South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday a top North Korean official traveled to Beijing, and planned to fly on to New York on Wednesday potentially for talks related to a planned summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.
Multiple media agencies reported seeing Kim Yong Chol, a former military intelligence chief and current vice chairman of North Korea's ruling party, at the Beijing airport. If he does visit the United States, he would be the most senior North Korean official to do so since 2000.
U.S. and North Korean officials met Sunday at the Korean demilitarized zone, and White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin and others from the Trump administration flew to Singapore, the planned site for the summit.
"They traveled to Singapore to focus on logistics preparations," a White House official confirmed to VOA News on Monday.
Ahead of a Trump-Kim summit, the U.S. president plans to hold face-to-face discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
"We agreed to meet before the U.S.-North Korea summit," Abe told reporters in Tokyo following his Monday telephone call with Trump.
In the call, Trump and Abe also "affirmed the shared imperative of achieving the complete and permanent dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and ballistic missile programs," according to a White House statement.
Both Trump and Abe are set to attend the Group of Seven economic summit June 8-9 in Canada, but the two may meet at the White House prior to that, according to officials in Washington and Tokyo.
The two leaders spoke Monday before Trump went to Arlington National Cemetery for a Memorial Day ceremony. There, the president made no reference to the situation on the Korean peninsula in his 22-minute scripted remarks.
Nearly 34,000 Americans died as a result of hostile action in the three-year war on the peninsula. Hostilities ceased in 1953 with an armistice, but no peace treaty has ever been signed.
It is unclear when or where Trump and Abe will meet before the anticipated Singapore summit, which the U.S. president has said in recent days is likely to occur on June 12 after he declared last Thursday that the summit would not be held on that day.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in could also be going to Singapore next month for a three-way summit with his U.S. and North Korean counterparts, a government official in Seoul said on Monday.
After a surprise meeting Saturday between Kim and Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president said the North Korean leader is still committed to the "complete denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula.
The U.S. has called for "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal. North Korea has rejected unilateral disarmament and called for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula without defining what that entails.
"In the North Korean mind, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula means really the abrogation of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, complete expulsion — the eviction of U.S. troops and U.S. military assets — from the Korean peninsula," Tufts University professor Sung Yoon Lee told VOA News.
For Kim, "denuclearization can’t be a one-sided event that he’s giving some stuff up and not getting some comparable U.S. action," according to Bruce Bennett senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation research group.
There could be division under Kim within North Korea’s hierarchy about the diplomatic approach to the Americans, according to Bennett.
"Kim Jong Un has been anxious for a long time, and his father before him, to meet with the U.S. president and develop the appearance for internal political purposes that he’s the peer of the American president. The nuclear weapons give him the feeling that he should be able to do that now," Bennett told VOA.
The North Koreans, after expressing initial enthusiasm about diplomacy with the U.S. earlier this month, did not show up for a preparatory meeting in Singapore, threatened to use nuclear force and referred to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as a "political dummy."
Pence had remarked that North Korea could wind up like Libya — a country mired in chaos since it gave up its nuclear ambitions and saw its longtime dictator killed years later by U.S.-backed rebels.
But North Korean state media subsequently reported on Kim's "fixed will" that a summit with Trump should go ahead.
During Moon and Kim’s second border meeting Saturday, the two leaders exchanged views on how to prepare for the North's possible summit with Trump.
"It was like an ordinary encounter between friends," Moon told reporters. "What's uncertain for Kim is not his intention to denuclearize, but the U.S. stance in hostile relations with North Korea and whether the U.S. can really secure and guarantee his regime.”
VOA's Ira Mellman, Victor Beattie contributed to this report.