- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2019

North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator is slated to arrive in Washington Thursday for meetings with the Trump administration, according to diplomatic sources, who say U.S. officials are hoping for a breakthrough in the stalled denuclearization process and a possible second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

While U.S. officials have declined to confirm the visit by Kim Yong-chol, a close aide to Mr. Kim and Pyongyang’s former spy chief, South Korean media reported that he left Beijing Wednesday en route to Washington for private meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Thursday night or Friday.

A foreign diplomatic source said that the North Korean delegation is also seeking a meeting with Mr. Trump and Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. The State Department said only that there are “no meetings to announce.”

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Analysts said the administration is reluctant to publicize the visit out of concern the North Koreans may back out at the last minute, a concern heightened by the fact that Kim Yong Chol abruptly canceled a planned November meeting with Mr. Pompeo in New York.

The Seoul-headquartered media outlet NK News noted that Mr. Kim is currently under U.S. Treasury Department sanction, meaning he would need an exemption to legally enter the U.S.

Most see a Pompeo-Kim meeting as a precursor to a second summit between Kim Jong-un and Mr. Trump, seeking to provide new momentum of a denuclearization accord the two men signed at last year’s milestone summit in Singapore in June.

News reports say a second Trump-Kim summit would likely occur sometime in February or March in Vietnam.

The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that U.S. officials are considering offering to ease economic sanctions on North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear programs and shipping its arsenal long-range ballistic missiles out of the country.

But private analysts in the U.S. call that scenario unlikely, with Mr. Trump’s top advisers on North Korea, including Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Biegun and National Security Adviser John Bolton all committed to keeping the sanctions in place until North Korea irreversibly surrenders its nuclear and missile programs.

But there is wariness among some analysts that Kim Jon Un may seeking through a second face-to-face summit to go around those advisers and strike a deal directly with Mr. Trump, seeking some form of interim sanctions relief in exchange for giving up Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. homeland.

Mr. Pompeo acknowledged to Fox News last week that the administration is pursuing “lots of ideas about how we might continue to decrease the risk to the American people.”

David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and North Korea expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that the president may be eyeing a more ambitious breakthrough.

“I have to believe that our government and the national security apparatus would never agree to such a deal, though I cannot predict what [Mr. Trump] will do,” Mr. Maxwell said Wednesday.

A key “objective” for administration officials meeting with the North Koreans ahead of any second Trump-Kim summit, Mr. Maxwell added, “must be to disabuse Kim of the notion that he can get a direct agreement from Trump that is not built on the foundation of working-level negotiations.”

“Sanctions relief cannot be a concession,” he added. “This isn’t rocket science.”

But the preparatory work for a second summit remains unclear. U.S. officials say Mr. Biegun, the main point for such negotiations, has been unable to set up a direct meeting with his North Korean counterpart, despite several attempts.

The State Department has remained mum this week on whether Mr. Biegun will be traveling during the coming days to try again in Sweden, where North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui is reported to be attending an international conference.

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