- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Did Kim Jong-un snub Mike Pompeo? Or was the North Korean leader too busy planning a trip to Moscow and meeting with local officials to host the U.S. secretary of state?

Mr. Kim’s decision not to meet with Mr. Pompeo in Pyongyang last weekend has not only prompted doubts about the veracity of his commitment to denuclearizing, it has also triggered speculation about the North Korean leader’s whereabouts.

Mr. Kim’s exploits are normally a source of constant coverage in North Korean media. But he was suddenly and surprisingly absent from state media headlines during the days leading up to and immediately following Mr. Pompeo’s visit Friday and Saturday.

While Trump administration officials had told reporters in Washington the secretary of state would be connecting face-to-face with Mr. Kim, the meeting never materialized. Mr. Pompeo instead met in Pyongyang last weekend with Kim Young Chol, a top adviser to the North Korean leader.

Speculation around Mr. Kim’s whereabouts had begun to swirl by Monday, when South Korea’s leading news agency reported that a private jet presumed to belong to the North Korean leader was suddenly spotted at an airport in Vladivostok, Russia.

Yonhap News Agency said the appearance of the jet raised speculation not so much that Mr. Kim was in Russia, but that preparations might be underway for him to travel there in the near future.

The agency cited the flight tracking website “Flightradar24” as saying the jet, known as Chammae-1, was on the ground in Vladivostok for about three hours before taking off for Pyongyang.

It was not confirmed whether or not Mr. Kim was on board, according to Yonhap, which cited an unnamed source as saying it appeared that North Korean officials had traveled to Russia “to make preparations for Kim’s possible participation in the Eastern Economic Forum to be held in Vladivostok this September.”

A new twist came Tuesday, when Agence France-Presse noted that North Korea’s official news agency known as KCNA suddenly broke its unusual seven-day silence on Mr. Kim’s whereabouts. A flurry of KCNA reports claimed the North Korean leader had spent recent days on a visit to the far-flung North Korean county of Samjiyon, on the border with China, visiting with local officials and touring a potato farm.

An AFP report maintained that the KCNA was implying that Mr. Kim had simply been too busy visiting the farm to meet with Mr. Pompeo during the secretary of state’s trip to Pyongyang.

While KCNA did not say when the trip was made, AFP reported that Kim Yong Chol, Mr. Kim’s powerful right-hand man, had told a South Korean official last week that the North Korean leader was away for a trip to a “local region.”

President Trump, meanwhile, confirmed Tuesday that had Mr. Pompeo been able to meet with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang, the secretary of state intended to give North Korean leader a copy of the Elton John song “Rocket Man.”

“They didn’t give it. I have it for him. They didn’t give it,” Mr. Trump said told reporters before departing Washington for Europe. “But it will be given at a certain period — I actually do, I actually do have a little gift for him, but you’ll find out what that gift is when I give it.”

The president has remained upbeat about Mr. Kim amid skepticism about whether progress was made during Mr. Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, during which the secretary of state had hoped to get the North Koreans to move toward publicly declaring all aspects of their nuclear activities and move toward committing to a timeline for denuclearization.

Details around such a timeline have remained murky in the wake of last month’s historic summit in Singapore, where Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim signed a joint statement in which the North Korean leader broadly committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this story.

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