Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, met a top North Korean official on Wednesday evening in New York, as the White House said talks with Pyongyang about a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were “very positive”.

Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, said Mr Pompeo would have dinner with Kim Yong Chol — a close adviser to Kim Jong Un — whose arrival in New York marked the highest level North Korean visit to the US in almost two decades.

US officials are negotiating with North Korean officials in New York, Singapore and the Demilitarised Zone [DMZ] that separates North and South Korea, as both sides try to pave the ground for a historic summit between Mr Trump and Mr Kim on June 12.

Ms Sanders said the US negotiating team in the DMZ which is led by Sung Kim, a veteran diplomat with significant experience dealing with Pyongyang, had held productive talks with their North Korean counterparts. Mr Pompeo was also set to hold meetings with Mr Kim on Thursday following their dinner on Wednesday.

Heather Nauert, state department spokesperson, said Mr Pompeo had dined with Mr Kim, but did not provide any details about the meeting.

The White House has provided no sense of whether Mr Trump is pushing for a big bang deal that would see denuclearisation occur on an accelerated timeframe, or whether he would settle for a more phased approach that is preferred by Pyongyang.

“The conversation is going to be focused on denuclearisation of the [Korean] peninsula,” Ms Sanders said. “That’s what these ongoing conversations taking place now will be centred on, as well as the summit that would take place in Singapore.”

Asked whether Mr Trump would raise the issue of chemical and biological weapons with the North Korean leader, Ms Sanders said the “priority” would be the nuclear issue, but that a number of other topics would also likely be discussed at the summit.

The much-heralded summit was cancelled last week by the US president, but both sides have engaged in a flurry of recent diplomacy to salvage the event.

The challenge facing US diplomats is to ascertain what North Korean means when it says it supports the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang has repeatedly made the vow, although it has never clarified what such a move would entail or what it would seek in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons.

A second major obstacle is verification. The US wants to be able to observe the progress of denuclearisation — a process that would take years to complete given the extensive development of North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea’s unification minister, struck a cautious note on Wednesday, saying: “The differences in stances between North Korea and the US remain quite significant.

“It will not be easy to narrow the gap and find common ground but I think it would not be impossible,” the minister added.

No sitting US president has ever met a leader from North Korea and some experts say Mr Trump is keen to secure a quick deal that will give him a boost ahead of midterm elections in November. North Korea, meanwhile, tends to draw out negotiations and generally seeks rewards for each step completed, analysts say.

Kim Jong Chol is the highest-ranking North Korean to visit the US since Jo Myong Rok, a North Korean vice-marshal, met President Bill Clinton in 2000. The combative general, who served previously as North Korea’s spy chief, is already under Treasury sanctions for his role in Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

However, he is a close aide to leader Kim Jong Un and has the experience and standing to negotiate in detail.

“Mr Kim will probably discuss more complicated things with his counterpart Mr Pompeo than can be discussed at the working level,” said Shin Beom-chul, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo and Bryan Harris on Twitter: @dimi and @bryanhimself





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