CIA director Mike Pompeo has visited North Korea in a top secret mission, forming a “good relationship” with Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un, President Donald Trump has said, calling Mr Pompeo ”extraordinary”.
In an early morning tweet, Mr Trump said that the meeting between his pick to become secretary of state and Mr Kim went “very smoothly” and that the details of a possible a summit between the president and the North Korean leader – expected in early June or possibly sooner – are “being worked out now”.
Mr Trump did not give further details of the talks, but they are believed to have taken place over Easter weekend, so it is unclear why Mr Trump tweeted a reference to “last week” in relation to the meeting.
During a working lunch meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Wednesday, Mr Trump said of Mr Pompeo: “He just left Noth Korea, had a great meeting with Kim Jong Un and got along with him really well, really great… He is that kind of guy, he is really smart but he gets along with people”.
While the president has been keen to push his diplomatic savvy over his push for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme, the news that Mr Pompeo acted as Mr Trump’s envoy will not please some in Congress, with Mr Pompeo not yet confirmed to become the US’s top diplomat.
At the working lunch, Mr Trump said that he believes Mr Pompeo is “going to come through” the nomination process and become one of the “great Secretary of States”.
The chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Wednesday that he did not expect Mr Pompeo’s meeting to affect votes in the Senate on his nomination to be secretary of state.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, who “avidly” supports Mr Pompeo’s nomination, said the US “have kept back channels to North Korea through intelligence” that have existed for “years”.
“I like the fact that Pompeo met with him,” Mr Corker told reporters at a breakfast event, adding, “I hope that a lot of other people will be doing the same thing. I thought it was a good thing.”
However, Mr Pompeo faces some difficulties in getting the 51 votes he needs in the Senate to be confirmed, which could bring some embarrassment for Mr Trump given the key role he is playing over the North Korea meeting.
At least one Republican, Senator Rand Paul, has said he will not vote for Mr Pompeo, meaning that the CIA director may be relying on votes from Democrats. No Democrats in the Senate have yet to come out in support of Mr Pompeo, with the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee saying on Wednesday he opposed Mr Pompeo’s nomination as the Trump administration, and the CIA director in particular lacked a strategic vision on US foreign policy.
Putting his confirmation aside, Mr Pompeo is clearly key to Mr Trump’s plans over North Korea, having become the most senior US official known to have met Mr Kim.
The meeting is also a sign of how seriously Mr Trump is taking the offer of a meeting. The president said on Tuesday that five sites are under consideration for the meeting, none in the US.
Mr Trump had also hinted at Mr Pompeo’s meeting on Tuesday. “We have had direct talks at very high levels, extremely high levels with North Korea,” Mr Trump.
After months of threatening rhetoric between Mr Trump and North Korea’s leadership during 2017 – as Pyongyang pushed forward with numerous nuclear and missile tests – 2018 has instead seen rapid diplomatic movements. While Mr Trump has not taken the oft-used threat of military action off the table if North Korea does not pull back on its nuclear programme, he tweeted on Wednesday that “Denuclearisation will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!”
Mr Trump said the summit with Kim is likely to happen by early June if all goes well. But he added: “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.”
At a Senate hearing last week on his nomination, Mr Pompeo played down expectations for a breakthrough deal on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme at the planned summit, but said it could lay the groundwork for a comprehensive agreement on denuclearisation.
“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 and will set us down the course of achieving a diplomatic outcome that America and the world so desperately need,” Mr Pompeo said.
Mr Trump has also said he has given his “blessing” to planned discussions between South Korea and North Korea about bringing a formal end to the Korean War, ahead of a summit between the two nations on 27 April. The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a full peace .
“As one of the plans, we are looking at a possibility of shifting the Korean peninsula’s armistice to a peace regime,” a top South Korean presidential official told reporters in Seoul when asked about the North-South summit.
“But that’s not a matter than can be resolved between the two Koreas alone. It requires close consultations with other concerned nations, as well as North Korea,” the official said.
The developments over North Korea come as Mr Abe and Mr Trump continued talks in Florida that began on Tuesday. The two major topics are Pyongyang and trade between the two nations, with Mr Abe under pressure given that both the US and South Korea are pushing ahead with separate summits, leaving Mr Abe behind slightly.
Given the close relationship Mr Abe has pushed with Mr Trump – meeting with him more than almost any other world leader – and given a number of issues at home, the Japanese prime minister will want to look deeply involved with any North Korea developments.
On Tuesday, Mr Abe received a verbal pledge from Mr Trump to raise with Mr Kim the issue of the unresolved cases of at least 13 Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s – an issue which holds much emotional weight in Japan and something to can back as a “win”.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump said the relationship with Japan “is a very good one” but he was looking to create a more “reciprocal” trade relationship with the country.
Mr Trump is faces walking a difficult tightrope as the possible meeting with Mr Kim draws nearer, not just over relations with Pyongyang, but his regional allies too.