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N. Korea, U.S. Engage in Flurry of Preparatory Talks for Summit

The North Korea-U.S. summit was cancelled on May 25, but the two countries are speeding up preparations for the bilateral summit again. On May 26, just one day after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the cancellation of the North Korea-U.S. summit, he said he remains open to holding the Singapore summit on June 12 as planned. The two nations have since been holding working-level meetings to realize the historic denuclearization talks. Here is Jin Hee-gwan, professor of unification studies at Inje University, to examine North Korea-U.S. working-level talks that have taken place in different locations such as the U.S., the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjeom and Singapore.

Despite a major setback last week, North Korea and the U.S. have engaged in a flurry of working-level contact in three different regions, indicating that preparations for their bilateral summit are well under way. The key topic is how to address North Korea’s complete denuclearization and Washington’s guarantee of the communist regime’s security. Wrangling over this question, the two sides have been holding working-level meetings. With top North Korean official Kim Yong-chol on his U.S. visit now, the two countries seem to be discussing not only agenda items but also the protocol for the planned summit.

Pyongyang and Washington have been operating three channels to prepare for their summit. They have coordinated their agenda at the working-level talks in Panmunjeom, while also discussing protocol and security in Singapore. And the last channel is high-level talks in New York between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has led the behind-the-scenes negotiations with North Korea, and Vice Chairman of North Korea’s Workers’ Party Central Committee Kim Yong-chol. The three-track communication channels are seen as a positive sign for a smooth progress in preparations for the North Korea-U.S. summit, which was once called off. Among the three channels, Panmunjeom signaled the start of bilateral working-level talks. On May 26, Trump confirmed the working-level contact between North Korea and the U.S. The two sides began talks at the Tongilgak building on the northern side of Panmunjeom on May 27. The U.S. delegates were U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, U.S. National Security Council’s Korea specialist Allison Hooker and assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs Randall Schriver. North Korea was represented by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. The two sides continued with a tug-of-war over North Korea’s denuclearization and a guarantee of regime security. Let’s hear again from Professor Jin.

The U.S. says that it can improve relations with North Korea only when the North dismantles its nuclear programs thoroughly. The key is how and when North Korea will dismantle and transfer its nuclear materials, weapons and facilities. This is a very complicated matter. North Korea, on the other hand, is most interested in how the U.S. will mend ties with the North and ensure its regime security. For example, they may discuss the establishment of liaison offices or trade representatives as a step to normalize their relations. I imagine the delegates from the two sides discussed in depth details about the process of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programs at their working-level talks.

After the first round of working-level talks on May 27, North Korea and the U.S. held the second round of talks on Wednesday, May 30, also in Panmunjeom, to discuss the process of nuclear dismantlement as well as a guarantee of North Korea’s regime security and economic assistance. In Singapore, meanwhile, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin met with Kim Chang-son, director of North Korea’s State Affairs Commission Secretariat, on May 29 and 30 to discuss security and protocol for the North Korea-U.S. summit. Professor Jin explains more.

Kim Chang-son is one of the most influential figures in the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea. Only two people—Kim Chang-son and the leader’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong—were seen to move freely around the top leader during the inter-Korean summit in April. It reflects the man’s high standing in North Korea. He is viewed as the leader’s chief of staff. He is in charge of the formality of the summit between the North Korean leader and the U.S. President, but his movements can also show the leader’s intention precisely. In this sense, the recent working-level talks in Singapore can play a significant role in making the planned summit a success.

Both Kim and Hagin are protocol specialists. Kim was one of the closest aides to former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and is also a close aide to current leader Kim Jong-un, while Hagin takes charge of managing the president’s schedule in the Trump government. He did the same job in the George W. Bush administration. Working-level discussions between the two officials, who are trusted by their respective leaders, is expected to facilitate a successful summit between the North and the U.S., going beyond the arrangement of the logistics. While the two countries have fine-tuned details for their summit through the two-track working-level talks, attention has now turned to the two-day, high-level talks between Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol in New York which started on Wednesday.

Kim Yong-chol is the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the U.S. in 18 years. After top North Korean military official Jo Myong-rok visited Washington D.C. in 2000 and met with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, North Korea and the U.S. announced a joint communiqué, which is considered a step toward the normalization of relations. Kim’s visit to New York is greatly significant, since it shows an improvement in North Korea-U.S. relations, long after the joint communiqué. The visit implies that bilateral ties will proceed smoothly for the time being. Kim is expected to deliver the North Korean leader’s verbal message, meaning that the two countries have reached a final agreement on major discussion topics for their summit. In this vein, Kim’s U.S. visit is highly important.

Without a doubt, the important high-level talks between Kim and Pompeo will draw up a blueprint for the North Korea-U.S. summit. At the talks, the question is whether North Korea will convince the U.S. of its complete denuclearization, and whether the U.S. will dismiss North Korea’s concerns about security jitters. Apparently, the two sides are making an all-out effort to convene their summit as initially scheduled. What agreement they may reach before the summit is expected to determine the success or failure of the talks.

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