SEOUL -- The North Korean official who will lead denuclearization discussions with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks set to emerge from a group of senior diplomats, as talks between the two countries enter a new stage of ironing out technical matters through normal diplomacy.
North Korea said that "a relevant high-level DPRK official" will hold follow-up negotiations with Pompeo after the historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June. Pyongyang left the door open for replacing Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea, who had been a counterpart of Pompeo in preparations for the unprecedented meeting.
"I think it is highly likely that Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho will be a counterpart of Pompeo in their talks in Pyongyang," said Paik Hak-soon, president at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam. This is "because the U.S. and North Korea are developing their normal diplomatic ties since their leaders agreed [on principles]. It is time that diplomacy comes to the front line."
Pompeo is expected to visit Pyongyang on Friday, his third visit to the North Korean capital, after going twice earlier this year to discuss conditions for the summit.
Experts say diplomats will play a more critical role in the new round, during which the U.S. and North Korea will discuss how to dismantle nuclear weapons and facilities as well as how to verify the work has been done.
Ri is a veteran diplomat who has worked on denuclearization issues since the 1990s. He was part of North Korea's negotiation team in the six-party talks in the 2000s where both Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia were involved in attempts to resolve the nuclear crisis. He speaks fluent English, another advantage in negotiations with Pompeo. Ri is also trusted by Kim, and joined his summit with Trump.
Ri Su Yong, vice chairman of the WPK, is another candidate for the job. He negotiated with the U.S. over nuclear issues while serving as foreign minister between 2010 and 2014. He also joined Kim's meeting with Trump.
On Sunday, Sung Kim, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, met with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui at the border village of Panmunjom, coordinating Pompeo's visit to Pyongyang. Sung Kim is a North Korean specialist who had participated in the six-party talks.
Kim and Choe have maintained a working-level channel since May, when they began discussing the summit that took place on June 12. They have known each other since the 2000s, and speak good English and Korean.
John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser, said that the U.S. aims to complete the denuclearization talks in a year, pressuring North Korea to cooperate in the process.
"Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be discussing this with the North Koreans in the near future about really how to dismantle all of their WMD and ballistic missile programs in a year," said Bolton in an interview with CBS on Sunday, referring to weapons of mass destruction and nuclear missile programs.
But some observers say it is Kim's willingness to denuclearize that is critical, no matter who is the key negotiator. They point out that North Korea's dictator makes all final decisions regardless of diplomatic handshakes.
"I don't know whether the counterpart will be Kim Yong Chol or Ri Yong Ho, but one thing clear is that Kim Jong Un's decision is very important in the negotiations," said Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei University. "Kim may resist as much as possible Pompeo's pressure to take actions towards denuclearization. It will take a long time for the negotiations."