The U.S. "continues to actively prepare" for an "expected summit" between President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un in Singapore, the White House said Tuesday as diplomatic efforts were underway on two continents to prepare for the historic meeting.
Trump confirmed that a top North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol, is headed to New York for talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It marks the latest sign that prospects for the summit are growing, just days after it was ostensibly called off by Trump. In addition, teams of U.S. officials have arrived at the Korean demilitarized zone and in Singapore to prepare for the meeting.
The summit had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, but Trump announced last week that he had decided to "terminate" the meeting following a provocative statement from the North and its decision to skip planning talks and ignore preparatory phone calls. White House officials have characterized the letter from the president to Kim as a negotiating tactic, designed to bring the North back to the table.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that since the letter, "the North Koreans have been engaging," with the U.S.
"The United States continues to actively prepare for President Trump's expected summit with leader Kim in Singapore," she said in a statement Tuesday.
South Korean media had reported earlier that Kim Yong Chol's name was on the passenger list for a fight Wednesday from Beijing to New York. Kim was seen in the Beijing airport on Tuesday by Associated Press Television. U.S. officials familiar with planning said he was scheduled to meet with Pompeo on Thursday.
"We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea," Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. "Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York. Solid response to my letter, thank you!"
Kim Yong Chol is a former military intelligence chief and now a vice chairman of the North Korean ruling party's central committee. He will be the highest-level North Korean official to travel to the United States since 2000, when late National Defense Commission First Vice Chairman Jo Myong Rok visited Washington, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.
Pompeo has traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, twice in recent weeks for meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and has said there is a "shared understanding" between the two sides about what they hope to achieve.
Meanwhile, a team of American diplomats is holding preparatory discussions with North Korean officials at the DMZ. The group first met with their counterparts Sunday, and was seen leaving a Seoul hotel on Tuesday, but it was unclear whether they went to Panmunjom, a village that straddles the border inside the DMZ. The U.S. officials are led by Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, who formerly was the U.S. ambassador to Seoul and a top negotiator with North Korea in past nuclear talks. It includes senior officials with the National Security Council and the Pentagon.
The White House emphasized that it has remained in close contact with South Korean and Japanese officials as preparations for the talks continue. Sanders said Trump will host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on June 7th to coordinate their thinking ahead of the summit. Trump hosted South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week.
South Korean media also reported that a North Korean delegation arrived in Singapore on Monday night, where other U.S. officials, led by White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, are preparing for the summit.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Washington and Pyongyang were engaging in "working-level" talks to arrange the possible summit, but said it couldn't confirm specifics.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday morning in an appearance on Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends" that the president had "sent over two delegations - one for logistics and one for more diplomatic purposes that are on the ground making the logistic preparations for June 12.
"But, as the president has said," she added, "if it doesn't happen June 12 it could happen thereafter."
Moon, who has lobbied hard for nuclear negotiations between Trump and Kim Jong Un, held a surprise meeting with the North Korean leader Saturday in an effort to keep the summit alive.
In their second meeting in a month, Moon said Kim Jong Un expressed a willingness to cooperate to end confrontation and work toward peace for the sake of a successful summit with Trump. But the North Korean leader also said he was unsure whether he could trust the United States to end hostile policies against North Korea and provide security assurances if the country does abandon its nuclear weapons, according to Moon.
At their first meeting on April 27, Kim Jong Un and Moon announced vague aspirations for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and permanent peace, which Seoul has tried to sell as a meaningful breakthrough that increases the chances of successful talks between Kim and Trump.
Their second meeting came after inter-Korean relations had chilled in recent weeks, with North Korea canceling a high-level meeting with Seoul over South Korea's participation in a two-week military exercise with the United States that ended last week.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.