US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea's envoy Kim Yong Chol during their meeting in New York on May 31, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar

Pyongyang’s senior envoy was expected to hand a letter from national leader Kim Jong-un to US President Donald Trump on Friday, while the two Koreas held high-level talks in the Demilitarized Zone.

The parallel developments added to speculation that despite some hiccups, North Korea and the US are inching toward the first-ever summit between their leaders, set for June 12 in Singapore.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a press conference on Thursday that he had held discussions in New York with the envoy, Korea Workers’ Party Central Committee Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol, on “how our countries could come together and take advantage of the unique opportunity that our two leaders have created through their visions of the future that they have so clearly articulated”.

Pompeo also made it clear just how much political capital and diplomatic assets Pyongyang and Washington are each investing to ensure the on-again, off-again summit is successful.

“The proposed summit offers a historic opening for President Trump and Chairman Kim to boldly lead the United States and [North Korea] into a new era of peace, prosperity, and security,” said Pompeo, who has himself met Kim twice in Pyongyang. “Our two countries face a pivotal moment in our relationship in which it could be nothing short of tragic to let this opportunity go to waste.”

‘Our two countries face a pivotal moment in our relationship … it could be nothing short of tragic to let this opportunity go to waste’

Pompeo said his main efforts had been to convince his counterpart  that denuclearization offered a better strategy for North Korean security than arming nuclear weapons. The Secretary of State also said that the US envisions a North Korea that, “…maintains its cultural heritage but is integrated into the community of nations”.

“Cultural heritage” is a possible reference to a continuation of the Kim’s family’s monarchical-style rule, observers noted. Security guarantees have been a key pillar of the regime’s negotiating platform.

Trump said himself in off-the-cuff remarks to reporters that the planned Singapore summit might not be a one-off event – indicating that the President has realized how difficult any kind of Korean denuclearization process is likely to be.

Meanwhile, the two Koreas met Friday at the truce village of Panmunjom for their third set of ministerial-level talks this year. The delegations were headed by South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and his North Korean counterpart, Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea.

The key issues discussed were those previously agreed upon in the declaration that ended the landmark summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim on April 27. According to a report from the joint press corps at Panmunjom, which was picked up by Yonhap newswire, the sides discussed opening a joint liaison office in the city of Kaesong “as soon as possible”.

The delegations also discussed conducting joint research into reconnecting  peninsula road and rail lines

Such an office would function as a de facto communications hub between the two Koreas, which are connected by a hotline, but have no diplomatic relations. Kaesong, an ancient Korean capital just north of the DMZ, was South Korean territory before the Korean War, but ended up in the north after hostilities ceased. And it was the site of the inter-Korean industrial complex, which was shuttered in 2016 amid tensions.

The delegations also discussed conducting joint research into reconnecting peninsula road and rail lines. If and when rail lines are linked, South Korea would be physically connected to the Eurasian land mass, including the Trans-China, Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railways. Delivery times for South Korean exports to Western Europe could be cut by days on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

It was agreed to stage general-level military talks on June 14 and to hold a Red Cross meeting on June 22 to discuss reunions of families separated by the Korean War. The two sides also discussed setting up working-level committees for sporting and reforestation talks.

The Koreas hope to field a joint team for the Asian Games, which start in Indonesia on August 18. Reforestation talks will focus on the north, which was largely denuded by the 1950s following centuries of gathering firewood for underfloor heating systems and widespread logging in the Japanese colonial era. South Korea suffered the same fate, but has progressively reforested since the 1960s.

While commercial activities are hampered by economic sanctions on North Korea, transport infrastructure, sporting and reforestation efforts are not subject to UN Security Council resolutions.