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A process that normally would take months is now being compressed into a matter of days, with meetings taking place between North Korean and American officials all over the world. Below, a rundown of who is meeting whom, and what they might be talking about.
New York: Planning the Road Map for Peace
Reporters in Beijing and New York were closely monitoring flight tracking boards in airports in both cities Wednesday to figure when, exactly, Kim Yong Chol, one of Kim Jong Un’s most trusted aides, would arrive in New York to talk with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
They face a monumental task: finding a path to denuclearization.
Analysts believe that Pompeo will seek to clarify the North’s position on its nuclear program, which may have gotten muddled during Pompeo’s two visits to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Un. Kim Yong Chol was also at those meetings.
“The gap they have to work on between them is a road map toward denuclearization,” said Ri Pyong Hwi, an associate professor at Korea University, a pro-Pyongyang institution in Tokyo. “How they narrow the gap is the point.”
Kim Yong Chol has emerged as a prominent figure in the flurry of diplomacy in recent months.
He led a delegation to the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea in February, a controversial move given that many South Koreans blame him for orchestrating a deadly attack in 2010.
Analysts said that Kim is a self-made man, a contrast to the leader’s other influential advisers who come from elite families. “He is very clever and eloquent,” said Moon Seong-mook, a senior analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul. “He doesn’t smile. But he finds whatever way he can to make sure he reaches his goal.”
Singapore: A Focus on Logistics
Pulling off a summit meeting by June 12 will require a herculean focus on all kinds of details. Singapore would be the farthest that Kim Jong Un has traveled since coming to power in 2011, and for both Kim and Trump there are daunting security concerns.
Both Kim Chang Son, director of North Korea’s state affairs commission secretariat, and a US delegation led by Joe Hagin, a deputy White House chief of staff, arrived in Singapore on Monday to work out security measures, where and when various meetings would take place, which events would be open to the press and which officials would be in the negotiating rooms. Given both Trump’s and Kim’s fondness for photo ops, Kim and Hagin may start to scope out some visually striking spots.
Kim Chang Son is sometimes called the chief butler to the family of Kim Jong Un and has looked after the North Korean leader since he was a child. When Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, traveled to the Olympics in February, South Korean media spotted Kim Chang Son taking her coat.
According to Tokyo Broadcasting System, a Japanese news network, Kim told reporters in Beijing late Monday night that he was headed to Singapore “to have fun.”
Reporters on the same flight saw him reading a briefing paper that said “in order to guarantee the results of the US-North Korea summit meeting, guarantee the safety of Chairman Kim Jong Un above all else.”
The DMZ: Ironing Out an Agenda
When Trump sent his letter last week to Kim Jong Un canceling — or at least postponing — the summit meeting, one of the likely triggers was a statement from Choe Son Hui, a North Korean vice foreign minister, in which she criticized Vice President Mike Pence for “ignorant and stupid” remarks comparing North Korea and Libya.
But she has been representing the North in talks with a US delegation led by Sung Kim, a veteran diplomat and ambassador to the Philippines. The two sides met on Sunday in Panmunjom, a “truce village” in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.
The diplomats and technical experts are probably working out an agenda for the meeting, and the US side is looking to secure detailed commitments from Kim Jong Un that his regime is willing to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Analysts said that Choe and Kim were likely to work on drafts of a potential declaration that could be issued at the summit meeting, with wording from North Korea about getting rid of its nuclear weapons and a guarantee from the United States that it would not interfere with the North’s regime or demand redress for human rights abuses.
“Ms. Choe is probably asking for nonaggression and even the stopping of joint military drills between the US and South Korea because the North feels threatened by it,” said Chon Hyun-joon, a visiting professor at Woosuk University in Jeongju City. “The North Koreans are very good at getting what they want at the last minute, while it seems Trump is a little more impatient.”
Choe was an interpreter for the North Koreans during previous nuclear negotiations known as the six-party talks, which started in 2003 and eventually broke down in 2009. She is likely to have previously met Sung Kim at conferences in Europe as well.
Mitoji Yabunaka, a retired Japanese diplomat who represented Japan in the six-party talks, said that although Choe was officially an interpreter at the time, he sensed that she had more power and influence than that role might have indicated. She had an “impressive presence,” he said.
(Makiko Inoue contributed reporting in Tokyo and Su-hyun Lee contributed reporting in Seoul, South Korea.)