One of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s top officials is believed to be traveling to the United States as the two countries lay the groundwork for on-again, off-again talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12.
Kim Yong Chol was spotted at Beijing’s international airport Wednesday, where he’s believed to be on a layover before boarding a flight to the US that’s due to arrive as early as Wednesday, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency and other media reports, citing unnamed sources.
If the trip is confirmed, Kim would be the most senior official to visit the United States since 2000, when Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok traveled to Washington to meet with former US President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. Then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to North Korea later that month.
CNN has not been able to independently establish where Kim is traveling to, nor the reason for his journey. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to confirm Kim’s visit or make any further comment. CNN has reached out to the White House and the State Department for comment.
Kim Yong Chol’s trip comes as the United States and North Korea attempt to revive the summit, a potential diplomatic triumph for two countries technically still at war.
The talks nearly fell apart last week when Trump when the US President canceled them Thursday following incendiary comments from a senior North Korean foreign ministry official who called Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy.” The White House also said in a background briefing that North Korean officials hadn’t answered their calls, frustrating their attempts to plan for the meeting.
But after a conciliatory statement from North Korea, Trump revived hopes for the meeting late Saturday night, after Kim called an impromptu meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-In and reiterated his commitment to denuclearizing.
Kim’s right hand man
Kim Yong Chol and Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, have been two of the most visible and important North Korean players in Pyongyang’s push for rapprochement with South Korea and the United States this year.
Kim Yong Chol’s reported trip to the US indicates that Washington and Pyongyang have direct lines of communication open and are working together closely to work though issues ahead of the summit.
Pyongyang’s foreign ministers regularly travel to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, but Kim Yong Chol is believed to be the most senior North Korean since Jo to go to the US.
“There is a power going to enemy territory. The act itself builds confidence on both sides,” said John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University’s Graduate school of International Studies.
“It shows a healthy process of the two sides working with sincerity to fundamentally change the relationship.”
Kim Yong Chol is the vice chairman of North Korea’s Party Central Committee, and is Kim Jong Un’s top official in charge of relations between North and South Korea. He’s often pictured with the North Korean leader and attended his two recent meetings with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas.
Kim Yong Chol was also pictured greeting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Pyongyang earlier this month.
He also traveled to Seoul in February for the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, a decision that surprised many considering he was believed to have masterminded the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors while serving as North Korea’s top intelligence official.
A busy weekend
The White House has dispatched officials across the globe to prepare for the possible summit.
A team of US officials traveled to North Korea Sunday for talks with their North Korean counterparts. The team from Washington includes Sung Kim, a former US ambassador to South Korea and special representative for North Korea policy; Randall G. Schriver, the assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs; and Allison Hooker, director for Korea on the White House’s National Security Council.
Talks could potentially resume Wednesday at the DMZ, a person familiar with North Korea-US relations told CNN.
Representatives from Washington and Pyongyang have also been sent to Singapore, the island city-state that has agreed to host the talks, the first between a North Korean leader and sitting US President.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK posted footage online of a North Korean official at Singapore International Airport Monday, the same day US officials arrived for talks on logistics.
The diplomatic scramble follows a last-minute meeting between Kim and Moon on the northern side of the DMZ Saturday to discuss the next steps after Trump’s surprise cancellation.
As Moon revealed the substance of their discussion in a press briefing Sunday, President Trump announced that the meeting was back on.
“We’re looking at June 12th in Singapore. That hasn’t changed.”
Moon told reporters Kim requested the meeting with him on Friday afternoon, in what was only the fourth encounter between the leaders of North and South Korea.