North Korea’s Kim Yong-chol ‘heads to US for talks’

File photo: Kim Yong-Chol and North Korean soldiers marchingImage copyrightAFP
Image caption General Kim Yong-chol (pictured) is regularly seen at Kim Jong-un’s side

One of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s most senior officials is thought to be travelling to the US, as preparations for a possible summit gather pace.

South Korean news agency Yonhap said Gen Kim Yong-chol was due to arrive in the US on Wednesday, via Beijing.

This could be part of preparation for a proposed meeting between Mr Kim and President Donald Trump.

North Korea’s Kim Yong-chol ‘heads to US for talks’
North Korea’s Kim Yong-chol ‘heads to US for talks’

The meeting was thrown into doubt after Mr Trump pulled out last week.

But both sides have been working to get the summit – scheduled for 12 June in Singapore – back on track.

It would be the first time a North Korean leader has met a sitting US president.

Gen Kim was scheduled to fly to New York on Wednesday, after speaking with Chinese officials in Beijing, Yonhap reported, citing diplomatic sources.

He would be the most high-profile North Korean official to visit the US since 2000.

The apparent introduction of Gen Kim to negotiations would be significant, as it would underline North Korea’s desire to ensure the talks go ahead.

A former spy chief, he has been part of recent high-profile diplomatic overtures by the North.

Who is General Kim Yong-chol?

Gen Kim, 72, is a controversial figure in neighbouring South Korea, and previously served as a negotiator in inter-Korean talks.

Image copyrightAFP
Image caption Gen Kim (R), pictured here behind Ivanka Trump, attended the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics

During his time as a military intelligence head, he was accused of being behind attacks on South Korean targets, including the torpedoing of a South Korea warship which killed 46 seamen, as well as the 2014 hacking of Sony Pictures.

As a result of these incidents, the US imposed personal sanctions on Gen Kim in 2010 and 2015.

Despite reportedly being punished for an “overbearing attitude” in 2016, he has continued to hold senior posts in the army and party, and was the head of North Korea’s delegation to the closing ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The influential figure is regularly seen at the North Korean leader’s side and has attended meetings with the leaders of China and South Korea, and met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang.

In February, he was sent to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where he sat close to Mr Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump.

Also on Tuesday, a “pre-advance” team from the US was due to meet North Korean officials in Singapore, said US officials.

It follows a weekend of busy diplomacy, headlined by a surprise meeting between South Korea President Jae-In and Mr Kim in the border town of Panmunjom. At the meeting the pair agreed that the North Korea-US summit must be held.

The details of the potential US-North Korea meeting remain unclear, but discussions would address Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and ways to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.

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