“Kim Yong-chol/Pompeo line” a key role as a channel for discussions for upcoming summit

Posted on : 2018-05-11 15:50 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
South Korean NIS director Suh Hoon coordinates meetings between Pompeo and Kim
South Korea’s director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) Suh Hoon (left)
South Korea’s director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) Suh Hoon (left)

“You have been a great partner in working to make sure our two leaders will have a summit that is successful.”

This was the remark made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to North Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee vice chairman and United Front Department director Kim Yong-chol at Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel on May 9. Kim is currently facing independent sanctions by the US government – yet the Secretary of State referred to him before the press as a “great partner.”

Pompeo had meetings with Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a previous secret visit on Mar. 31–Apr. 1. The developments show the “Kim Yong-chol/Pompeo line” playing a key role as a channel for discussions to flesh out Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump’s commitment to their upcoming summit.

It is notable that Kim Yong-chol has emerged as Pompeo’s negotiating partner when the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) has foreign minister Ri Yong-ho in its Cabinet and Central Committee as well as Ri Su-yong as vice chairman for foreign affairs.

Kim is the only North Korean official to have been present when Kim Jong-un met with Pompeo. He is also the only North Korean official to have been at Kim Jong-un’s inter-Korean summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and at the two summits between Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping. This proves that that Kim Yong-chol is a key adviser on North Korea’s external strategy, just as the late United Front Department director Kim Yang-gon had been before him.

Another figure was responsible for bringing Pompeo together with the man of whom the US Secretary of State said, “For decades, we have been adversaries”: South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) director Suh Hoon.

Trilateral intelligence line coordinates behind-the-scenes negotiations

Suh was also the one who worked with Kim Yong-chol to coordinate Pompeo’s first behind-the-scenes visit to North Korea in late March. Suh put in several efforts shortly after taking over as NIS director in May 2017, traveling to the US numerous times with North Korea staff to share intelligence on the North with then-CIA director Pompeo and trade views on intelligence analysis. He was inspired to do so after seeing that Pompeo was one of Trump’s most trusted figures who traveled to the White House every day to report on national security matters, including those related to the North.

“Eventually, Pompeo came to trust so much in Suh’s expertise that he would be the first to call and ask, ‘What are North Korea’s intentions here?’” a source well acquainted with the process said.

Perhaps ironically, it was North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch on Nov. 29 of last year and declaration of the “completion of state nuclear force” that ended up turning the tide on the Korean Peninsula, establishing the trilateral dialogue window among Suh, Kim Yong-chol, and Pompeo.

At the time, Suh effectively told Pompeo that North Korea appeared to have completed its preparations for dialogue, predicting that Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s address would include a “notable message” and that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics might usher in a shift in the situation.

The predictions proved right on the money. Following the New Year’s address in which Kim stated his intention to have North Korea participate in the Pyeongchang Games, the Suh/Kim Yong-chol line went to work behind the scenes, expanding over the course of the Olympics into a trilateral dialogue line including Pompeo.

While it did not end up coming to pass, the three also reportedly attempted to plan a meeting between WPK Central Committee first vice director Kim Yo-jong and US Vice President Mike Pence while both were in South Korea to attend the Pyeongchang Olympics opening ceremony.

Commenting on the emergence of the Suh/Kim/Pompeo line in place of an official diplomatic line among the three sides, a former senior South Korean government official said, “A lot of this has to do with the climate where the top leaders on the three sides are attempting to resolve situations themselves in a top-down manner.”

By Lee Je-hun, editor in chief

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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