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Top N.Korean in Washington to prepare new Trump summit

AFP logoAFP 1/18/2019 Shaun TANDON

Kim Yong Chol (C), a North Korean senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief, arrives at the airport in Beijing before leaving for Washington on January 17, 2019

Kim Yong Chol (C), a North Korean senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief, arrives at the airport in Beijing before leaving for Washington on January 17, 2019
© Provided by AFP

A top North Korean general will meet the US leadership Friday on a rare visit to Washington, in a sign of progress in arranging a new summit with President Donald Trump aimed at denuclearization and easing decades of hostility.

Kim Yong Chol, a right-hand man to leader Kim Jong Un, is the first North Korean dignitary in nearly two decades known to have spent the night in the US capital, little more than a year after Trump was threatening to wipe the totalitarian state off the map.

The State Department, which declined to confirm the visit until the last minute after Kim Yong Chol abruptly canceled his last planned US trip in November, said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would meet him in Washington at 11.00 am (1600 GMT).

Presuming the lunch talks go smoothly, Kim will then head to the White House to meet Trump, a US source said on condition of anonymity.

Kim and his entourage flew in Thursday from Beijing and, under light snow, made no comment as they exited a motorcade to check in at a fashionable hotel in the lively Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Trump has repeatedly voiced eagerness to see Kim Jong Un again -- even opining that the two are "in love" -- after their landmark June summit in Singapore, the first meeting ever between sitting leaders from the two countries that never formally ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

Tensions began to abate a year ago with the encouragement of South Korea's dovish president, Moon Jae-in. Trump has repeatedly hailed his diplomacy as a triumph, recently saying there would have been "a nice big fat war in Asia" if it were not for him.

- Vietnam ready to host -

Trump has said to expect an announcement soon about the second summit. In Vietnam, a government source told AFP that "logistical preparations" were under way to host the summit, most likely in the capital Hanoi or coastal city of Danang, but that no decision had been made.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said that Vietnam was ready to welcome the two leaders, noting that Hanoi has a growing relationship with the United States despite war memories.

"We don't know the final decision. However, if it happens here we will do our best to facilitate the meeting," he said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

For Trump, the made-for-television summitry with the young and elusive North Korean leader also offers a welcome respite from a steady barrage of negative headlines at home.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is probing whether Trump's presidential campaign colluded with Russia, and his insistence that Congress fund a wall on the Mexican border has shuttered the US government for nearly a month.

For Kim, the stakes are more existential as he seeks guarantees of the survival of his regime.

Kim, backed by ally China as well as South Korea, is also hoping for an easing of international sanctions, but the United States insists on maintaining maximum pressure until Pyongyang moves forward on giving up its nuclear weapons.

- What is 'denuclearization'? -

In Singapore, Kim promised his "unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

But the two sides appear to have different ideas on how to define that, with the United States expecting North Korea to give up nuclear weapons assembled over decades of work and Pyongyang more broadly seeking an end to what it sees as US threats.

"I think there is somewhat of a general consensus of what denuclearization means. I think there is obviously still disagreement on how to get there -- whether denuclearization is the end of the process or the process itself," said Jenny Town, managing editor of the 38 North web journal on North Korea policy at the Stimson Center.

"Realistically, they can talk about it all they want to, they can define the end goal, but if you don't have a common understanding of how to get there, you're not going to reach that common goal," she said.

She noted that Americans have traditionally preferred to hash out the details of agreements before big summits, while the type of leader-driven diplomacy favored by Trump is more common in Asia.

"People have been very skeptical of this top-down approach, but we won't know unless we try it," she said.

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