CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a top-secret visit to North Korea over Easter weekend as an envoy for President Donald Trump to meet with that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, according to two people with direct knowledge of the trip.
The extraordinary meeting between one of Trump’s most trusted emissaries and the authoritarian head of a rogue state was part of an effort to lay the groundwork for direct talks between Trump and Kim about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because of the highly classified nature of the talks.
The clandestine mission, which has not previously been reported, came soon after Pompeo was nominated to be secretary of state.
“I’m optimistic that the United States government can set the conditions for that appropriately so that the president and the North Korean leader can have that conversation will set us down the course of achieving a diplomatic outcome that America so desperately — America and the world so desperately need,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week during his confirmation hearing.
Speaking at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Tuesday, Trump appeared to allude to the extraordinary face-to-face meeting between Kim and Pompeo when he said the United States has had direct talks with North Korea “at very high levels.” The president didn’t elaborate.
Trump said that he would sit down with Kim probably in early June, if not sooner.
Pompeo has taken the lead on the administration’s negotiations with Pyongyang. His meeting with Kim marks the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 2000, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, to discuss strategic issues. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. visited the country in 2014 to secure the release of two American captives and met with a lower-level intelligence official.
The CIA declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment, saying it would not discuss the CIA director’s travels. The North Korean government also declined to comment.
About a week after Pompeo’s trip to North Korea, U.S. officials said that officials there had directly confirmed that Kim was willing to negotiate about potential denuclearization, according to administration officials, a sign that both sides had opened a new communications channel ahead of the summit meeting and that the administration believed North Korea was serious about holding a summit.
“We have had direct talks at very high levels, extremely high levels with North Korea,” Trump said Tuesday during a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago, his winter resort.
Trump did not elaborate. The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, but U.S. diplomats have visited and Washington has used several quiet channels to communicate with Pyongyang.
“North Korea is coming along,” Trump said. “South Korea is meeting and has plans to meet to see if they can end the war, and they have my blessing on that.”
Opening a two-day summit with Abe, Trump took some credit for the rapid developments related to North Korea, whose nuclear and ballistic missile tests his administration has considered the gravest national security threat to the United States.
Trump said that South Korean officials have “been very generous that without us, and without me in particular, I guess, they wouldn’t be discussing anything and the Olympics would have been a failure.” Seoul used the Winter Games, held in Pyeongchang in February, as a vehicle to reopen diplomatic talks with Pyongyang.
North Korea sent athletes and a high-level delegation to the event in a major sign of warming relations with South Korea, a U.S. ally. That has led to a flurry of high-stakes diplomacy in East Asia, in which Trump has seized a leading role.
“There’s a great chance to solve a world problem,” Trump said. “This is not a problem for the United States. This is not a problem for Japan or any other country. This is a problem for the world.”
Hostilities in the Korean War, which involved the United States, ended 65 years ago, but a peace treaty was never signed. A top South Korean official was quoted Tuesday as saying that a formal end to hostilities was on the agenda for the summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in next week in the Demilitarized Zone between the countries.
“They do have my blessing to discuss the end of the war,” Trump said.
Trump’s planned session with Kim, the dynastic leader Trump has mocked as “Little Rocket Man,” comes after the two traded insults and threats last year. Trump vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea if it menaced the United States or its allies, and Kim called Trump senile.
On Tuesday, Trump said the summit with Kim was likely to happen by early June if all goes well. He added a caveat: “It’s possible things won’t go well and we won’t have the meetings and we’ll just continue to go on this very strong path we have taken.”
Trump later said that five locations are under consideration to host the summit and that a decision would come soon. None of the locations was in the United States, Trump said later, in response to a question from a reporter.
Abe appeared delighted with the progress he made with Trump, including a pledge from the U.S. president to raise with Kim the issue of the unresolved cases of at least 13 Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s — an important domestic issue for Abe.
“This reflects your deep understanding for how Japan cares about this abduction issues. I am very grateful for your commitment,” said Abe, who also pressed Trump to maintain “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.
Trump and Abe entered their summit hoping to repair a relationship that has been strained by Trump’s decisions to meet with Kim, which has alarmed Tokyo, and his move to enact steel and aluminum tariffs without granting Japan a waiver.
In a sign that the two leaders were aiming to recreate their early chemistry, Trump said the two would sneak out for a round of golf on Wednesday ahead of additional meetings. The president referred, as he has before, to Mar-a-Lago as the “winter White House.”