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Top North Korean Official Heads To U.S. To Discuss Possible Summit

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A top North Korean official arrives in the United States today to discuss the possible summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The official is Kim Yong Chol. He's a former intelligence chief, and he's thought to be the North Korean dictator's right-hand man. He's also widely believed to be behind the 2010 sinking of a South Korean Navy vessel in which 46 people were killed. Sue Mi Terry was a senior analyst on Korean issues at the CIA, and she joins me on the line. Welcome to the program.

SUE MI TERRY: Thank you for having me on.

GREENE: So you were inside the CIA dealing with North Korean issues. Can I assume that Kim Yong Chol was someone you were familiar with and tracked?

TERRY: Yes. I mean, he's been around for many, many years. He's served Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un. And obviously he's somebody who Kim Jong Un trusts very much. When Kim Jong Un came into power, he purged hundreds of people, but Kim Yong Chol survived. Not only did he survive, he's top adviser to Kim Jong Un.

GREENE: What can you tell us about this guy? What should we know?

TERRY: Well, as you mentioned earlier, he is someone who was responsible for, where he was a mastermind behind the 2010 Cheonan sinking, the South Korean vessel, that killed 46 sailors. He was a mastermind behind Yeonpyeongdo, the South Korean island shelling, and also even Sony hacking. So he is somebody who could be very ruthless but very, very smart and obviously has trust of the Leader Kim Jong Un.

GREENE: So I know for many of the reasons you're describing, he's under U.S. sanctions specifically. Does that mean there was maybe a debate or some bureaucratic stuff that the administration had to go through to get him to even be able to enter the country?

TERRY: And I think that's why he's actually in New York rather than Washington, D.C. But clearly he's the one that we need to deal with because it's Kim Jong Un and Kim Yong Chol who's making all the decisions. And he is, he was, Mike Pompeo's counterpart. He's the person that Pompeo, Secretary Pompeo has been dealing with. So if you want to get to the bottom of what does North Korea really intend when Kim Jong Un sits down with Trump, we need to sit down and have a conversation with Kim Yong Chol.

GREENE: OK. So you're saying, though, that he is in New York and not Washington. Is that because the United Nations is in New York and it's easier to bring someone who's under sanctions into that city? It would take a lot more bureaucratic work to get him down to Washington?

TERRY: I mean, I assume that is why he's flying into New York or he's coming to New York versus Washington, D.C. Last time a high-level North Korean official came, he came to Washington, D.C., in 2000, Jo Myong Rok, and met with Bill Clinton. So why does Kim Yong Chol, why does he have to go to New York and not Washington, D.C., this is only my assumption.

GREENE: So it sounds like from what you're saying that the goal for the United States here is to get as close to Kim Jong Un as possible and to find someone who can give a real sense for what President Trump would be dealing with if that face-to-face meeting happens. Is that right?

TERRY: I think that's absolutely right. I think there's no other person that we can talk to right now that really can speak for Kim Jong Un. Maybe his sister can. But obviously Kim Yong Chol is somebody that has, again, trust of Kim Jong Un and can speak and negotiate on behalf of Kim Jong Un.

GREENE: Is it interesting that members of the intelligence community are so involved here? I mean, on the U.S. side, it was Mike Pompeo, who, you know, is now secretary of state obviously, but he was CIA director when he went to North Korea. Now you have a military intelligence official being tasked with coming to New York. Why would members of the intelligence community be playing such a role here?

TERRY: I think it's because Pompeo, when he was director of CIA, just happened to have just played that role under President Trump. And Trump also trusts Pompeo. So he just happened to be a CIA, and he's the one who sort of started this discussion. And it's interesting that it's all intelligence services from three countries, not only in North Korea but also in South Korea, too. Suh Hoon, who is a director of the National Intelligence Service, is also involved in a lot of these discussions. So it is noteworthy that in all three countries intelligence service is involved because CIA usually does not play a role in diplomacy and this kind of discussion.

GREENE: What might that tell us about this summit?

TERRY: Well, I do think, though, that, you know, I do have faith in my former colleagues at CIA. These guys know North Korea inside out. They have very clear-eyed view of North Korea in perspective. So I do think that if this summit does take place, it's unusual, but I do have confidence that it's people who know about North Korea, they are sitting down with each other and having this discussion.

GREENE: So this might be the administration saying, our best hope to really make sure we have covered all of our bases here is to use the CIA and intelligence officials, who know everything there is possibly to know about this country.

TERRY: Well, we've tried everything else before. We tried normal (laughter) channels. This is 25 years of dealing with North Korea. We had many, six party talks and diplomacy done with the State Department. And so I think, you know, we'll just try this. We're now having the meeting at the highest level. So we'll see what happens.

GREENE: Sue Mi Terry is a former CIA analyst. She currently works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Thanks a lot.

TERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.