Kim Yong Chol is Returning to Washington

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Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, and the man who has become Pyongyang’s senior negotiator on denuclearization issues, is on his way to Washington DC today. He is expected to meet Friday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and possibly also hold a meeting with President Trump. Chol’s appearance in Washington is widely expected to mark the beginning of laying groundwork towards a second US-North Korean summit later in the year. Vietnam appears to be the most probable location for a summit. The United States has been cultivating closer ties with Hanoi over the last two years as the South China Sea has become an increasingly dangerous global flashpoint. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is rumored to have arranged a visit to Vietnam for February, though it is unclear if his trip is connected to any potential meeting with US officials.

There has been little progress made on denuclearization since the Singapore summit was held last June. Lately, diplomatic activity has picked up considerably, especially in the wake of Kim’s trip to Beijing earlier this month. As was the case in 2018, Kim’s attitude towards denuclearization, and a summit with President Trump was relatively casual until a trip to China brought on a quick change in tune. It appears that a similar cycle is underway now. The US calls for progress on denuclearization, North Korea prevaricates, Kim is summoned to Beijing, and a week later Chol is on his way to Washington for negotiations.

This time around a second summit will not be enough for the US. Trump will be looking for concrete signs that North Korea is moving towards denuclearization, not more of the empty promises and assurances that Kim has been dispensing regularly since Singapore. The flow of recent events also brings to the forefront the current level of influence that China holds over Kim. It’s very possible that the meeting in Beijing earlier this month came about because of the current state of US-China relations. The Chinese may feel that its nudging of North Korea down the path of denuclearization could help lead to an improvement in relations with Washington. The ongoing US-China trade war, as well as the slowdown of China’s economy, are two factors that would certainly prompt Beijing to act now.

Wednesday 16 May, 2018 Update: North Korea Threatens to Back Out of June Summit

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With less than thirty days remaining until the US-North Korea summit is scheduled to take place in Singapore, the first signs of trouble have appeared. North Korea’s statement expressing ‘disappointment’ with National Security Adviser John Bolton’s remarks over the weekend suggesting that North Korea’s potential denuclearization could follow the ‘Libya Model.’ Considering that Muammar Gaddafi’s gave up his nation’s nuclear program only to be killed by Western-backed rebels a few years later, it is easy to see why the North Koreans are a little disturbed by Bolton’s words. It is no secret that the North has long been wary of Bolton and his hawkish views. Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan. even admitted in the statement that his country finds Bolton ‘repugnant.’

Frustration with Bolton is not the only matter irritating North Korea. Max Thunder, a joint ROKAF-USAF military exercise currently underway have apparently displeased Pyongyang enough for it to cancel high-level talks with South Korea that had been scheduled for today. KCIA, North Korea’s state-run media outlet has stated the exercise could prevent the 12 June summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un from taking place.

Washington is publicly projecting great confidence that the summit will take place. Behind the scenes, though, questions about North Korea’s candor regarding talks with the United States, and the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Tuesday’s statements and actions suggest Pyongyang might be embracing tactics of the past to project its unwillingness to discuss at length the subject of denuclearization with Trump at the summit. Bolton’s remarks likely appear to be a suitable justification for North Korea to try and shift the focus of the summit away from its nuclear weapons and the future of the program.