], that will be the deciding factor on whether this summit moves forward,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, who helped facilitate the Trump administration’s first contacts with North Korea last year.

“He is an unsavory interlocutor but he is also a highly credible one,” DiMaggio said of Gen. Kim. “Whatever he says, he is speaking for Kim Jong Un.”

South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that Gen. Kim would fly to New York on Wednesday after discussions with Chinese officials in Beijing. China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and political ally.

Gen. Kim is vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and is in charge of relations with South Korea. One of numerous North Korean officials blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury, he required special State Department permission to travel to New York and is the most senior North Korean official to visit the United States in nearly two decades.

Pyongyang maintains a diplomatic mission at the United Nations that often has served as a back channel with U.S. officials, although the meeting with Pompeo will not be at the U.N., according to the State Department.

When Gen. Kim headed North Korea’s military intelligence, he was accused of orchestrating attacks on South Korean targets, including the March 2010 torpedoing of a South Korea warship that killed 46 seamen, as well as the November 2014 cyberattack of Sony Pictures and the release of hacked emails.

Following those incidents, the Obama administration imposed personal sanctions on Gen. Kim in 2010 and 2015. His career clearly didn’t suffer since he accompanied Kim to summits with leaders of China and South Korea, and headed North Korea’s delegation to the closing ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea — where he sat close to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and advisor.

For his part, Trump praised the latest signs of diplomatic progress. “We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” he said on Twitter. He noted Gen. Kim’s planned visit to New York, although he misspelled the envoy’s name.

“We’ve seen tremendous amounts of progress” toward the summit, Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters. “It is pretty remarkable where we are, given where we were a year ago,” when Trump and Kim were trading crude insults and threatening nuclear war.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, also expressed optimism about a nuclear summit. “We expect it to take place,” she said.

“If it takes place on June 12, we’re gonna be prepared,” she told reporters aboard Air Force One as Trump flew to Nashville for a rally. “If it for some reason takes place at a later date, we’re gonna be prepared for that as well.”

Joe Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff, led a “pre-advance” team in Singapore on Tuesday to coordinate logistics and security for the possible summit. Hagin also flew to Singapore two weeks ago but the counterpart North Korean team didn’t show up for the planned meetings, according to the White House, a shift that Trump’s aides interpreted as a deliberate snub.

A separate U.S. delegation will meet later this week with North Korean envoys in the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. It will be led by Sung Kim, a longtime expert on North Korea who currently serves as U.S. ambassador to the Philippines. He will be accompanied by Allison Hooker, the Korea director in the National Security Council, and Randy Schriver, an assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.

“The most important thing is whether Sung Kim comes back with some sort of joint communique that includes the outlines of an agreement” for a North Korean nuclear disarmament, said Christopher R. Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who led the U.S. delegation in an ultimately unsuccessful multilateral talks with North Korea in 2005 aimed at persuading it to give up its then nascent nuclear weapons program.

“I wouldn’t go into a summit with anybody without a draft communique, most of all the North Koreans — that would be very risky,” Hill added.

Last Thursday, Trump wrote a public letter to Kim pulling out of the June 12 summit, blaming what Trump called “tremendous anger and open hostility” from Pyongyang but leaving the door open to future talks — a letter the White House now credits with creating new momentum for a historic sit-down.

The “North Koreans have been engaging” since the May 24 letter, Sanders said in a statement Tuesday. “The United States continues to actively prepare for President Trump’s expected summit with leader Kim in Singapore.”

The latest flurry of diplomatic maneuvering comes after a surprise meeting Saturday between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the border town of Panmunjom. The pair agreed that the Trump-Kim summit should be held, Moon said later.

Trump also will meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on June 7 at the White House, Sanders said. The two leaders have met six times so far, most recently a month ago at the White House, as Trump tries to line up support from allies nervous about his unconventional nuclear diplomacy.

Abe was reportedly stunned by Trump’s on-the-spot decision in March to stage a nuclear summit with Kim, and apparently was also not informed before Trump decided on May 24 to scuttle it. Except for South Korea, Japan is most at risk if diplomacy fails and war breaks out in northeast Asia.

Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, has been in touch with South Korean and Japanese officials “virtually every day, including speaking with his South Korean counterpart this morning,” Sanders said.

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Stokols is a special correspondent.

Twitter: @EliStokols


4:45 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

The story was originally published at 9:20 a.m.