U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with a senior North Korean official in New York this week, the White House said Tuesday, as the two sides ramp up preparations for a potential summit between their leaders.
The visit by Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee, raises expectations the June 12 meeting in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will go ahead as initially agreed upon.
Kim, known as the young leader's right hand man, will become the highest North Korean official to visit the U.S. in nearly two decades.
He plans to leave for New York from Beijing later Wednesday (local time), according to diplomatic sources in the Chinese capital.
"Vice Chairman Kim bought a ticket for a flight to New York to depart at 1 p.m. today," a source said.
He arrived in Beijing on Tuesday as there's no direct flight between North Korea and the U.S. amid speculation that he might have met with Chinese officials.
Another source said Kim had planned to make a trip to Washington, D.C., but he changed the destination apparently due to its sensitivity.
In principle, Kim is prohibited from traveling to the U.S. under Washington's sanctions against Pyongyang. The North has a diplomatic mission to the U.N. headquarters in New York, a venue for some previous high-profile meetings between the U.S. and North Korean officials.
In a twitter message, Trump confirmed that Kim is "heading now to New York."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also said in a statement that Pompeo and the North's official will meet "later this week." State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert added the secretary plans to make a two-day trip to New York starting Wednesday.
"Since the President's May 24th letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the North Koreans have been engaging," Sanders said in the statement. "The United States continues to actively prepare for President Trump's expected summit with leader Kim in Singapore."
In the letter, Trump said he was canceling the summit because he felt it was "inappropriate" after the North Korean regime expressed "tremendous anger and open hostility" in recent comments.
Following conciliatory remarks from the North, Trump reversed course and suggested he could still meet with Kim to discuss the dismantlement of the regime's nuclear weapons program.
Washington wants to see quick and "irreversible" denuclearization. But Pyongyang has rejected any "unilateral" dismantlement in an apparent bid to win sanctions relief and security guarantees.
Both sides have been eager to hold the meeting after tensions flared last year over North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.
To reaffirm his commitment to denuclearization and his willingness to meet with Trump, Kim held a surprise second summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the inter-Korean border last Saturday.
U.S. and North Korean officials have been continuing preparations for the possible summit.
On Sunday Sung Kim, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and current ambassador to Malaysia, led a delegation to talks on the substance of the summit with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.
They met inside the Demilitarized Zone on the inter-Korean border, and "plan to have additional meetings this week," Sanders said.
In Singapore, a separate team led by White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin met Tuesday with a North Korean delegation led by Kim Chang-son, a senior official at the State Affairs Commission, to arrange the logistics, sources said.
Kim Yong-chol is the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the U.S., after Jo Myong-rok, a special envoy of then-leader Kim Jong-il, met with Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.
He is under U.S. and South Korean sanctions for his role in various illicit activities linked to Pyongyang, including the 2010 torpedoing of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors.
Kim, who formerly headed the North's reconnaissance bureau, is expected to have been granted a temporary waiver to travel to the U.S. The two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations and therefore no representation in each other's capitals, but North Korea does have a diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York.
That likely contributed to the decision to travel there, in addition to U.S. considerations of the political symbolism of a visit to Washington.
Pompeo and Kim met during the secretary of state's two trips to Pyongyang in April and May. During those visits, Pompeo laid the groundwork for the summit and brought home three American prisoners the North released in a show of good faith.
The vice chairman was earlier spotted in Beijing, where sources said he would meet with Chinese officials at the airport before leaving for New York.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has also been having calls with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts "virtually every day" over the past couple of weeks, including a call with South Korea's National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong earlier in the day, Sanders said.
She added that Trump will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House on June 7 to coordinate steps ahead of the Singapore summit.