US Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo made a secret visit to North Korea over the Easter weekend and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, citing two people with direct knowledge of the trip.
Pompeo is currently going through the nomination process at the Senate, and his meeting comes ahead of a summit meant to take place at the end of the year between Trump and the North Korean leader.
Pompeo’s conversations fueled President Donald Trump’s belief that productive negotiations were possible with North Korea, but far from guaranteed, according to the official briefed on the trip, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Trump said earlier on Tuesday the United States was engaged in direct talks at “extremely high levels” with North Korea to try to set up a summit between him and its leader, Kim Jong Un.
Trump sowed some confusion by suggesting he had been speaking to Kim directly, but later clarified by saying: “Let’s leave it a little bit short of the highest level.”
Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders added: “The president said the administration has had talks at the highest levels and added that they were not with him directly.”
Asked about Pompeo, she said: “The administration does not comment on the CIA director’s travel.”
Pompeo’s trip made him the most senior US official to visit North Korea since then-intelligence chief James Clapper in 2014.
The president’s comments came as he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened two days of talks at the president’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Florida.
Reflecting the closeness of their ties, the meetings included a walk around the carefully manicured grounds of the beachfront club and dinner on the patio with their wives. A round of golf was planned for Wednesday.
Trump said he believed there was a lot of goodwill in the diplomatic push with North Korea, but added it was possible the summit - first proposed in March and which the president said could take place in late May or early June - may not happen.
Efforts to arrange an unprecedented meeting between the US and North Korean leaders have helped ease tensions over
Pyongyang’s development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States. Kim has agreed to discuss denuclearization, according to US and South Korean officials.
“We have had direct talks at very high levels - extremely high levels - with North Korea. I really believe there’s a lot of goodwill; a lot of good things are happening.” Trump told reporters.
“As I always say, we’ll see what happens, because ultimately it’s the end result that matters, not the fact that we’re thinking about having a meeting or having a meeting.”
Contacts between the two side in recent weeks have involved US intelligence and State Department officials, a US official told Reuters this month.
Trump, who has exchanged bellicose threats with Kim in the past year, said US officials were looking at five locations for a meeting with Kim. Asked if any of those were in the United States, Trump replied: “No.”
A US official said sites in Southeast Asia and Europe were among those under discussion. Kim has rarely left North Korea.
Speculation has centered on a range of sites including Pyongyang, the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, Stockholm, Geneva and Mongolia.
Talks between Trump and Abe are largely focused on the prospective summit with Kim as Japan seeks a US commitment that any denuclearization deal the president seals with Kim will include not just long-range missiles but those that could be aimed at Japan.
“For the North Korean issue, I’d like to underscore the importance of achieving the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, as well as the abandonment of missile programs of North Korea,” Abe told Trump.
Abe also obtained an agreement from Trump to bring up the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, a highly emotive issue for the Japanese.