North Korea's Kim Yong-chol heads to US for talks

image copyrightReuters
image captionGeneral Kim Yong-chol (L) is regularly seen at Kim Jong-un's side

One of North Korea's most senior officials is travelling to New York, as preparations for a planned summit gather pace.

Former intelligence chief Gen Kim Yong-chol is the most senior North Korean official to visit the US since 2000.

US President Donald Trump confirmed the news on Tuesday, saying he had put "a great team together" for the talks.

The proposed meeting with Kim Jong-un was thrown into doubt after Mr Trump announced he was pulling out last week.

But both sides have been working to get the summit - scheduled for 12 June in Singapore - back on track.

It would be the first time a North Korean leader has met a sitting US president.

The introduction of Gen Kim to negotiations is significant, as it underlines North Korea's desire to ensure the talks go ahead.

A former spy chief, he has been part of recent high-profile diplomatic overtures by the North.

South Korean news agency Yonhap had reported earlier on Tuesday that Gen Kim was due to fly to New York on Wednesday, after speaking with Chinese officials in Beijing.

Confirming the news, Mr Trump said that meetings were under way about the summit "and more".

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Who is General Kim Yong-chol?

Gen Kim, 72, is a controversial figure in neighbouring South Korea, and previously served as a negotiator in inter-Korean talks.

image copyrightReuters
image captionGen Kim (R), pictured here behind Ivanka Trump, attended the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics

During his time as a military intelligence head, he was accused of being behind attacks on South Korean targets, including the torpedoing of a South Korea warship which killed 46 seamen, as well as the 2014 hacking of Sony Pictures.

As a result of these incidents, the US imposed personal sanctions on Gen Kim in 2010 and 2015.

Despite reportedly being punished for an "overbearing attitude" in 2016, he has continued to hold senior posts in the army and party, and was the head of North Korea's delegation to the closing ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The influential figure is regularly seen at the North Korean leader's side and has attended meetings with the leaders of China and South Korea, and met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang.

In February, he was sent to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where he sat close to Mr Trump's daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump.

Also on Tuesday, a "pre-advance" team from the US was due to meet North Korean officials in Singapore, US officials said.

It follows a weekend of busy diplomacy, headlined by a surprise meeting between South Korea President Moon and Mr Kim in the border town of Panmunjom. At the meeting the pair agreed that the North Korea-US summit must be held.

The details of the potential US-North Korea meeting remain unclear, but discussions would address Pyongyang's nuclear programme and ways to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Gen Kim's visit to the US will be the most high-profile visit by a member of the North Korean regime since top military official Jo Myong-rok travelled to Washington in 2000, where he met President Bill Clinton and became the first North Korean officer to enter the Pentagon.

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