Kim Yong-chol, North Korea’s top negotiator and a veteran spy chief, met the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, for about an hour in a Washington hotel, and then spent a bit more than an hour and a half with Trump in the Oval Office, before leaving for a lunch with Pompeo, to discuss more details.
After the envoy left the White House, Trump’s spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, put out a statement confirming that another summit with Kim Jong-unwould take place, but a venue had not yet been decided.
Sanders said Trump and Kim Yong-chol had discussed “denuclearization and a second summit, which will take place near the end of February”.
“The president looks forward to meeting with Chairman Kim at a place to be announced at a later date,” she added.
US diplomats have been scouting locations in the Pacific for the second summit, including Hanoi, Bangkok and Hawaii, with the Vietnamese capital currently seen as the more likely.
As one of the outcomes of Friday’s Oval Office meeting, the US special envoy, Stephen Biegun, is due to meet his North Korean counterpart, Choe Son-hui, in Stockholm over the weekend to try to develop an agenda for the summit. The North Koreans had hitherto declined to meet with Biegun.
“Since Singapore, the negotiations have consistently hit a brick wall,” Suzanne DiMaggio, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said. “Biegun meeting with Choe is progress. The key will be to see how those talks go – if they meet regularly and interact closely. They don’t have a lot of time.”
Since the first summit in Singapore in June, North Korea has continued its pause in nuclear and missile tests, and Trump has called off joint military exercises between US and South Korean forces, but it has not led to any substantial dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme that Trump claimed would follow from the Singapore summit.
This week the vice-president, Mike Pence, conceded that Washington was still “waiting for concrete steps” from the Kim’s regime, and the US unveiled a plan for a significantly expanded missile defence system, much of it designed to counter what the Pentagon termed “an extraordinary threat” from North Korea.
For its part, the Pyongyang regime has insisted that it will not unilaterally disarm, and has demanded the relaxation of international sanctions before offering any more concessions on its nuclear programme. Kim Jong-un is also demanding security guarantees from the US, and a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean conflict.
Asked on Friday what had been achieved since Singapore, Sanders said there had been “very good steps in good faith from the North Koreans”, but she added that pressure and sanctions would continue until “we see fully and verified denuclearization”.
DiMaggio, who has taken part in backchannel contacts with Pyongyang in the past, said that both sides would aim for an “interim agreement”, well short of complete disarmament. She thought that the US would put less emphasis on a demand for an inventory of North Korean arsenal, and could accept a North Korean offer to close down its reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
In return, DiMaggio added, the US could offer to make a “peace declaration” ending the 1950-53 Korean war, paving the way eventually for a formal peace treaty, and relax enforcement of some sanctions.
The North Korean former spy chief returned to the US capital at a time when Trump is under intense pressure from a special counsel investigation into his campaign’s links to the Kremlin, and he is locked into a struggle with Congress that has led to a partial government shutdown.
“I sense a little bit of desperation on the part of the president to try and get a meeting to take all of the attention away from everything else,” Victor Cha, a former national security council official, told NBC News.
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