SEOUL, South Korea — The top nuclear weapons negotiator for Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday amid reports that he may travel to the United States to finalize a plan for a summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Trump.
Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party and the country’s former intelligence chief, was spotted at the Beijing airport after arriving from North Korea on Tuesday, according to video footage released by The Associated Press.
The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the negotiator had a seat booked on a flight bound for New York on Wednesday and that he was likely to meet Chinese officials on Tuesday. The South Korean government said it could not confirm the Yonhap report.
If he travels to the United States, Kim Yong-chol will be the most senior North Korean official to visit the country since Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok met President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.
Vice Marshal Jo was sent by the North’s leader at the time, Kim Jong-il — the current leader’s father — to ask Mr. Clinton to visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Mr. Clinton decided he could not attempt so bold a diplomatic move at the end of his time in office, and instead sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.
Over the past few months, the United States and North Korea have come closer than ever to holding the first summit meeting of the country’s leaders. In March, Mr. Trump surprised many people when he accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation to meet, which was relayed through South Korean envoys. But last Thursday, Mr. Trump abruptly canceled the meeting, which had been slated for June 12 in Singapore.
He then changed course again on Friday, saying that the meeting might indeed take place as scheduled. Officials from the United States and North Korea have since started a whirlwind of working-level diplomacy on the border between North and South Korea and in Singapore to try to narrow a gap over how to denuclearize the North and salvage the planned meeting.
Kim Yong-chol has served as Kim Jong-un’s main aide during a dizzying array of recent diplomatic overtures. The negotiator sat next to the North Korean leader when he met with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and President Xi Jinping of China in recent months.
He has also been North Korea’s main interlocutor when the United States’ secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, visited Pyongyang twice in the last two months to help arrange the Kim-Trump summit meeting.
Kim Yong-chol, a former head of the North’s main intelligence agency, the General Reconnaissance Bureau, has been on sanctions lists, both in South Korea and the United States, for his alleged roles in the North’s military provocations and nuclear weapons development in recent years. But the sanctions do not ban his travel abroad.