The State Department normally craves elaborate planning and procedures for everything. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 13-hour visit to North Korea had little of that.
I had a view of the improvisational quality of his trip because, in a tongue-twister of an adventure, I was one of two reporters who traveled with Pompeo to Pyongyang to pick up three prisoners from North Korea and bring them home to the United States.
The degree of uncertainty that hovered over the trip extended to Pompeo himself, just two weeks into his new job as the administration’s top diplomat.
Pompeo said he had no guarantees when he flew in Wednesday morning whether he would be allowed to leave with the three Americans who had been detained for more than a year on charges of espionage and hostile acts. Neither he nor his staff knew whom he would meet with, or when. An Associated Press reporter and I had little advance notice of our departure time or even day, and no promises we’d be able to see much of anything.
In the end, we saw very little, apart from the drive between Pyongyang airport to the hotel where Pompeo and his team holed up. We rarely left the hotel lobby. But we were given a few glimpses of the diplomacy involved in dealing with an enigmatic regime, and by a new secretary trying to bring back a sense of swagger to the State Department.
The invitation to go along came out of the blue and was cloaked in secrecy, despite President Trump’s tweets that something big was coming and Rudolph W. Giuliani’s public assertions that a prisoner release was imminent.
We were called in last Friday afternoon and told to get a new passport with a special permission stamped on one page authorizing a one-time-only visit to a geographically restricted country, a description that fits only North Korea, where the State Department has a travel ban for U.S. citizens. We were instructed to pack a small bag and be ready to depart on a moment’s notice, whenever it might come. And we were ordered to tell no one about it in advance.
“Are we going where I think we’re going?” I asked two officials in a room with the door closed.
They nodded, silently.
Three days later, with four hours’ notice, we were heading to Joint Base Andrews for what would be three legs of grueling flights stretched over almost 24 hours, with refueling stops in Alaska and Japan.
Staffers from the White House, National Security Council and State Department were aboard, and we were told the primary mission was to prepare for a planned summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In a hint of another purpose, other passengers included a physician, a psychiatrist and the assistant secretary of state for consular services, authorized to issue new passports on the spot.
Pompeo came to the back of the plane where the AP reporter, Matthew Lee, and I were seated and spoke generally about summit planning. But his answers were vague when we asked about a prisoner release. He said it would be a “great gesture” if North Korea freed them before the summit, and he would ask them again to “do the right thing.”
With no WiFi access in the air, we couldn’t report it until we landed in Japan for refueling, shortly after Trump already had revealed Pompeo’s trip. We sent a story, and then showered for the first and last time on the three-day trip.
Pompeo’s plane arrived at the eerily empty Pyongyang airport shortly before 8 a.m. on Wednesday local time. After shaking hands with three North Korean officials on the red carpet, Pompeo got into a stretch Mercedes limo, and his staff boarded Mercedes buses. Lee and I were assigned a roomy Chevy van that had blue velour seats and a fancy dashboard adorned with a plaque saying “The American Road.”
The motorcade drove about 15 miles on an otherwise deserted four-lane road to central Pyongyang.
As we drove past fields and villages, men in suits, women in business dresses and schoolchildren in uniforms walked or rode bicycles in narrow lanes on either side. Seemingly unfazed by the motorcade, nobody stared.
We stopped at the Koryo Hotel, a luxurious facility with marble floors and walls. Pompeo and his aides were ushered to rooms on the 38th floor, while Lee and I parked ourselves in the lobby, where we would spend the next 10 hours.
The isolation was confining. Our cellphones wouldn’t work. We had no WiFi. We couldn’t leave the hotel premises without a government minder. In the void, we explored our limited geography: a small grocery and crafts store, a gift shop selling anti-U.S. propaganda postcards (a smashed Statue of Liberty, anyone?) and tables of books said to be written by Kim Jong Un, translated into many languages.
To kill time, we wandered outside, looking at pedestrians who for some reason seemed to be walking at an identical pace. We studied a female traffic cop who directed cars with precision and saluted cars with license plates of the Workers Party. During rush hour, I counted cars — four during one 30-second period.
Periodically, a State Department official came down to update us on what was happening upstairs. Pompeo was meeting a North Korean official to discuss summit preparations. A luncheon was hosted in Pompeo’s honor, and we were led upstairs to hear the toasts. The menu included sturgeon, goose, lobster, steak, pine nut porridge, corn chowder and banana ice cream — so much food in a country the U.S. routinely excoriates for depriving its own people that some Pompeo aides felt guilty eating it.
After the lunch ended, a State Department official told us that Kim Jong Un would meet with Pompeo at 4 p.m., according to the leader’s chief of staff. We couldn’t go.
When Pompeo returned at 5:30 p.m., Lee and I were still waiting in the lobby, and we waylaid him to ask whether he had any expectation of good news. He smiled and crossed his fingers.
The State Department official returned 15 minutes later with news. Two North Korean officials had come to Pompeo to say the government would grant “amnesty” to the three prisoners — “a very difficult decision” — and they would be released at 7 p.m. We watched from the lobby as the physician and consular affairs chief headed out for another hotel to pick them up.
We were instructed to get back in the van. We were going to the airport to wait for them.
We were warned we couldn’t speak to the prisoners once they came aboard to fly to freedom, or even watch from a short distance. Pompeo was adamant that their privacy would not be invaded.
I watched from a plane window when a van pulled up at 8:25 p.m. Under the dark of night, I saw the silhouettes of several men board the plane.
The midsection where the now-former prisoners were sitting was separated from the rear where we were by two curtains. They were draped diagonally between the restrooms on either side, and we were told to use only the one on the right side.
We lifted off about 8:40 p.m., just under an hour after they had been released and officially handed over to the United States.
About 30 minutes before we landed, when we were out of Korean airspace, Pompeo came back to tell us a date and place had been selected for the summit.
We then landed at Yokota Air Base in Japan — again, after Trump had announced Pompeo was bringing the prisoners home.
After the men were transferred out of our plane, we still had a long flight to Alaska for refueling. The two planes left in tandem, and ours arrived about 20 minutes ahead of the smaller plane bringing the freed men home.
We got off and watched from a distance of several hundred feet as Trump, Vice President Pence and their wives welcomed them home. We couldn’t make out anything but the large American flag hanging from two cranes on the tarmac.
One of these days, I will watch clips of their return home and finally see what unfolded before my shielded eyes.