North Korea nuclear talks get underway

Kim Yong Chol is due to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss whether to go ahead with an unprecedented meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim.

Kim Yong Chol would be the most senior North Korean emissary to meet with a top U.S. official since Vice Chairman Jo Myong-rok's 2000 White House visit with President Bill Clinton.

North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol (C), departs from a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in NY, U.S., May 30, 2018.

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Their talks will be aimed at determining whether a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un, originally scheduled for June 12 but later canceled by Trump, can be restored, USA officials have said. In a letter to Kim last week, Trump had abruptly called off their meeting, citing escalating rhetoric from North Korea.

Trump has sworn not to allow North Korea to develop nuclear missiles that could hit the United States and wants North Korea to "denuclearize", or get rid of its nuclear arms. "We are committed to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula", wrote Pompeo. But there are lingering doubts on whether Kim will ever fully relinquish his nuclear arsenal, which he may see as his only guarantee of survival in a region surrounded by enemies.

Early Tuesday the president tweeted that he had received a "solid response" from representatives of North Korea following his letter cancelling the June summit. That was a shift from last week when Trump announced in an open letter to Kim Jong-un that he had made a decision to "terminate" the summit following a provocative statement from the North.

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Reporting from New York City, Al Jazeera's James Bays said there is still a "substantial gap" between United States and North Korean positions on the issue of denuclearisation.

Kim Yong Chol, a top aide to Kim and the regime's former spy chief, left Beijing on Wednesday with his five-member entourage heading for New York, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

Kim Yong-chol - a vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea who has the rank of general - is the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit the United States in nearly two decades.

He has played a central role in the recent thaw in relations between the North and South Korea, as well as the United States.

But Trump later said he was reconsidering his position and U.S., North Korean and South Korean officials have gone ahead with summit preparations.

Pictures showed them shaking hands and embracing on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two nations. Trump's letter, the aides said, was created to pressure the North on the worldwide stage for appearing to have cold feet. The two have planned a "day full of meetings" on Thursday, according to the White House. The last official of his stature to visit the US was Jo Myong-rok, the late first vice chairman of the National Defence Commission, who visited Washington in 2000, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.

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