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N Korea at crossroads

Trump and Kim eye Vietnam summit as preparations intensify

North Korean envoy to meet with Pompeo, and possibly president

Kim Yong Chol, right, who is in charge of North Korea's negotiations with the U.S., flew to Washington from Beijing.   © Kyodo

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- A top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un departed from Beijing on Thursday for a meeting in Washington, where North Korea and the U.S. plan to iron out the time and place of their second bilateral summit.

Vietnam, traditionally friendly with Pyongyang, appears to be the top choice for where Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump would meet. The second summit could be held this March or April in the central Vietnamese city of Danang and be announced as early as Friday, The Washington Post reported.

Hanoi is a strong possibility, a Vietnamese official has told the South's Korean Broadcasting System. The Southeast Asian nation has begun preparations to receive Kim for an official visit, Reuters reported Thursday.

Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the North's ruling Workers' Party of Korea, is expected to arrive in the U.S. on Thursday night with Kim Song Hye, director of the United Front Department's tactical office. They are expected to speak with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel in hopes of reaching a final decision.

Trump reportedly proposed a meeting in Vietnam or Thailand in a recent letter to Kim Jong Un. Kim Yong Chol could visit the White House and hand Trump a response from the North Korean leader during his trip.

Vietnam is one of North Korea's few friends, and its economic success even under Communist Party rule is believed to be an inspiration to Kim Jong Un. Ties suffered after a Vietnamese woman was arrested in connection with the killing of Kim's half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at a Malaysian airport in 2017. But North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited in November 2018 to help smooth things over.

Vietnam may also be looking to advance its own agenda in the South China Sea. Hosting the summit would strengthen its relationship with the U.S., which in turn could steer China away from extreme actions over their maritime disputes.

But little headway has been made on the substance of North Korea's negotiations with the U.S. The countries have not held high-level talks since Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang in October, with Kim Yong Chol backing out at the last moment from a New York meeting in November. Washington continues to demand concrete progress on denuclearization, while North Korea is adamant that sanctions be lifted first.

The two sides also reached an agreement on the time and place before the agenda of their first summit, held last June in Singapore. Trump almost canceled the event in the month leading up to it.

If the countries finalize plans for a second summit this week, Stephen Biegun, U.S. special representative for North Korea, could meet with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui next. Choe reportedly flew out of Beijing to Sweden on Thursday.

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