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.