NEW YORK — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that progress had been made toward salvaging a historic summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course for the world.”
After more than two hours of formal talks with Kim’s right-hand aide, Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol, Pompeo spoke as though the summit Trump canceled last week was likely to be reinstated, though he still framed it as an “expected” first meeting.
“Our two countries face a pivotal moment,” Pompeo told reporters after the unusual sit-down sessions with an official banned from traveling to the United States without a special waiver. It would “be nothing short of tragic to let this opportunity go to waste.”
Kim Yong Chol will travel to Washington on Friday to deliver a “personal letter” from the North Korean leader, Pompeo said, adding that he does not know whether that means a formal announcement is likely that the summit is back on.
“We’ve made real progress in the last 72 hours toward setting the conditions” for a productive summit in Singapore, Pompeo said.
But when asked whether a meeting will happen June 12 as originally planned, Pompeo acknowledged succinctly, “Don’t know.”
Despite the signs of progress in New York, and in separate talks in the demilitarized zone and Singapore, Pompeo struck a note of caution.
“This is going to be a process that will take days and weeks to work our way through,” he said. “This is a difficult, difficult challenge, make no mistake about it. There remains a great deal of work to do.”
The summit would mark an extraordinary turnaround from last year, when Trump vowed to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it threatened the United States with nuclear weapons.
The U.S. goal of talks is that North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons in exchange for what Pompeo called the possibility of a prosperous future. He said the North Korean officials he and other U.S. diplomats are engaging this week are well aware of that demand, although analysts and former diplomats say North Korea is unlikely to eradicate its arsenal.
The State Department had said Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol concluded their meeting at 11:25 a.m., two hours earlier than expected. But Pompeo told reporters that the sessions ran as long as needed to make progress and dismissed the suggestion that the men had hit an impasse.
A State Department official said the schedule change was not the result of a deadlock in efforts to set the agenda for a reinstated summit in Singapore next month, but the official provided no details of what had been accomplished.
Trump canceled the planned summit last week, blaming “hostility” from North Korea, and U.S. officials said Pyongyang had been uncooperative in finalizing the details. A flurry of diplomacy has followed to put the meeting back on track, including the extraordinary scene of the American secretary of state welcoming an accused North Korean spy chief to two days of meetings over tea in a luxury Manhattan apartment.
Pompeo gave no indication of trouble with a short tweet after the talks broke up.
“Substantive talks with the team from #NorthKorea. We discussed our priorities for the potential summit between our leaders,” he wrote.
Kim Yong Chol and Pompeo are the most senior officials managing the diplomacy for both countries and the people who would write the agreed agenda for the meeting. Before the cancellation, U.S. officials were concerned by the lack of specific agreements about what would be discussed.
Pompeo was accompanied by two North Korea experts and an interpreter. Kim Yong Chol and his unidentified aides, two men and a woman, sat facing a curved window with a sweeping view of the East River and Lower Manhattan.
As he departed for Texas on Thursday, Trump told reporters that the first day of meetings with the North Korean delegation in New York had gone “very well.”
Asked whether a deal was taking shape, Trump said that he was not sure but that the negotiations “are in good hands.”
“Hopefully we’ll have a meeting on the 12th,” he said
“It doesn’t mean it all gets done at one meeting,” Trump said, adding that a second or third might be necessary.
The letter from the North Korean leader would be the second that the two have exchanged in as many weeks, after Trump made public the letter scuttling the summit. Kim Jong Un’s letter to Trump would be one way to formally invite a reinstatement of the Singapore meeting, but neither Trump nor Pompeo described its purpose.
Kim Yong Chol will need another U.S. travel exemption to visit Washington. The invitation, especially to the White House, is a symbolic diplomatic coup for Kim Jong Un and an indication that the United States thinks the summit can happen and be productive.
Shortly after his plane arrived in New York, Pompeo tweeted that he was looking forward to meeting with Kim Yong Chol and added, “We are committed to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” U.S. officials have repeated the four elements so frequently that they refer to it casually by the initials CVID.
The State Department official said they were seeking a corresponding commitment and “action” from the North Koreans.
“I think we are looking for something historic,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meetings.
The administration is arguing that if the North Koreans want security, it cannot come from nuclear weapons. Instead, their pitch is that Pyongyang will gain more security by abandoning its nuclear program, allowing it to escape from the yoke of international sanctions and isolation, and concentrate on economic prosperity.
To drive the point home, the State Department released a photo of Pompeo pointing out of the condo’s window to the splendor of the New York skyline, as if to say to the North Koreans by his side that the same kind of wealth could be theirs, too.
Gearan reported from Washington. John Wagner contributed to this report.