Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha left for Washington on Thursday to meet US officials for discussions on North Korean issues as Washington and Pyongyang prepare for a historic summit in May.
Kang plans to meet acting Secretary of State John Sullivan, Ivanka Trump, senior adviser to her father President Donald Trump, and key congressional leaders including Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, in Washington, according to the Foreign Ministry.
They are expected to discuss recent developments on the Korean Peninsula and details of upcoming summits of their respective presidents -- Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump -- with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“I think South Korea should maintain close coordination with the US at various levels (to prepare for) critical diplomatic events,” she told reporters at the Incheon Airport before leaving for the US.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha speaks to reporters at Incheon Airport before leaving for the US. (Yonhap)
Her visit takes place amid concerns that the sudden departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could undermine coordination between Seoul and Washington at a time when their leaders are preparing to negotiate with the North Korean leader.
Trump sacked Tillerson and named Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as his top diplomat Monday. Tillerson and Kang were scheduled to meet Friday. Kang is unlikely to meet Pompeo, according to the ministry.
“We will make sure that close communication continues and that is the key purpose of this trip,” Kang said, dismissing the concerns.
Trump accepted Kim‘s invitation last week to meet for talks on denuclearization by May, an unexpected breakthrough that could possibly resolve the nuclear deadlock on the Korean Peninsula.
Separately, Moon also plans to meet Kim in late April to discuss ways to achieve denuclearization and improve inter-Korean ties, setting the stage for the Trump-Kim summit meeting in May.
Preparations for US-North Korea appear to be underway in both countries.
A working group led by Pompeo is reported to have been set up to prepare for the unprecedented summit.
However, there are speculations that critical elements of the summit planning could be delayed until the Senate confirms Pompeo’s appointment, according to media reports. Pompeo will not be able to establish contact with his soon-to-be South Korean counterpart Kang and his North Korean counterpart until the Senate approves his nomination -- a process that could take several weeks.
With Pompeo’s nomination process underway, several key posts related to Korean affairs remain vacant. There is neither a US ambassador to South Korea nor a State Department special representative for North Korea policy. The nomination of Susan Thornton as assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs has yet to be confirmed.
Meanwhile, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho was seen at the Beijing international airport on Thursday. While he was said to be on his way to Sweden for a foreign ministerial meeting, there are speculations that he is seeking to contact US officials in Sweden ahead of a planned summit between the two countries.
The Unification and Foreign ministries did not confirm the speculation.
Sweden’s embassy in Pyongyang represents US diplomatic interests in North Korea in the absence of US diplomatic relations with the country, and it has been frequently used as an unofficial communication channel between the two countries.