Kim Yong Chol, one of the senior most members of the North Korean regime, will be in Washington to conduct high level meetings regarding the upcoming summit between North Korea and the US. The fate of the summit itself is currently unknown as US President Donald Trump cancelled it recently.
The history of North Korea began in 1945, when colonial Japan withdrew from the peninsula and Korea was divided into two halves along the 38th parallel. The relationship between the US and North Korea has always been fractious. During the war between North and South Korea in 1950, US forces successfully intervened on behalf of South Korea. 28,500 American soldiers are stationed in South Korea as part of United States Forces Korea (USFK). Read more on the history of the peninsula here.
The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of concern for the US and the international community for decades. North Korea has remained an isolated nation and its nuclear program has especially been a concern for the international community. In 2017, North Korea has launched 23 missiles in the course of 16 tests. In November 2017, North Korea after seemingly two months of silence, tested its most potent missile yet. The Hwasong-15 missile reached an unprecedented height of almost 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles). The Hwasong-15 is a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile. This represents a serious escalation in the stability of the Korean peninsula.
However, since the beginning of 2018, Pyongyang has indicated that it is willing to re-establish diplomatic ties with the outside world. On April 27th, North and South Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In held a historic summit, the first in over a decade. The two nations announced that they have agreed to end the 60-year Korean War and signed the Panmunjom Declaration which agreed to denuclearise North Korea.
In recent weeks, North Korea has reverted to a more aggressive stance. In May, North Korea cancelled a meeting with South Korean officials after joint military drills between Seoul and Washington. North Korean vice foreign minister Kim Kye-Gwan reacted to comments by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who had said that the United States is looking at a 2004 “Libya model” to denuclearise North Korea. Kim Kye-Gwan said that Pyongyang would “no longer be interested” in dialogue if the US was trying to push for “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”
In May 2018, President Trump announced that the planned summit between the two nations will no longer be taking place. In a letter to the North Korean leader he wrote, “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting… You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
On May 30th, 2018, Kim Yong Chol, a top official in North Korea arrived at Beijing airport on his way to the United States where he is expected to help lay the groundwork for on-again, off-again talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Trump himself confirmed the news of Kim Yong Chol's trip to the US early Tuesday, tweeting: "We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea. 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 will be conducting high level meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
According to experts, Kim Yong Chol is the ultimate insider within the North Korean regime. He has served under three generations of the Kim dynasty and has been a guard at the North Korean portion of the demilitarized zoned. He has also served as a spy for North Korea. “He wears several hats,” said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum thinktank. “He is extremely well versed in denuclearisation matters, and seems to have secured himself a spot in Kim Jong-un’s inner circle.”
“Some people who met him early in his career describe him as brilliant, alert and receptive,” said Robert Carlin, a former CIA expert on North Korea, now at the Centre for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. “Others who dealt with him later in life say he is really stiff-necked who looks down on his interlocutors. Maybe he changes according to who is talking to.”
Our assessment is that the arrival of Kim Yong Chol to Washington underscores North Korea's desire to ensure the talks go ahead and should be viewed positively. His meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be crucial in ensuring whether or not this summit will even take place. In April 2018, news emerged that Pompeo had made a secret visit to North Korea to discuss peace in the Korean peninsula. He will, therefore, will be comfortable conducting these discussions alongside one of North Korea’s senior most members. The upcoming talks will determine just how effective President Trump’s brinkmanship has been.