CIA director Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang for a secret meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to multiple media reports.
The meeting to prepare for direct talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim took place over Easter weekend, according to unnamed officials reported by several news outlets.
Earlier Trump acknowledged the U.S. had held direct talks at high levels.
During a walk with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and their spouses on the grounds of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, the president was asked by a reporter if he had talked with Kim. Trump turned towards the group of journalists, smiled and replied, “yes.”
A few minutes later, at the start of dinner with the Japanese couple, the president was again asked the same question.
“Let’s leave it a little bit short of that. But we’ve had talks at the highest level,” Trump replied. “And it’s going very well. We’ll see what happens.”
Not with Kim ‘directly’
Within minutes, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also knocked down any confirmation of direct communication between Kim and the president or his top officials.
“In regards to talks with Leader Kim Jong Un: The President said the administration has had talks at the highest levels and added that they were not with him directly,” Huckabee Sanders said in a comment emailed to reporters.
Praise from Abe
Earlier in the day at Mar-a-Lago, Abe praised Trump for agreeing to hold a summit with Kim, saying the move took “courage.”
Trump said the meeting “will be taking place probably in early June or a little before that, assuming things go well. It’s possible things won’t go well, and we won’t have the meetings, and we’ll just continue to go along this very strong path that we’ve taken.”
Shortly afterward, in an extended bilateral meeting, Trump revealed that in preparation for the summit, “we have also started talking directly to North Korea. We have had direct talks at extremely high levels.” But that response did not mention Kim by name.
The president said of the North Koreans that “they do respect us, we are respectful of them.”
Trump also said Seoul had his blessing to try to negotiate with Pyongyang on ending the Korean War.
“They do have my blessing to end the war,” Trump told reporters as he sat next to Abe at the start of their meeting Tuesday. “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.”
Fighting ended with armistice
Active combat in the war ended in 1953 with an armistice signed by the United States (which commanded U.N. forces), North Korea and China. South Korea was not a signatory, and the two Koreas have never established diplomatic relations.
Abe expressed relief that Trump had pledged to address with Kim issues of concern to Tokyo, including abductions of Japanese citizens over the decades. He praised the U.S. president for maintaining a tough stance toward Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.
“Donald, you demonstrated your unwavering determination in addressing the challenge of North Korea,” the Japanese prime minister told Trump.
According to Larry Kudlow, assistant to the U.S. president for economic policy, “a lot of key issues are on the line” during the two days of talks between Trump and Abe.
The discussions Tuesday at Mar-a-Lago focused on North Korea, and they will turn to trade issues Wednesday, according to White House officials.
“We’re certainly going to be taking into account the full range of threats North Korea poses to regional security,” said Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council.
Japanese officials also want to avoid having Trump try to link any trade negotiations to security matters, a separation strictly maintained during decades of post-World War II diplomacy between the former enemies. But Trump has frequently stated that military allies, such as Japan and South Korea, should pay more for American forces defending them.
“I don’t think Prime Minister Abe will leave Mar-a-Lago with anything other than a high degree of confidence in the alliance,” Pottinger said.
There is disappointment in Japan that despite the close relationship between Trump and Abe, the U.S. government has not exempted Tokyo from tariffs placed on steel and aluminum imports.
“It will be under discussion,” Kudlow told reporters. “It’s a key point on the agenda.”
On a related topic, “the United States would probably like to see a free-trade agreement [with Japan] come out at some point,” Kudlow told reporters before Trump and Abe met.
The economic adviser also said that “there’s nothing at all concrete” yet on the United States returning to what was the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“It will come up in the summit, no question about it,” added Kudlow, in reference to the TPP, from which Trump withdrew shortly after becoming president.
Kudlow, a conservative economic commentator who recently joined the Trump administration, also denied any linkage between TPP and China trade issues. But he said a global “trade coalition of the willing needs to be formed as a bulwark against Beijing.”
China, added Kudlow, “really needs to play by the rules, or there will be consequences.”
One unscheduled item appears to have been added to the Trump-Abe agenda: “We’re going to sneak out tomorrow and play a round of golf if possible,” the president told reporters Tuesday afternoon.