A top North Korean nuclear envoy began a new round of talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and could also meet President Donald Trump at the White House on Friday during a visit aimed at clearing the way for a second US-North Korea summit.
The diplomatic encounter with Kim Yong Chol, Pyongyang's lead negotiator with the United States, marked a rare sign of potential movement in a denuclearization effort that has stalled since a landmark meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last year.
Kim Yong Chol and Pompeo, with tight smiles, posed together for photographs at a Washington hotel before heading into the talks that could determine whether the two sides can make headway. There has been no indication of any narrowing of differences over U.S. demands that North Korea abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States or over Pyongyang's demand for a lifting of punishing sanctions.
Hours before Kim Yong Chol's arrival on Thursday, Trump - who declared after the Singapore summit in June that the nuclear threat posed by North Korea was over - unveiled a revamped US missile defense strategy that singled out the country as an ongoing and "extraordinary threat."
Following his meeting with Pompeo, Kim Yong Chol, a hardline former spy chief, could also go to see Trump at the White House, a person familiar with the matter said.
The high-level North Korean visit could yield an announcement of plans for a second summit, which both Trump and Kim have expressed an interested in arranging.
Their first meeting produced a vague commitment by Kim to work towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but he has yet to take what Washington sees as concrete steps in that direction.
Trump looking for policy 'win'?
Pompeo had planned to meet Kim Yong Chol to discuss a second summit last November, but the meeting was postponed at the last moment.
At the start of Friday's talks, Pompeo, joined by Stephen Biegun, US special representative on North Korea, stood alongside Kim Yong Chol at the Dupont Circle Hotel in front of a bookcase with a photo of slain US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. prominently displayed.
The men did not respond to a reporter's shouted question of whether a venue for the next summit had been selected. Communist-ruled Vietnam, which has good relations with both the United States and North Korea, has been widely touted as the most likely site.
On his last visit to Washington, Kim Yong Chol delivered a letter from Kim Jong Un to Trump that helped overcome obstacles ahead of the summit in Singapore.
CNN quoted a source familiar with the US-North Korea talks as saying that Kim Yong Chol would be carrying a new letter for Trump.
US-based analysts said that North Korea, which has developed missiles and nuclear weapons in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, would likely be seeking a clearer message from the Trump administration on any concessions it may be willing to make.
"The North Koreans need a real indication of what the US is willing to put on the table," said Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at 38 North, a Washington-based think tank.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said on Wednesday that if North Korea took concrete steps toward abandoning its weapons programs, Washington could offer a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, humanitarian aid or a permanent channel for bilateral dialogue.
Victor Cha, a former White House adviser on Asia under President George W. Bush, suggested that Trump may be so desperate for a policy "win" that he could be vulnerable to a bad deal with North Korea.
"I worry that the timing works to North Korea's benefit," Cha said, citing pressures on Trump such as the partial U.S. government shutdown and the ongoing investigation into alleged Russian ties to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Earlier this month, Trump defended the stuttering progress on North Korea by saying that Pyongyang had stopped missile and bomb testing and if it had not been for his administration "you'd be having a nice big fat war in Asia."