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Diplomacy heats up ahead of potential North Korea summit

Kim Yong Chol would be the most senior North Korean official to visit the United States in 18 years.

Diplomacy levels have accelerated ahead of a potential summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A team of American diplomats involved in preparatory discussions left a Seoul hotel, possibly to continue talks with their North Korean counterparts.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol planned to head to the United States, potentially for more talks to set up the summit over the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

He would be the most senior North Korean official to visit the United States in 18 years.

The trip could be a reciprocal visit after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, twice in recent weeks for meetings with Kim Jong Un, after which he said there was a “shared understanding” between the two sides about what they hope to achieve in the summit.

It remains unclear whom Kim Yong Chol would meet in the United States if he goes.

South Korean media also reported that a North Korean delegation arrived in Singapore on Monday night for probable summit preparations with US officials.

Seoul did not confirm reports that the North Korean officials were headed by Kim Chang Son, Kim Jong Un’s close associate, and that his American counterpart would likely be White House deputy chief of staff for operations Joe Hagin.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Washington and Pyongyang were engaging in “working-level” talks to arrange the possible summit, but said it could not confirm specifics.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands (South Korea Presidential Blue House/AP)

Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk also did not say whether Seoul knew of any US plans regarding Kim Yong Chol’s possible visit, such as whether he and Mr Pompeo have plans to meet.

Kim Yong Chol is a former military intelligence chief and now a vice chairman of the North Korean ruling party’s central committee tasked with inter-Korean relations.

A visit to the United States would be the highest-level North Korean official visit since 2000, when late national defence commission first vice chairman Jo Myong Rok visited Washington, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

President Trump withdrew from a planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un last Thursday, citing hostile North Korean comments, but has since said the meeting in Singapore could still happen.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between President Trump and Mr Kim, met with the North Korean leader in a surprise meeting on Saturday in an effort to keep the summit alive.

In their second meeting in a month, Mr Moon said Mr Kim expressed willingness to co-operate to end confrontation and work toward peace for the sake of a successful summit with President Trump.

But Mr Kim also said he was unsure whether he could trust the United States over its promise to end hostile policies against North Korea and provide security assurances if the country does abandon its nuclear weapons, according to Mr Moon.

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