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story.lead_photo.caption North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in walk together Saturday after their meeting on the north side of Panmunjom in this photo released Sunday by South Korea’s presidential Blue House. The surprise meeting refl ected urgency to maintain diplomacy despite tensions that threatened plans for a summit between Kim and President Donald Trump.

SEOUL -- A team of U.S. officials crossed into North Korea on Sunday for talks to prepare for a summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, as both sides press ahead with arrangements despite the question marks hanging over the meeting.

Trump tweeted that "Our United States team has arrived in North Korea to make arrangements for the Summit between Kim Jong Un and myself. I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day. Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!"

The State Department said earlier that a team was in Panmunjom, which straddles the border inside the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. One can cross the border simply by stepping across a painted line, but moving beyond several footsteps into the North at Panmunjom would be rare for U.S. officials.

"A U.S. delegation is in ongoing talks with North Korean officials at Panmunjom," State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said in a statement. "We continue to prepare for a meeting between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un."

Nauert provided no further details.

Sung Kim, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and former nuclear negotiator with the North, has been called in from his post as envoy to the Philippines to lead the preparations, according to a person familiar with the arrangements.

The talks are focused on what would be the substance of a potential summit between Trump and Kim -- the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Crossing the line that separates the two Koreas, Sung Kim met with Choe Son Hui, the North Korean vice foreign minister, who said last week that Pyongyang was "reconsidering" the talks. The two officials know each other well -- both were part of their respective delegations that negotiated the 2005 denuclearization agreement through the six-party framework.

The talks are expected to continue today and Tuesday at Unification House, the building in the northern part of the demilitarized zone where Kim Jong Un met South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday. That impromptu session was aimed at salvaging the summit that Trump had said he was scuppering just two days earlier.

The South Korean president, who is playing something of a mediator role in the talks, was optimistic afterward. "We two leaders agreed the June 12 North Korea-U.S. summit must be successfully held," he said.

After Saturday's surprise inter-Korean talks, Moon said Kim was still committed to the "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula. But Moon declined to define "complete denuclearization," suggesting that there are still fundamental gaps on the key issue.

The North has previously used the term to demand the United States pull out its 28,500 troops in South Korea and withdraw its so-called nuclear umbrella security commitment to South Korea and Japan. The North hasn't openly repeated those same demands after Kim's sudden outreach to Seoul and Washington.

South Korea is reviewing ways to address North Korea's security concerns, including turning the current armistice into a peace agreement, a senior Moon administration official said on Sunday. Moon reiterated a goal to hold a trilateral summit with both Trump and Kim to officially end the Korean War if their meeting is successful.

The second meeting between Kim and Moon in as many months reflects urgency among both men to maintain momentum for diplomacy. Since taking power last year, Moon has sought to facilitate dialogue between Trump and Kim to avoid the possibility of a devastating military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

ALL A SHOW, RUBIO SAYS

In Washington, lawmakers and former U.S. intelligence officials expressed general support Sunday for proceeding with the summit, but many reacted skeptically to North Korea's suggestion that it is open to discussing denuclearization.

"They're playing a game," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS' Face the Nation. "Kim Jong Un -- these nuclear weapons are something he's psychologically attached to. They are what give him his prestige and importance. ... I'd love to see them denuclearize. I just, I'm not very optimistic about that."

"But he wants to give off this perception that he's this open leader, that he's peaceful, that he's reasonable," Rubio said.

Rubio called Kim's willingness to release U.S. hostages and destroy a nuclear test site "all a show."

James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence and a onetime senior intelligence officer for U.S. forces in South Korea, said he worried that North Korea's idea of "denuclearization" entails scaling back or eliminating U.S. strategic forces in the Pacific.

"When we say 'denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,' this could be a two-way street," Clapper said, also on Face the Nation.

[NUCLEAR NORTH KOREA: Maps, data on country’s nuclear program]

Clapper suggested that a worthy goal for the summit might be to establish a "regular conduit for communication" between the two countries, perhaps including the opening of diplomatic interest sections in both capitals.

