US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has travelled to North Korea to finalise plans for a historic summit between President Donald Trump and the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
US officials said Mr Pompeo will also press North Korea for the release of three detained American citizens. Mr Trump has been hinting at their imminent release.
Mr Pompeo discussed the agenda for a potential summit in a meeting with the vice chairman of the central committee of North Korea’s ruling party.
Later, at a lunch of poached fish and duck hosted by Kim Yong Chol, Mr Pompeo said the senior official had been a great partner in working to make the summit a success.
Mr Kim noted the improved relations between the Koreas, as well as the North’s policy to “concentrate all efforts into economic progress” in the country.
“This is not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” he added, citing the will of the Korean people. Mr Trump has said that his pressure tactics brought North Korea to the negotiating table.
The trip, Mr Pompeo’s second to North Korea this year, had not been publicly disclosed when he flew out of Washington under cover of darkness late Monday aboard an Air Force 757.
Mr Trump announced the mission on Tuesday afternoon as he laid out the case for withdrawing from a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, another bitter US adversary.
Minutes later, Mr Pompeo arrived in Japan to refuel before flying on to Pyongyang.
Accompanying him were a handful of senior aides, a security detail and two journalists – one from The Associated Press and one from The Washington Post, both given roughly four hours’ notice of his departure.
When the flight arrived on Wednesday morning in Pyongyang, North Korean officials were on hand to greet Mr Pompeo. A motorcade took Mr Pompeo and his delegation to the Koryo Hotel, the main hotel for foreigners in Pyongyang.
The trip came just days after North Korea expressed displeasure with Washington for comments suggesting that massive US pressure had pushed Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table.
Mr Pompeo, who first travelled to North Korea as CIA chief in early April, is only the second sitting secretary of state to visit the reclusive nation with which the US is still technically at war.
The first was Madeleine Albright, who went in 2000 as part of an unsuccessful bid to arrange a meeting between then-president Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il.
“Plans are being made, relationships are building, hopefully a deal will happen and with the help of China, South Korea and Japan a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everyone,” mr Trump said at the White House as he announced Mr Pompeo’s visit.
News of it did not emerge until just before his Senate confirmation vote less than two weeks ago. Shortly afterwards, the White House released photographs of Mr Pompeo and Mr Kim.
Mr Pompeo told reporters aboard his plane that his first visit was to test North Korea’s seriousness of pledges to South Korea on easing tensions. This trip is “to put in place a framework for a successful summit”, he said.
Although there were no guarantees that the American prisoners would be freed during Mr Pompeo’s visit, US officials said their release would be a significant goodwill gesture ahead of the Trump-Kim summit that is expected later this month or in early June.
“I think it would be a great gesture if they would agree to do so,” Mr Pompeo said, adding that it would be difficult to hold a leaders’ summit if the prisoners remained captive.
The three Korean-Americans – Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim – are all accused by the North of anti-state activities.
Mr Trump has said that a time and place for the summit have been decided, but has not said where and when it will be.
Mr Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang aims to lock down the date and venue for a formal announcement to be made. It came just a day after Mr Kim returned from China, his second trip to the neighbouring country in six weeks to meet with President Xi Jinping.
A Trump-Kim meeting seemed a remote possibility just a few months ago when the two leaders were trading threats and insults over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.
But momentum for diplomacy built this year as North and South Korea have moved to ease tensions, including with their own leaders’ summit late last month.
In March, Mr Trump unexpectedly accepted an offer of talks from Mr Kim after the North Korean dictator agreed to suspend nuclear and missile tests and discuss “denuclearisation”.
According to South Korea, Mr Kim says he is willing to give up his nuclear missiles if the United States commits to a formal end to the Korean War and pledges not to attack the North.