(ABC NEWS)- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met with a top North Korean official as the Trump administration races to prepare for its June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
Less than a week after the president “canceled” the summit in a dramatic letter, there’s been a flurry of activity between the two countries to make it happen again. There was never an official “back on” message, but Trump tweeted Tuesday that his letter got a “solid response.”
The point person for U.S. preparations, Pompeo, met with Kim Yong Chol, a top adviser to Kim Jong Un and vice chairman of the Central Committee. It’s the third meeting between the two men, after Pompeo’s two trips to Pyongyang in as many months.
Pompeo hosted Kim Yong Chol for dinner Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the residence of the U.S. deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, an apartment on the east side of Manhattan. In photographs released by the State Department, they are seen toasting, shaking hands and smiling — with Pompeo showing off the New York City skyline in one photo. According to a senior State Department official, Pompeo was motioning to “a brighter future” that could be possible for North Korea, in exchange for it ending its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has denied any interest in U.S. economic assistance, only in ending international sanctions — and on Thursday, the real challenge of negotiating differences begins with a full day of meetings between the two delegations. Pompeo is scheduled to give a press conference afterward in the afternoon.
Kim Yong Chol is the regime’s former spy chief and reportedly behind some of its most malicious behavior, including assassination attempts in South Korea, the sinking of a South Korean navy ship and the Sony hack. He is currently under U.S. sanctions, so the U.S. had to grant him a special waiver to travel to New York.
He is the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the U.S. in nearly two decades, after the Clinton administration’s diplomatic efforts in its final months. Kim Yong Chol departed from Beijing Wednesday morning, where he met top officials from China, North Korea’s closest ally and a key economic partner, and arrived in New York Wednesday afternoon.
The two men dined with only one top adviser each. Andrew Kim, the CIA’s Korea Mission Center chief, joined Pompeo, the former CIA Director who has been Trump’s point person on North Korea. It was as CIA director, with Andrew Kim at his side, that Pompeo made his first trip to Pyongyang and first met Kim Song Chol.
“He’s America’s top diplomat, he’s trying to get to know his counterpart. That is how you do these things. You break bread with the person on the other side, you try to get to know them,” a senior State Department official said.
After the meeting, Pompeo told reporters that the dinner was “great” and they ate “American beef,” but did not offer more details.
It’s unclear who requested the two days of meetings, but the goal is go get “the two top dogs on each side” together “to see what needs to be done in the two weeks that remains before possibly we have a summit,” the senior official added.
It was just a week ago that Trump released his letter, which blasted North Korea for its “tremendous anger and open hostility” and called off the meeting. But planning has gotten back on track because of a statement from North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan the next day, according to the senior official.
“That’s about the most conciliatory letter I’ve ever seen from a North Korean,” the official said, adding it was the North Koreans “signaling, ‘We’ve screwed up.'”
Since then, the administration has been moving full-steam ahead with planning. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday there had been “a tremendous amount of progress over the past few days alone” as two other U.S. teams have been meeting with North Koreans in Singapore and at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin is leading the pre-advance team in Singapore that’s focused on coordinating the summit’s logistics, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. The team at the DMZ is finalizing the “content” of the summit, a senior State Department official said, and it includes the National Security Council’s Director for Korea Allison Hooker, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randy Schriver, and Sung Kim, the current U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and former State Department special representative for North Korean policy.
While it’s a tall order to coordinate the summit with less than two weeks to go, June 12 is what both sides are aiming for, U.S. officials have said. Ultimately, however, it will be up to Trump, a senior State Department official said: “The president can make a fly or no-fly decision any time he wants to.”