WASHINGTON (AP) — CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently traveled to North Korea to meet with leader Kim Jong Un, a highly unusual, secret visit undertaken as the enemy nations prepared for a meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim within the next few months.
Two officials confirmed the trip to The Associated Press on Tuesday. The officials were not authorized to discuss the visit publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Washington Post, which first reported Pompeo's meeting with Kim, said it took place over Easter weekend — just over two weeks ago, shortly after the CIA chief was nominated to become secretary of state.
Trump, who was hosting Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Florida estate, said the U.S. and North Korea were holding direct talks at "extremely high levels" in preparation for a possible summit with Kim. He said five locations were under consideration for the meeting, which was slated to take place by early June.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump and Kim had not spoken directly.
Kim's offer for a summit was initially conveyed to Trump by South Korea last month, and the president shocked many by accepting it. U.S. officials indicated over the past two weeks that North Korea's government had communicated directly with Washington that it was ready to discuss its nuclear weapons program.
It would be the first-ever summit between U.S. and North Korea during more than six decades of hostility since the Korean War. North Korea's nuclear weapons and its capability to deliver them by ballistic missile pose a growing threat to the U.S. mainland.
The U.S. and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations, complicating the arrangements for contacts between the two governments. It is not unprecedented for U.S. intelligence officials to serve as a conduit for communication with Pyongyang.
In 2014, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper secretly visited North Korea to bring back two American detainees.
China, North Korea's closest ally, said it welcomes direct contact and talks between the U.S. and North Korea after news emerged of Pompeo's meeting with Kim.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing Wednesday that Beijing also hopes the two sides will work on a political resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and set up a peace mechanism. The peninsula is technically still in a state of war after fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
At his confirmation hearing last week to become secretary of state, Pompeo played down expectations for a breakthrough deal on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons at the planned Trump-Kim summit, but he said it could lay the groundwork for a comprehensive agreement on denuclearization.
"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," Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
After a year of escalating tensions, when North Korea conducted nuclear and long-range missile tests that drew world condemnation, Kim has pivoted to international outreach.
The young leader met China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing in late March, Kim's first trip abroad since taking power six years ago. He is set to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the demilitarized zone between the rival Koreas on April 27.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington and Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.