Top North Korean general on way to US ahead of summit: report
Seoul (AFP) –
A top North Korean general is headed for the United States in what would be the highest-profile visit in years, reports said Tuesday as the two countries prepare for a momentous summit.
General Kim Yong Chol landed at Beijing airport on Tuesday and will journey on to New York the following day after talks with Chinese officials, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, which cited diplomatic sources.
The trip is part of a flurry of diplomacy as preparations gather pace for the on-again, off-again summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.
Trump cancelled the talks last week, citing "open hostility" from the North, but since then both sides have dialled down the rhetoric and the process appears to be back on track.
US negotiators, headed by Washington's current ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, met with North Korean counterparts in the truce village of Panmunjom that divides the two Koreas on Sunday.
The State Department said a separate team of White House officials has also headed to Singapore to sort out logistics for the historic meeting.
Chung Sung-yoon, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said Kim Yong Chol would be the most senior North Korean official to step onto US soil since Vice Marshall Jo Myong Rok met President Bill Clinton in 2000.
The general has long been a right hand man to North Korea's leader, playing a front-seat role during recent rounds of diplomacy aimed at ending the nuclear stalemate on the Korean peninsula.
He sat next to Trump's daughter Ivanka, who is also a White House aide, during the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang which was a turning point in the nuclear crisis.
He also accompanied Kim Jong Un on both of his recent trips to China to meet President Xi Jinping and held talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he travelled to Pyongyang.
"Kim's official counterpart is Pompeo but he may also push for meetings with (National Security Advisor John) Bolton and even Trump if possible," Chung told AFP.
- Controversial figure -
General Kim is a deeply controversial figure in South Korea, where he is blamed for masterminding the 2010 sinking of the navy corvette the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors, an attack North Korea denies playing any role in.
From 2009 to 2016 he was also director of North Korea's General Reconnaissance Bureau, the unit tasked with cyber warfare and intelligence gathering.
During that period North Korea ramped up its hacking programmes, including a hugely costly penetration of Sony Pictures that was seen as an attempt to stop the release of an American comedy film poking fun at the Kim Jong Un regime.
His journey to the US would cap a frenetic few days of meetings between North Korean and American officials.
Japanese broadcaster NHK reported that Kim Chang-son, Kim Jong Un's de facto chief of staff, arrived in Singapore on Monday, showing footage of him at the airport escorted by three bodyguards.
Also on Monday, a US government aircraft carrying a delegation including Joe Hagin, the White House deputy chief of staff for operations, departed from the Yokota air base in Japan en route for Singapore, NHK added.
The Washington Post reported that talks inside the Demilitarised Zone would continue this week between US and North Korean officials.
South Korean media broadcast footage of US embassy vehicles, including one carrying ambassador Sung Kim, leaving a Seoul hotel on Tuesday but there were no details on whether the convoy was heading back to the DMZ.
Officials have only a fortnight left to finalise thorny protocol details such as where in Singapore the talks will take place and how internationally sanctioned North Korean officials will travel there.
Another key task is to settle the agenda for the meeting. The main stumbling block is likely to be the concept of "denuclearisation" -- both sides say they want it, but there is a yawning gap between their definitions.
Washington wants North Korea to quickly give up all its nuclear weapons in a verifiable way in return for sanctions and economic relief.
But analysts believe North Korea will be unwilling to cede its nuclear deterrent unless it is given security guarantees that the US won't try to topple the regime.
© 2018 AFP