Hmm: North Korea envoy lands in Washington while "secret talks" take place in Stockholm

After a few months of relative stasis, engagement with North Korea has shifted into high gear — on two fronts. A top military figure from Pyongyang arrived in Washington last night after a first trip got canceled two months ago. Neither side announced the arrival of General Kim Yong Chol, the first such visit to DC in a generation:

A top North Korean general was paying a rare visit Friday to Washington, where he is expected to meet President Donald Trump to finalize a new summit aimed at denuclearization and easing decades of hostility.

Kim Yong Chol, a right-hand man to leader Kim Jong Un, is the first North Korean dignitary in nearly two decades known to have spent the night in the US capital, little more than a year after Trump was threatening to wipe the totalitarian state off the map.

Kim was supposed to visit in November to meet with Mike Pompeo in New York. That got called off as both governments accused each other of negotiating in bad faith. Kim will meet with Pompeo later today, according to AFP, although privately rather than with the normal pomp of a diplomatic mission.

Presumably this meeting will attempt to plan the next summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, a summit that both leaders have publicly embraced, although it’s almost certainly going to be a venue for pursuing the complete, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear disarmament (CVID) that Pompeo insists must take place before sanctions are lifted.

That brings us to the other development on the other side of the Atlantic. Secret talks have opened in Sweden between US and North Korean delegations, reports the Associated Press, although the topic of the talks has not been disclosed:

Envoys from the United States and North Korea took part in an unannounced high-level meeting in Stockholm on Friday, an official said.

Swedish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Diana Kudhaib said the talks included North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui but declined to give further details. Sweden’s TT news agency said U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun and Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom also were attending.

The Swedish foreign minister cast these as just “talks in a minor format” involving “international experts,” but any contact between the US and North Korea is notable. The AP reminds readers that a similar meeting took place just before the two countries announced the first Trump-Kim summit in March of last year. The juxtaposition of both meetings suggest that some momentum has been regained in the effort to improve relations. Whether that only relates to a second summit or something more substantial is yet to be seen.

At this point, however, it should be more substantial than just another personal meeting. There was some value in holding the first one on its own merits, simply to change the tenor of the relationship. Proper form, however, would have two heads of state meeting only when there is some agreement to conclude in place. It need not be a comprehensive agreement, but a second summit would have to be more than just a social call to be seen as worthy of all the effort it takes to pull one together. A repeat of the first summit would be a disappointment. That may be why we’re seeing action again on parallel tracks — one for the summit, and another for a more substantial achievement than a handshake.

CNN’s Will Ripley reports that Kim Yong Chol will bring a response from Kim Jong-un to a personal note sent by Trump earlier. Will they have an announcement for a summit date and location? Or will there be something more? Yesterday’s assessment of Pyongyang’s missile threat might complicate matters somewhat, Ripley suggests, and he also notes that a summit-only announcement would look “weak” for prospects of a lasting peace.