A top North Korean official is heading to New York for talks aimed at salvaging a summit between Kim Jong Un and US president Donald Trump on the future of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
Kim Yong Chol was spotted at Beijing’s airport just after noon ahead of the North’s highest-level mission to America in 18 years.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited diplomatic sources as saying that Mr Kim was on an Air China flight to New York which departed on Wednesday afternoon.
Yonhap said Mr Kim, who had arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, was travelling with five other North Korean officials.
Mr Kim, one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s most trusted aides, is a former military intelligence chief and now a vice chairman of the ruling party’s central committee.
North Korea’s mission to the United Nations in New York is its sole diplomatic presence in the United States. That suggests Mr Kim might have chosen to first go to New York because it would make it easier for him to communicate with officials in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.
North Korea and the United States are still technically at war and have no diplomatic ties because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Mr Trump confirmed that Mr Kim was to hold talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
But it was not immediately known what else he would do in the United States. South Korean media speculated that he was carrying a personal letter from Kim Jong Un and may push to travel to Washington to meet with Mr Trump.
Mr Pompeo has travelled to Pyongyang twice in recent weeks for meetings with Kim Jong Un, and has said there is a “shared understanding” between the two sides about what they hope to achieve in talks.
South Korean media speculated that Mr Pompeo could make a third trip to Pyongyang after Kim Yong Chol’s US trip.
Mr Trump and Kim Jong Un were set to hold their summit June 12 in Singapore, but Mr Trump announced last week that he was pulling out of the meeting.
Since then, he has suggested the summit could be back on, and Kim Yong Chol’s trip to the US seems to imply that preparations for a meeting could be in the final stages.
Kim Yong Chol’s trip comes amid two sets of other pre-summit talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
A team of US officials led by former US nuclear negotiator Sung Kim began talks with North Korean officials at the Korean border village of Panmunjom on Sunday to set the agenda for the summit.
A North Korean delegation led by another of Kim Jong Un’s trusted aides, Kim Chang Son, flew to Singapore on Monday night for talks with US officials to discuss logistical issues for the summit.
Kim Yong Chol would be the highest-level North Korean official to travel to the United States since 2000, when Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok visited Washington and met then-president Bill Clinton amid warming ties between the wartime foes.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a historic reciprocal visit to Pyongyang later in 2000 in a bid to arrange a North Korea visit by Mr Clinton. Ties turned sour again after George W Bush took office in early 2001 with a tough policy on the North.