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Diplomatic Moves Edge U.S.-North Korea Summit Closer To Reality

May 29, 2018
Originally published on May 29, 2018 10:58 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In his letter canceling a summit with North Korea's leader a few days ago, President Trump included the phrase, if you change your mind having to do with this most important summit. Well, since then, there's been a lot of diplomatic activity involving the United States and North Korea. U.S. and North Korean teams are meeting in Singapore and at the border village between the two Korean - the two Koreas. And now there's news that a senior North Korean leader, Kim Yong Chol, is on his way to the United States. He's believed to be in Beijing heading on to New York City. We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, who's in Washington, and also NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who's in Beijing.

Hey there, gentlemen.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: And Scott, let's start with you. This news comes from the president. What's he say?

HORSLEY: He confirmed in a tweet that Kim Yong Chol, one of the top deputies to Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, is on his way to New York to continue talks in preparation for a possible summit. As you mentioned, that's one of several diplomatic highways that are being traveled right now. And he calls this a solid response to my letter. That's the letter last Thursday you referenced, in which Trump pulled out of the June 12 summit with Kim but also left the door open to resume talks. And so he's sort of taking credit that now it's Kim who is saying, yes, I want this summit to go forward.

INSKEEP: And of course, we mean Kim Jong Un, the Korean leader - the North Korean leader. But then there's Kim Yong Chol, who is the somewhat less-senior North Korean leader who is supposed to be on the way to New York. Anthony, who is that?

KUHN: He is basically the No. 2 in the ruling party, the Workers' Party of North Korea. He's also the head of military intelligence. He's also in charge of relations with South Korea. But suffice it to say that he has a very colorful background. He's accused of being involved in attacks - military attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed dozens of servicemen. Also, there was a shelling of an island that year. And you may remember that in 2014, Sony Pictures put out a movie called "The Interview," a spoof about North Korea with Seth Rogen and James Franco, and North Korea was accused but denied any involvement in hacking that theatrical release. So the U.S. and South Korea put sanctions on Mr. Kim Yong Chol, but apparently, that's not stopping him from coming to the U.S. to talk with - we don't know - perhaps Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

INSKEEP: Wow. This is amazing. You're telling me, I think, that if it were not for the summit preparations, this is a man who would never attempt to travel to the United States. And if he did, he'd be turned away at the airport or even arrested for something.

KUHN: Yes. But it's clear that the intelligence communities in both countries have been very involved on this nuclear issue. And also, I think the really important thing to note is that for a long time, the U.S. and North Korea have not had any diplomatic contacts. Now, Kim Yong Chol, when he arrives in the U.S., will be the first North Korean official in the U.S. in almost 20 years - in 18 years. And Pompeo, when he came, was the first in a long time, too. So instead of going through other countries, the two countries now - the U.S. and North Korea now have direct diplomatic connections, and that is seen as key to resolving the nuclear issue.

INSKEEP: OK. Question for each of you - first, Scott Horsley - Scott, it is ever more apparent that after President Trump sent this letter on Thursday canceling the summit, everybody else in the Trump administration just went right about their business and continued contacts with the North Koreans in any way that they could manage.

HORSLEY: Well, there's been kind of a mix because there was a senior White House official who told reporters on Thursday that it would be almost impossible to restart these talks in time for the June 12 original scheduled date. But what we've seen over the weekend is a very hurried-up pace of diplomacy. There was the meeting between the South Korean leader and the North Korean leader and then, as you mentioned, talks between U.S. and North Korean officials along the Demilitarized Zone. The kinds of summit preparation that would ordinarily take place over weeks or months - that's now trying to be compressed into about a two-week schedule.

INSKEEP: And Anthony Kuhn, quick question for you because you're in Beijing - this official is apparently traveling to Beijing and then on to Washington, D.C. Some Americans suspect that China is complicating this summit rather than trying to make it happen. Do you have a sense of the actual Chinese view?

KUHN: Well, China's not said if any of its officials are going to be meeting with Kim Yong Chol. And yes, President Trump did suggest that China was complicating the matter, maybe even turning Kim Jong Un against the U.S. And there have been also reports in the South Korean media suggesting similar, but it's very hard to confirm.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Anthony Kuhn and Scott Horsley. Thanks to you both.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

KUHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.