US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has arrived in North Korea to finalise details of a historic summit planned between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Mr Trump announced the mission in Washington on Tuesday just minutes before Mr Pompeo arrived in Japan to refuel before flying on to Pyongyang, and as the president declared he was withdrawing from a landmark nuclear deal with another bitter US adversary, Iran.
US officials say Mr Pompeo will also press North Korea for the release of three detained American citizens, whose imminent release Mr Trump has been hinting at.
His trip comes just days after North Korea expressed displeasure with Washington for comments suggesting that massive US pressure had pushed Mr Kim 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 it is still technically at war.
The first was Madeleine Albright in 2000 who went as part of an unsuccessful bid to arrange a meeting between then-President Bill Clinton and Mr Kim’s father Mr Kim Jong Il.
“At this very moment, Secretary Pompeo is on his way to North Korea in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un,” Mr Trump said at the White House.
“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,” he said.
Mr Pompeo flew out of Washington under cover of darkness late on Monday aboard an Air Force 757 accompanied by a handful of senior aides, a security detail and two journalists: one from The Associated Press and one from The Washington Post, who were given roughly four hours’ notice of his departure.
The flight arrived on Wednesday morning and North Korean officials were on hand to greet the American diplomat.
Mr Pompeo’s first trip to Pyongyang over Easter weekend before he was confirmed as secretary of state was a closely held secret.
News of it did not emerge just before his Senate confirmation vote less than two weeks ago. Shortly afterwards, the White House released photographs of Mr Pompeo and Mr Kim posing for cameras.
It was not clear if Mr Kim would meet Mr Pompeo on Wednesday.
Mr Pompeo told reporters aboard his plane that his first visit was to test the North Korean’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 significant goodwill gesture ahead of the Mr Trump-Mr 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 — Mr Kim Dong Chul, Mr Kim Hak Song and Tony Mr 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-Mr 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 nukes if the United States commits to a formal end to the Korean War and pledges not to attack the North.
Mr Kim was quoted as saying on Monday by China’s official news agency Xinhua: “I hope to build mutual trust with the US through dialogue.”
He added that a political resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and denuclearisation should proceed in stages, with all sides moving in concert.
But his exact demands for relinquishing weapons that his nation spent decades building remain unclear. Previous US efforts to negotiate an end to the North’s nuclear weapons program failed under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
Mr Pompeo and officials travelling with him said the Mr Trump administration would not repeat mistakes of the past, which they described as accepting gradual, incremental and long-term disarmament in exchange for immediate benefits.
One senior official said Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo were looking for “a bold approach” that would fundamentally alter the security situation.
“We are not going to head back down the path that we headed down before,” Mr Pompeo said.
“We will not relieve sanctions until such time as we have achieved our objectives. We’re not going to do this in small increments where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure.”