A team of US diplomats was seen going through security checks at the military guard point leading to Panmunjeom around 9 a.m. to hold preparatory discussions with North Korean officials for the June 12 summit in Singapore. They were seen coming back to Seoul in the afternoon.
Led by Sung Kim, the US ambassador to the Philippines and former US ambassador to Seoul, the US officials first met their counterparts including Choe Son-hui, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, on Sunday. The meetings did not take place on Monday and Tuesday, local media reported.
At Panmunjeom, the officials were thought to be discussing agenda items -- North Korea’s denuclearization in return for a security assurance from the US -- for the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, while a separate team met in Singapore to work out the logistics.
The working-level discussions are likely to gain traction or even be finalized when Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of North Korea’s Party Central Committee and right-hand man to Kim Jong-un, meets US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York later this week.
North Korean watchers here say that North Korea and the US seem to have reached a broad agreement on the timeline and road map for North Korea’s denuclearization -- North Korea takes steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program in a short, compressed period of time in return for the US taking measures to guarantee the Kim Jong-un regime’s survival.
With much of the information about ongoing discussions at Panmunjeom withheld, what the countries are still working out appears to be the first steps they would take on the path to denuclearization -- how much North Korea proactively dismantles its nuclear weapons programs, and how much rewards the US can grant to the North in return, they say.
“The remaining issue seems to be the measures North Korea and the US will take as the first step. What the US wants from the North as the first step would be ... the North transferring some of its nuclear warheads outside the country, destruction of intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit the US mainland,” said Hong Min, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
North Korea, in return, would demand the US normalize its relations with it, ease sanctions against it and remove it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, which could immediately help the North’s economy.
“I think they might have already agreed to complete North Korea’s denuclearization in stages within two years. The US would want North Korea’s nuclear warheads outside the country, and the North would want sanctions relief in early stages of denuclearization,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“It remains to be seen whether Kim Yong-chol’s trip to the US is to shake up the game as things are not working out, or to finalize details as the countries have reached an agreement.”
With the two countries working to finalize plans for the potential summit, some of the major decisions requiring more authority are expected to be left for senior-level officials -- Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol.
“Kim Yong-chol may be heading to the US to finalize discussions that cannot be done at the working-level talks,” said a diplomatic source with knowledge of dealing with North Koreans.