By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States and North Korea plan to hold high-level talks in Washington this week to discuss a second meeting between their leaders, South Korean media said on Tuesday, as the old enemies seek an “interim” deal to revitalise nuclear talks.
The meeting, led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, is due on Thursday or Friday, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified diplomatic source familiar with the issue.
They are expected to finalise the date and venue of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the newspaper said.
The U.S. embassy in Seoul referred questions to the White House. The White House offered no immediate comment on the Chosun Ilbo report, while a State Department official said: “We don’t have any meetings to announce.”
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified diplomatic source as saying Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol could meet this week.
The North Korean delegation could visit the United States “as soon as this week” but plans have not been finalised, a CNN reporter, citing an unidentified source, said on Twitter.
Trump wrote Kim Jong Un a letter, which was flown to Pyongyang and hand delivered over the weekend, the CNN reporter added, citing the source.
South Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman told reporters the North and the United States were “in contact” but it was “inappropriate” to comment on plans for talks.
A meeting this week could mean the two sides are nearing a compromise after months of standoff over how to move forward in ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Trump and Kim pledged at their first summit, in Singapore in June, to work towards denuclearisation “of the Korean peninsula”. But there has been little significant progress.
Pompeo, who made several trips to Pyongyang last year, sought to meet his counterpart last November, but the talks were called off at the last minute.
Contact was resumed after Kim’s New Year’s speech, in which he said he was willing to meet Trump “at any time,” South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon-je, told reporters last week.
In Seoul, South Korea deleted a description of North Korea as an “enemy” in its defence white paper released on Tuesday, though it said its weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to peace and stability.
The United States and South Korea have been discussing how to respond to any North Korean steps towards denuclearisation, South Korean officials told Reuters.
The United States is considering easing sanctions in exchange for the North’s discarding and sending abroad its intercontinental ballistic missiles, in addition to freezing its nuclear programme, the Chosun Ilbo said, citing its source.
U.S. responses could include exemptions from sanctions for inter-Korean business and opening a liaison office, Seoul officials said.
“Those ideas are being discussed as interim measures, not as an end state, in order to expedite the denuclearisation process, because the North wouldn’t respond to any demand for a declaration of facilities and weapons,” said a senior South Korean official, who declined to be identified.
“The end goal remains unchanged, whether it be complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation, or final, fully verified denuclearisation.”
The official said a Trump and Kim meeting could happen by early March, though added: “No one knows what Trump is thinking.”
Kim reiterated his resolve to meet Trump during a meeting last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump said this month he had received a “great” letter from Kim and would probably meet him again soon.
“At the second summit, they’ll probably focus on reaching a possible interim deal, rather than a comprehensive roadmap for denuclearisation,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith, Wonil Lee in SEOUL and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)