WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US Secretary of State nominee and CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a secret visit to North Korea over the Easter weekend and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a senior US official said on Tuesday.
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.
President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the United States is 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 made the comment 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, meetings that are to include a round of golf.
Trump said he believed there was a lot of good will in the diplomatic push, but also said it is 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 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 good will; a lot of good things are happening. We’ll see what happens. 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 said.
Trump did not identify who on the US side was talking to the North Koreans and senior US officials would not comment.
Contacts between the two sides in recent weeks have involved US intelligence and State Department officials, a US official told Reuters this month. The most senior US official known to have visited Pyongyang in recent years was then-US intelligence chief James Clapper in 2014.
Trump, who has exchanged bellicose threats with Kim in the past year, said US officials are looking at five different locations for a meeting with Kim. Asked if any of those were in the United States, Trump said “no”.
A US official said sites in Southeast Asia and in 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.
“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.
Trump said it was possible that diplomatic efforts to arrange a Kim summit will fall short and if it does not happen, the United States and its allies will 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 to end a state of war that has existed between the two countries since 1953.
“They do have my blessing to discuss the end of the war. 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.