U.S. 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 U.S. 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."
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Asked about Pompeo, she said: "The administration does not comment on the CIA director's travel."
Pompeo's trip made him the most senior U.S. official to visit North Korea since then-intelligence chief James Clapper in 2014.
The president's comments came 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.
Reflecting the closeness of their ties, the 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.
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 an unprecedented meeting between the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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."
Contacts between the two sides in recent weeks have involved U.S. intelligence and State Department officials, a U.S. official told Reuters this month.
Trump, who has exchanged bellicose threats with Kim in the past year, said U.S. officials were looking at five locations for a meeting with Kim. Asked if any of those were in the United States, Trump replied: "No."
A U.S. 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, the demilitarized zone between the Koreas, Stockholm, Geneva and Mongolia.
Talks between Trump and Abe are largely focused on the prospective summit with Kim as Japan seeks a U.S. commitment that any denuclearization deal the president seals with Kim will include not just long-range missiles but those that could be aimed at Japan.
"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.
'It's possible things won't go so well'
Trump stressed that the two sides in this week's talks were unified.
"Japan and ourselves are locked, and we are very unified on the subject of North Korea," he said.
Trump said it was possible that diplomatic efforts to arrange a Kim summit would fall short and if it does not happen, the United States 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.
"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.
Trump and Abe could use a successful summit to give themselves a political boost at home. Trump has been hounded by controversies linked to an investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and Abe is struggling with declining popularity because of scandals over suspected cronyism.
Trump has forged close ties with Abe during his 15 months in power and the two have bonded over rounds of golf during Abe's last visit to Florida more than a year ago and Trump's visit to Tokyo last November.
Japan fears Trump will try to link vital security matters with touchy trade topics. Tokyo is eager to avoid being pushed into talks on a two-way free trade agreement aimed not only at market access but at currency policies, something South Korea recently accepted when it renegotiated a trade deal with the United States.
Another irritant on trade is that Japan has not been given an exemption to tariffs on steel and aluminum exports to the United States, unlike the European Union, Canada and Mexico.