Donald Trump has confirmed that CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a secret visit to North Korea over Easter and met with leader Kim Jong Un to plan a summit with him.
Pompeo’s trip made him the most senior US official ever known to have met with Kim and provided the strongest sign yet of Trump’s willingness to become the first serving US president ever to meet a North Korean leader.
Trump on Wednesday wrote on Twitter that the meeting “went smoothly and a good relationship was formed”, after initially declining to name who had met with Kim.
Pompeo’s conversations fuelled Trump’s belief that productive negotiations were possible with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but far from guaranteed, an unnamed US senior official briefed on the trip told Reuters.
Trump said earlier on Tuesday that the US was engaged in direct talks at “extremely high levels” with North Korea to try to set up a summit between him and Kim.
He later made it clear that he had not met Kim directly, saying: “Let’s leave it a little bit short of the highest level.”
Pompeo’s visit, a second unnamed US official told Reuters, was arranged by South Korean intelligence chief Suh Hoon with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, and was intended to assess whether Kim was prepared to hold serious talks.
Pompeo, one of Trump’s most trusted advisers and his nominee for Secretary of State, returned to report that it was worth continuing to pursue the possibility of a summit, the official said.
He added that no site had been selected from lists of options and no logistical arrangements had been made.
Pompeo told his Senate confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of state this week that he was optimistic a course could be set at a Trump-Kim summit for a diplomatic outcome with North Korea.
However, he added that no one was under any illusion that a comprehensive deal could be reached at that meeting.
Pompeo said the aim of the summit would be “an agreement ... such that the North Korean leadership will step away from its efforts to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons” and that Pyongyang should not expect rewards until it takes irreversible steps.
Pompeo’s trip made him the most senior US official to visit North Korea since then-intelligence chief James Clapper in 2014.
News of the trip came after Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened two days of talks at the president’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Florida.
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 the unprecedented meeting have helped ease tensions over Pyongyang’s development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States. Kim has agreed to discuss denuclearisation, according to US and South Korean officials.
“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.”
Trump, who has been embroiled in heated tit-for-tat exchanges with Kim during the past year, said US officials were looking at five locations for a meeting. Asked if any of those were in America, 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 and the demilitarised zone between the Koreas, Stockholm, Geneva and Mongolia.
Talks between Trump and Abe are largely focused on the prospective summit as Japan seeks a US commitment that any denuclearisation deal with Kim will include not just long-range missiles but those that could be aimed at Japan.
Reflecting the closeness of their ties, the Trump-Abe 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.
“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.
Trump stressed that he and Abe were united.
“Japan and ourselves are locked, and we are very unified on the subject of North Korea,” he said.
Trump said it was possible diplomatic efforts to arrange a Kim summit would fall short and if it did not happen, the US and its allies would maintain pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions.
“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,” he said.
Trump also backed efforts between South Korea and the North aimed at ending a state of war that has existed between the two countries since 1953.
“People don’t realize the Korean War has not ended. It’s going on right now. And they are discussing an end to the war. Subject to a deal, they have my blessing and they do have my blessing to discuss that,” he said.