"This is not a reward for bad behavior at all," Clapper said. "It's mutually reciprocal and would give us that presence there, more insight and more understanding." From North Korea's point of view, he said, a U.S. presence in the country might give Pyongyang a "sense of security" against a possible U.S. attack.

But Michael Hayden, the CIA director during President George W. Bush's administration, said he worried that Trump might be at a disadvantage in a face-to-face negotiation with Kim.

"I don't know the president has done the kind of homework that would allow him to do this," Hayden said on Fox News Sunday. Hayden said the "real danger" is not the rhetoric and theatrics surrounding the meeting, but rather the substance: "What will happen at this meeting?"

"These folks are not going to get rid of all their nuclear weapons," Hayden said. "And if President Trump's brand -- and that's the right word here, going into this meeting -- demands something like that, this is going to end up in a very bad place."

Most analysts say it is extremely unlikely that North Korea will surrender its nuclear weapons. The United States has been pushing for "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" -- a high bar that would require North Korea to relinquish its entire nuclear program and allow verification by international inspectors.

ADVANCE TEAMS

Given all the ups and downs with the summit, many analysts were relieved to hear that the administration had enlisted Sung Kim to help, especially given the retirement of fellow seasoned diplomat Joseph Yun earlier this year.

"This is a great step," said Vipin Narang, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noting that the summit preparation was best handled by experts behind the scenes rather than in public forums such as Twitter.

"This is how progress is made, and the best chance to have a summit, and one that yields meaningful outcomes," Narang said.

Sung Kim was joined by Allison Hooker, the Korea specialist on the National Security Council, and an official from the Defense Department. Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and one of the officials who accompanied Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang earlier this month, also is in Seoul. However, it could not be immediately confirmed whether he was the Pentagon official involved in Sunday's talks.

Sung Kim, who was born in South Korea and was a key diplomat in the 2005 six-party talks, served as ambassador to South Korea from 2011 to 2014, then became special representative for North Korea policy, a position that Yun later took over and that is now vacant.

His North Korean counterpart, Choe, also has years of experience working on these issues and is well connected within the North Korean hierarchy.

She has also served as a nuclear negotiator and led the division for U.S. affairs in the North Korean Foreign Ministry until being promoted to vice foreign minister this year. The daughter of a former premier, she is also thought to have direct access to Kim.

The April 27 inter-Korean summit, which produced a vague declaration to work toward denuclearization and a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula, was meant to serve as a springboard for talks between U.S. and North Korean leaders.

But the preparations have become increasingly tumultuous as the summit date draws nearer.

After North Korean officials, including Choe, lashed out at Vice President Mike Pence and national security adviser John Bolton, Trump abruptly announced that he was canceling the talks, citing North Korea's "tremendous anger."

But after a statement from North Korea that said Kim still hoped to meet Trump "at any time," the summit appears on again.

The White House has said that preparations will continue while the final decision on whether to proceed with the summit is made.

Trump confirmed Saturday that working-level meetings were continuing.

On a separate but complementary track was the CIA team Pompeo set up last year when he headed the spy agency. And on a third track was a White House logistical group sent to Singapore on Sunday to prepare in case the summit takes place. It was led by Joe Hagin, White House deputy chief of staff for operations.

Hagin's team is organizing logistics with Kim Chang Son, who is effectively the North Korean leader's chief of staff.

Kim Chang Son was in Beijing from Thursday to Saturday, according to Japanese and South Korean media reports, although it was not clear whether his trip was related to the summit preparations.

Information for this article was contributed by Anna Fifield and Joby Warrick of The Washington Post; by Catherine Lucey, Matthew Lee, Hyung-jin Kim, Foster Klug and Kim Tong-hyung of The Associated Press; and by Margaret Talev, Kanga Kong, Mark Niquette, Shinhye Kang and Nafeesa Syeed of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 05/28/2018

Print Headline: U.S. officials visit N. Korea to set up talks

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