WASHINGTON: The top diplomats from the United States and South Korea meet Friday to lay the groundwork for a summit they hope will prove a historic chance to end North Korea's nuclear menace.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to welcome Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to Washington, one month before US President Donald Trump and North Korean autocrat Kim Jong Un are to meet.
Pompeo is himself just back from Pyongyang, after securing the first fruit of the tentative thaw in ties between Washington and Kim's regime -- the return of three American detainees.
Now, he is working with his own diplomats and with regional allies like South Korea to prepare the agenda for the more high-stakes encounter between two unpredictable leaders.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's administration is conducting its own efforts to normalize ties on the divided peninsula and secure lasting peace.
Washington's focus is on disarming Kim's regime, which has recently tested what appear to be missiles capable of carrying his nuclear threat to US cities.
But both Washington and Seoul -- longtime treaty allies -- cooperate closely and also confer with the North's larger neighbour China, which has a stake in the outcome.
"There's a danger here of the peace track moving more quickly than the denuclearization track," warned Abraham Denmark, an Asia expert and former senior US defense official.
"If that happens, it could give North Korea an opportunity to try to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington," said Denmark, now a director at the Wilson Center, a think tank in the US capital.
Pompeo and Kang were due to give a joint news conference at the State Department later Friday.
'Very special moment'
On Thursday, Trump revealed that the first-ever between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader will take place in Singapore on June 12.
The location and date were announced in a presidential tweet just hours after Trump welcomed to the United States three American prisoners released by Pyongyang.
"We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!" Trump wrote.
The talks, which are expected to last a day, are set to focus on North Korea's rapidly advancing nuclear and ballistic weapons programs. "I think it will be a big success," Trump said.
The release of Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul removed one obstacle, providing Trump with evidence that his twin-track policy of engagement and "maximum pressure" is working.
"We're not under any illusions about who these people are. We know who we are dealing with here," said Victoria Coates, of the National Security Council.
"But we got, up front, our people home."
The United States and North Korea are technically still at war -- a stop-gap armistice ended the brutal three-year Korean war in 1953 and around 30,000 American troops remain in neighboring South Korea, which the US supported in the conflict.
Singapore will provide a neutral backdrop for the summit, avoiding some of the security and political challenges of meeting in the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South.
When Trump and Kim do sit down, the two relatively untested leaders will be presented with a puzzle that has stymied seasoned diplomats for decades.
A series of US administrations has sent envoys, both official and unofficial, to Pyongyang in the hope of stopping North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter visited after leaving office. Multiple rounds of non-proliferation talks have taken place, and a deal was even signed in 1994.
But, despite the optimism of that moment, all efforts to limit North Korea's nuclear program have so far failed.
And, more than two decades and multiple provocative weapons tests after the last accord, the threat from Pyongyang has only grown.
So far, the North Korean regime has made vague pledges to "denuclearize" but has not spelled out what that means, when it would happen or how it would be implemented.
In North Korea's bombastic rhetoric, "denuclearization" has, for years, been a byword for US troop withdrawals from South Korea.
Hardliners in the North are believed to see possession of a nuclear weapon as a guarantee against US-led efforts to topple Kim's regime.