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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
This article was updated at 1445 KST to include information about Choe Son Hui traveling through the Beijing Airport on Thursday afternoon, and at 1830 to include additional details on Kim Yong Chol’s delegation
High level North Korean official Kim Yong Chol was on Thursday spotted at Beijing Capital Airport, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, where he is expected to depart later in the day for closely-watched U.S.-DPRK talks in Washington D.C.
Kim, who serves as vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), is expected to spend Thursday night in the U.S., though it remains unclear whether he will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Neither the U.S. or DPRK has yet to officially confirm the visit, however.
Kim was seen traveling with other top officials Choe Kang Il, acting head of the North American department with the foreign ministry, and Kim Song Hye, head of strategy at the United Front Department (UFD) of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
The two sides planned to hold talks in the U.S. again in November, though meetings were called off following an eleventh-hour cancellation by the North Korean side.
It also comes amid an impasse in nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, and Kim Jong Un’s demand in his New Year’s speech that the U.S. offer “corresponding practical actions” in return for what he claimed were the DPRK’s credible steps towards denuclearization.
This week’s visit will likely see the North Koreans hold talks with U.S. counterparts ahead of a planned upcoming second summit between President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim Yong Chol’s trip comes as North Korean vice-foreign minister Choe Son Hui was seen on Tuesday traveling from Beijing for an “international conference” in Stockholm, where U.S. officials may also make an appearance.
She was spotted again at the airport in Beijing Thursday afternoon, according to various media who captured her arrival, though she did not answer reporters’ questions regarding her destination.
It would, however, be rare for the U.S. to engage North Korean officials simultaneously in two locations, raising the possibility that Choe could fly from Stockholm to join the North Korean delegation in Washington, D.C.
Kim’s trip also comes after CNN reported that a letter from President Trump had been delivered to Kim Jong Un over the past weekend, following Trump’s promotion of a letter he received from Kim earlier this month.
Now Kim Yong Chol is expected to be carrying another letter from the North Korean leader, according to a Washington Post report late Wednesday, as Trump may finally announce further details of an upcoming second U.S.-DPRK summit following a potential meeting with Kim this week.
The Post‘s sources indicated the likely venue is to be Danang, Vietnam, in March or April.
Meanwhile, other players in the ongoing negotiations process are continuing their separate coordination, with a U.S.-South Korea working group meeting taking place via teleconference Thursday morning KST, and China’s top nuclear envoy meeting his South Korean counterpart in Seoul later the same day.
Following the meeting between Chinese vice-foreign minister Kong Xuanyou and and Lee Do-hoon, both expressed their desire to continue working together in the process towards denuclearization of the peninsula.
And while the working group discussed mainly humanitarian issues such as video reunions for separated families, no specific breakthroughs were made with regards to U.S. appetite to push for further sanctions relief.
NHK also reported Thursday that Pompeo and Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono spoke over the phone to reiterate their close ties and agreement over the goal of maintaining UN sanctions enforcement.
The report also said Kono was informed of the planned high-level talks with Kim Yong Chol in Washington, but did not provide further confirmation regarding Pompeo’s schedule.
Featured image: Blue House