Washington: US-North Korean talks over a possible summit in Singapore shift to the White House on Friday, where President Donald Trump will host a top aide to Kim Jong-un one day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the two sides made "real progress" during negotiations in New York.
Trump will meet a North Korean delegation led by former spy chief Kim Yong Chol, who is carrying a letter for the president from Kim Jon-un. After a tumultuous several weeks of diplomacy, any determination about whether an on-again, off-again summit between the two leaders will go forward on June 12 in Singapore may be announced then.
"I look forward to seeing what's in the letter," Trump told reporters on Thursday. Of preparations for a summit, the president said: "It's going along very well."
After a dinner on Wednesday and almost four hours of talks in New York on Thursday, Pompeo took an optimistic tone but declined to say if the two sides bridged key differences over issues such as denuclearisation. The lack of details served to highlight the tenuous nature of the North Korean-US rapprochement.
"This is a difficult challenge, make no mistake about it," Pompeo said of the accelerated talks. "There remains a great deal of work to do."
A critical issue for the US is to determine whether Kim would come to a summit prepared to make a genuine commitment to give up his nuclear weapons. Pompeo said a challenge is to convince the North Korean regime that its security ultimately would be enhanced by doing so, as economic benefits would follow.
The New York discussions were the highest-level talks between the two sides on US soil in 18 years and took place as US and North Korean teams discussed summit logistics and possible outcomes in Singapore and along the border between North and South Korea.
While the summit remains in doubt, the tone has clearly changed in the days since Trump called off the Singapore meeting over escalating rhetoric from both sides and concerns that North Korea was stalling on preparations.
Separately, officials from the two Koreas met at the border village of Panmunjom on Friday. In morning talks, South Korea proposed the establishment and early operation of a liaison office at their shuttered joint industrial park in North Korea. Discussions were set to continue in the afternoon.
After Pompeo met Kim Yong Chol for a steak dinner on Wednesday night, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tweeted pictures showing the secretary of state smiling and gesturing as his guest looked out over the New York skyline. The State Department said Pompeo was pointing out One World Trade Center - known as "Freedom Tower."
"It will take bold leadership from Chairman Kim Jong-un if we are able to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course of the world," Pompeo told reporters on Thursday.
For Thursday's meetings, Pompeo was joined by Andy Kim, the head of the Korea desk at the Central Intelligence Agency, which Pompeo previously headed, and Mark Lambert, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Pompeo had originally planned for two, two-hour sessions with Kim Yong Chol on Thursday but said he got through everything he wanted to discuss in about half the time.
That penchant for brevity would have been rare for previous secretaries - John Kerry was famed for marathon meetings that dragged well into the night - but it's typical for Pompeo, who has become known in his short time on the job for starting meetings early. He kept his press briefing after the talks to a brisk 10 minutes.
A US official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, told reporters the administration was looking for a "historic" commitment from North Korea and something that "has never been done before." Trump would be willing to stay in Singapore for longer than just one day if the results were promising, the official said.
"I want it to be meaningful," Trump said Thursday of the possible summit. "Doesn't mean it gets all done in one meeting. Maybe we have to have a second meeting, maybe we'll have none. But, it's in good hands, that I can tell you."
It was just a week ago that the possibility of the Singapore summit was cast into doubt, with Trump calling off the planned meeting in a public letter to Kim citing his regime's escalating rhetoric. The harsher North Korean tone followed statements by US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said the regime should follow the so-called Libya model of giving up all its nuclear weapons quickly before getting anything in return.
Yet North Korea's conciliatory response to Trump's letter appeared to get negotiations back on track. Kim Jong-Un said on Thursday that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was moving rapidly toward talks, Interfax reported, after he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Kim, who received an invitation to visit Russia, said he valued President Vladimir Putin's stance against US hegemony, the report said.
Resolving North Korea's nuclear issue will require a step-by-step process involving the lifting of sanctions, Tass cited Lavrov as saying after his meeting with North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho.
"It is impossible in one move to ensure denuclearisation," Lavrov was quoted as saying. "That's why certainly there should be some stages and there should be the oncoming traffic at each of these stages."