A senior North Korean official is reportedly on his way to the US as preparations continue for the proposed meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Kim Yong-chol, a former top spy and currently a vice-chairman of the ruling party’s central committee, was spotted in Beijing airport on Tuesday by the Associated Press.
And South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that it had seen his name on a passenger list for a flight to Washington DC, though it later said his plans had changed and he would fly to New York, where North Korea’s mission to the UN functions as a well-known back channel between the US and Pyongyang.
General Kim would be the most senior North Korean to meet with US counterparts on their home soil in 18 years if the reports are correct. In 2000, special envoy Jo Myong-rok met then-president Bill Clinton on a goodwill visit, and secretary of state Madeleine Albright later accepted his invitation to visit North Korea.
Gen Kim was pictured standing near Ivanka Trump during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year, as the current thaw in tensions between the north and south was first beginning.
The general’s reported trip came after US officials held talks in the border village of Panmunjom designed to prepare the ground for the planned Trump-Kim summit in Singapore – which the billionaire cancelled only days ago before later suggesting it could still be held.
The leaders are in dispute over what the term “denuclearisation” means to either side, but the major falling-out took place over what Mr Trump called the North’s “open hostility”. Comments by Mike Pence and John Bolton referring to the “Libya model” were poorly received in Pyongyang and one official called the US vice president a “dummy”.
The demise of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is seen by North Korea as an example of how dealing with the West can go awry.
In a letter Mr Trump warned Mr Kim the American nuclear arsenal was “so massive” but left the door open for a change of heart. On Sunday he tweeted: “I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day [sic]. Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!”
Mr Kim had held a surprise meeting with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, on Saturday in a bid to revive the on-again, off-again summit.
Preparations appeared to be back on track this week. Mr Kim’s de facto chief of staff Kim Chang-son flew to Singapore on Monday night, Japanese media reported, while a US “pre-advance” team, including the White House deputy chief of staff for operations, Joe Hagin, was also on its way to the city-state, the White House said.
Analysts believe Washington is trying to determine whether North Korea is willing to agree sufficient steps towards denuclearisation to allow the meeting to take place. Mr Trump has called for Pyongyang to relinquish all its atomic weapons.
North Korea defends its nuclear and missile programmes as a deterrent against perceived aggression by the US, which maintains some 29,000 troops in South Korea half a century after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce but not a permanent peace treaty.
The North has long claimed it is open to eventually giving up those weapons if Washington withdraws the troops and ends its “nuclear umbrella” alliance with Seoul.
Reporting on annual military drills held earlier this month, called Max Thunder, was limited as diplomatic efforts were ramped up ahead of the planned summit.