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North Korea Sends Senior Official To New York To Plan For Summit


What a difference a few days make. Last week, President Trump called off a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This week, Kim is sending one of his top advisers to New York to plan for that very summit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also headed to New York. And here in Washington, White House officials have announced a flurry of diplomatic activity. NPR's Michele Kelemen begins our coverage.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When President Trump called off the summit last week, his aides say the North Koreans weren't answering their calls or coming to meetings. That seems to be changing.


HEATHER NAUERT: Since the president's May 24 letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the North Koreans have been engaging with the United States.

KELEMEN: That's State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who says there's a U.S. team meeting with North Koreans in the Demilitarized Zone and in Singapore, where the summit is due to take place. Secretary Pompeo is also heading to New York this week to meet a top North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol. Kim is close to North Korea's leader, and that's important, says a former U.S. envoy, Joseph DeTrani.

JOSEPH DETRANI: He has a very rich background on national security issues for North Korea - I mean, certainly anything touching the military intelligence, nuclear-related, missile-related issues. Kim Yong Chol is, I think, the go-to person.

KELEMEN: Kim has been a military intelligence chief and has been involved in inter-Korean relations. He's been described as a hard-liner, someone who would not be willing to trade away North Korea's nuclear weapons capability. But DeTrani, who's met him, doesn't see it that way.

DETRANI: Comes across as a very strong character. I mean, he has strong views. But I didn't see him as a hard-liner per se. I think he knows his brief. He's - he comes across as a very strong nationalist.

KELEMEN: In South Korea, many blame him for the sinking of a navy ship back in 2010 when he was the spy chief. But Jean Lee of the Woodrow Wilson Center says his role in inter-Korean affairs is one to watch in his talks with Secretary Pompeo.

JEAN LEE: I suspect that what he's going to talk about is a peace treaty. That is something the North Koreans want. That is something Kim Jong Un has clearly laid out as a goal. It's something his father and his grandfather died without achieving. And I suspect that he is here as Kim Jong Un's envoy to discuss how they're going to agree on bringing an end to the Korean War.

KELEMEN: But she says diplomats have to work quickly to get the June 12 summit back on track.

LEE: They are scrambling. They've got a lot to do in just two weeks. The main thing that we have to see them do aside from the logistics of putting on a historic meeting between these two leaders is just getting on the same page about what they're going to discuss.

KELEMEN: She predicts a tough discussion over how each side views denuclearization. DeTrani, the former U.S. negotiator, says having Kim Yong Chol come to the U.S. is a good sign.

DETRANI: My personal view - I think it's a good indicator that Kim Jong Un is truly very serious about making sure that the summit goes well and there's clarity on the key issues of denuclearization and security assurances and improving relations certainly with the United States.

KELEMEN: He'll be the highest-level North Korean official to come to the U.S. in 18 years. He's on a U.S. sanctions list, so Kim Yong Chol needed a special waiver to go to New York, where the North Koreans have a diplomatic mission to the U.N. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.