WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with a top North Korea official this week in the U.S., the White House said Tuesday, as Washington and Pyongyang pressed ahead on denuclearization talks ahead of a potential summit between the leaders of the two nations.
The planned meeting between Mr. Pompeo and Gen. Kim Yong Chol, often described as the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man, comes as two White House teams work on logistical and substantive issues ahead of the potential summit between President Donald Trump and Mr. Kim.
As part of his preparations for that summit, Mr. Trump will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on June 7 at the White House, said Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary.
Mr. Trump on Thursday canceled his meeting with Mr. Kim, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, citing increasing hostility from the North Korean regime. But he quickly reversed course, and the two sides have worked in recent days to put the talks back on track.
“Since the President’s May 24th letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the North Koreans have been engaging,” Ms. Sanders said in a statement. “The United States continues to actively prepare for President Trump’s expected summit with leader Kim in Singapore.”
Ahead of the Pompeo-Gen. Kim meeting, the U.S. has sent to the demilitarized zone on the border of North and South Korea a delegation that consists of Sung Kim, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines; Allison Hooker, director for Korea for the National Security Council; and Randy Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs. The delegation is meeting North Korean officials this week to discuss the summit, Ms. Sanders said.
Separately, Joe Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff, has a team in Singapore coordinating the logistics of the summit, Ms. Sanders said.
Meanwhile, John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, has been in contact with South Korean and Japanese counterparts “virtually every day,” Ms. Sanders said.
Gen. Kim was on his way to New York as part of preparations for the summit, Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday. Gen. Kim was seen arriving at Beijing’s main airport earlier in the day after a flight from Pyongyang, along with Choe Kang Il, a senior North Korean diplomat.
“We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea,” Mr. Trump wrote. “Meetings are currently taking place concerning summit, and more.”
Negotiations between U.S. and North Korean officials were continuing. The U.S. has signaled it intends to extend its campaign of maximum sanction pressure on Pyongyang in the event that the two sides can’t reach an agreement on denuclearization.
Despite signs of progress, North Korea and the U.S. must overcome fundamental differences if a deal is to be reached—a reality underlined by Pyongyang’s latest verbal salvos.
On Tuesday, the North accused the U.S. of jeopardizing the climate of detente by continuing to schedule joint military exercises with South Korea, which Pyongyang regards as a rehearsal for a pre-emptive strike. The regime also castigated the Trump administration for suggesting that military options haven’t been ruled out.
“If the U.S. sincerely hopes for the talks, it should stop the acts of threatening its dialogue partner by force,” the North said in a commentary in state media.
U.S. officials have considered asking North Korea for an initial down payment of weapons to begin the denuclearization process. Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, has said that the North could “front-load” disarmament by surrendering some of its weapons, while the U.S. could offer concessions in return.
The U.S., which is pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for economic relief, indicated recently that it would hold off on imposing fresh sanctions on North Korea in an effort to keep denuclearization talks on course.
Teams of U.S. and North Korean officials are in Singapore, meanwhile, to study logistical arrangements for a summit between Messrs. Trump and Kim in the city-state, though the two delegations have yet to meet each other and don’t have plans to do so on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the matter. The two teams are expected to meet later this week, the person said.
South Korean officials declined to comment on Gen. Kim’s trip to the U.S. But a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House said the continued diplomatic maneuvers marked a “very critical time” and presented an opportunity to “escape the fear of war.”
“This is a once-in-70-years opportunity,” he said, referring to the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II. “If we lose this chance, we might have to wait another 70 years.”
Gen. Kim serves as a vice chairman of the central committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, and leads a North Korean government bureau that oversees talks with Seoul and propaganda efforts aimed at recruiting South Koreans to Pyongyang’s cause.
Earlier this month, Gen. Kim met with Mr. Pompeo in Pyongyang, hours before North Korea released three American prisoners. He accompanied Kim Jong Un at recent summits with the leaders of China and South Korea, and represented Pyongyang at the closing ceremony of this year’s Winter Olympics, sitting a few feet from Ivanka Trump.
North Korean state media made no mention of Gen. Kim’s journey on Tuesday, and regime watchers in Seoul differed on the likely purpose of his mission.
Nam Sung-wook, a former South Korean intelligence official who teaches at Korea University, said lower-level diplomatic talks between the U.S. and North Korea were likely at a deadlock, and with only days until a possible Trump-Kim meeting, the general’s main goal would be to make a last-minute attempt at compromise on denuclearization.
But Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, who advised the liberal Seoul administration’s transition committee last year, said the North Korean official’s visit meant negotiations with the U.S. were near completion. “Kim Yong Chol is going there to make a final signoff before the summit. He’s not going there because talks aren’t moving forward,” he said.
Separately, Pyongyang on Tuesday reiterated its demands for the return of a group of North Korean restaurant workers who left their jobs at a restaurant in China and defected to the South in 2016. The North says the women were abducted by the South’s spy agency, and has suggested that their repatriation is a prerequisite for resuming reunions of families separated by the Korean War—a priority for the liberal government in Seoul.
Returning the waitresses would showcase South Korean sincerity toward improving cross-border ties and working toward peace and reunification, the regime said.
The South Korean government didn’t have an immediate response.