[News analysis] Kim Yong-chol’s Washington, DC, a positive signal for 2nd NK-US summit

Posted on : 2019-01-21 17:13 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Trump receives personal letter from Kim Jong-un
US President Donald Trump meets with Kim Yong-chol
US President Donald Trump meets with Kim Yong-chol

Kim Yong-chol’s three-day visit to Washington, DC, which was seen as a potential watershed for the prospects of a second North Korea-US summit, came to a close on Jan. 19.

Drawing attention as the first direct trip to Washington by a North Korean official, the visit by Kim, Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) vice chairman and United Front Department director, was seen as a bridge toward a second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump.

It holds great significance in helping to finalize plans to hold the second summit in late February and leading directly to working-level talks in Sweden to discuss an agenda involving denuclearization and corresponding US measures.

The highlight of Kim Yong-chol’s Washington visit was his 90-minute meeting with Trump at the White House at 12:15 pm on Jan. 18. During that encounter, Kim delivered a letter to Trump from Kim Jong-un. Afterwards, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders announced that the second North Korea-US summit “will take place near the end of February.”

After nearly two weeks without making any statements on North Korea, Trump broke his silence a day later with a positive assessment of the encounter on Jan. 19.

“We had a very good meeting yesterday with North Korea,” he declared.

Speaking with reporters at the White House that morning, Trump called the meeting “incredible,” noting that it “lasted almost two hours.”

“And we’ve agreed to meet sometime probably at the end of February,” he continued.

“We’ve picked the country [to host the summit], but we’ll be announcing it in the future,” he added. With his remarks, Trump officially signaled that the second summit will be taking place. The Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Da Nang have been most often cited as potential venues, although Bangkok may not be out of the running as a host city. CNN reporter Will Ripley tweeted, “Hanoi seems most likely.”

On Jan. 20, Trump uploaded the following tweet: “The Media is not giving us credit for the tremendous progress we have made with North Korea. Think of where we were at the end of the Obama Administration compared to now. Great meeting this week with top Reps. Looking forward to meeting with Chairman Kim at end of February!”

With the White House meeting, Trump and Kim Jong-un appear to have reaffirmed their mutual trust and indirectly confirmed their commitment to denuclearization and corresponding measures, with Kim Yong-chol serving as messenger. In his remarks to reporters, Trump said, “We’ve made a lot of progress that has not been reported by the media [. . .] as far as denuclearization is concerned.”

“We’re talking about a lot of different things,” he added. His remarks were seen as suggesting the two sides are coordinating a plan for the US to adopt corresponding measures if the US proceeds with additional denuclearization actions such as the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Some possible corresponding measures that have been suggested include a partial lifting of sanctions to allow for humanitarian aid to North Korea, the establishment of a North Korea-US liaison office, and resuming operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Sources described Trump as taking his discussions with Kim Yong-chol very seriously.

During his visit, Kim held high-level talks lasting 50 minutes on the morning of Jan. 18 with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who previously announced plans to meet him on Nov. 8 of last year only to postpone the meeting just beforehand. The two also had a 90-minute lunch together the same afternoon.

Biegun meets with Choe in Sweden

Another noteworthy development was the State Department’s announcement just after Trump and Kim’s meeting that US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Biegun was visiting Sweden from Jan. 19 to 22. The visit means that Biegun has had his first working-level talks with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui since his appointment four months ago in September. It could also be seen as signaling that the North Korea and US leaders envisioned the possibility of a “deal” on denuclearization and corresponding measures emerging from the working-level talks between Choe and Biegun.

“The fact that this has led to working-level talks means it was a very good start,” said one foreign affairs source.

The ultimate effect of Kim Yong-chol’s US visit has been to inject momentum in the second North Korea-US summit process, with three channels operating through the two leaders’ indirect communication in Kim’s White House meeting, the high-level talks between Kim and Pompeo, and the working-level talks between Choe and Biegun. Foreign affairs analysts described it as “an excellent job of laying the groundwork for the second North Korea-US summit.”

The next focus of attention is the four-day working-level talks taking place through Jan. 22 on the outskirts of Stockholm. South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon could end up joining, turning the talks into a trilateral meeting. The success of the second North Korea-US summit now appears to hinge on how far the different parties can unpack the bundle of additional denuclearization measures and corresponding actions they have been individually demanding and find common ground.

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

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