PYONGYANG, North Korea — If North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, the country can “have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told senior North Korean officials upon his arrival in Pyongyang Wednesday.
Pompeo is in the North Korean capital to discuss the details for the proposed summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump and to try to secure the release of three American men detained here for more than a year.
“For decades, we have been adversaries,” Pompeo told Kim Yong Chol, a man sanctioned by the United States for his involvement with the North’s nuclear program but who has emerged as one of the regime’s key interlocutors to the outside world.
“Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict, take away threats to the world and make your country have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve,” Pompeo said before lunch at the Koryo Hotel, a large, double-towered building in central Pyongyang.
“There are many challenges along the way. But you have been a great partner in working to make sure our two leaders will have a summit that is successful,” the new secretary of state said.
When Pompeo touched down in Pyongyang shortly before 8 a.m. local time, he was greeted by Kim Yong Chol, a former North Korean intelligence chief, and Ri Su Yong, the influential former foreign minister. Ri is close to Kim Jong Un, having served as ambassador to Switzerland while the young leader attended school there.
Kim Yong Chol, who is in charge of relations with South Korea, and Ri, responsible for international relations, had just returned from the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, where Kim Jong Un held talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping, their second meeting in to China in only 40 days.
Both also attended the inter-Korean summit with South Korean president Moon Jae-in late last month.
On the way to North Korea, Pompeo said he did not know if he would see Kim Jong Un, whom he met several times during a secret trip to Pyongyang over Easter weekend to start preparing for the proposed summit. If it takes place, it will be the first time a sitting American president and a leader of North Korea have met.
[Pompeo arrives in North Korea as anticipation builds over Trump’s summit with Kim ]
Pompeo and Kim Jong Chol met behind closed doors at the Koryo Hotel for about an hour Wednesday morning, before lunch in a 39th floor function complete with poached fish and duck, and red wine.
Kim Yong Chol was in an effusive mood, telling Pompeo and the dozen or so staffers traveling with him that this was a good time to be in Pyongyang because it was spring time and a good atmosphere had been established between North and South. This echoed remarks that both Korean leaders had been making about a new spring arriving on the peninsula.
“So everything is going well in Pyongyang now,” he said, adding that from now on, North Korea would be concentrating all its efforts “into the economic progress of our country.”
“This is not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” Kim Yong Chol told Pompeo, contradicting the administration’s line that Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach had brought North Korea to the negotiating table.
“I hope the United States also will be happy with our success. I have high expectations the U.S. will play a very big role in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. Then he toasted Pompeo.
Pompeo stood and said the American delegation was “equally committed to working with you to achieve exactly” that.
The delegation’s arrival in Pyongyang was part of a sudden flurry of diplomacy in northeast Asia related to efforts to engage North Korea.
Kim had met with Xi earlier in the week, following a visit to Pyongyang from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week.
[Trump becomes more dovish toward North Korea, but surrounds himself with hawks ]
In Tokyo on Wednesday, leaders from China, Japan and South Korea met and stressed their resolve to use talks to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
“We must lead the ongoing momentum toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and achieve peace and stability in northeast Asia,” Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said at a joint news conference in Tokyo after their trilateral summit.
Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier and second-in-command to Xi, said that China was “in favor of dialogue to address both the symptoms and root causes, promote a political settlement of the peninsula issue and establish a peace mechanism, so as to achieve lasting peace in the region.”
South Korea’s Moon, who has been leading the diplomatic charge, said regional cooperation was crucial if the effort was to succeed. “The countries’ support and cooperation is absolutely needed in our journey toward peace on the Korean Peninsula and in northeast Asia,” he said.
Before the summit, a South Korean official said that the presidential Blue House expected Pompeo to finalize the date and location for the summit between Kim Jong Un and Trump, expected to be held within the next month or so. Trump said Friday that a location had been decided but there has been no official announcement.
Pompeo was also expected to secure the release of the three Americans detained in North Korea.
“We expect him to bring the date, time and the captives,” a South Korean official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday.
All three have been treated as “prisoners of war” and have not been seen since June, when a State Department official was allowed a brief visit with them while collecting Otto Warmbier, the detained college student who fell into a coma in North Korea and died shortly after his return to the United States.
[The three Americans who are being held as ‘prisoners of war’ in North Korea ]
The longest-held prisoner was Kim Dong-chul, a 64-year-old who once lived in Fairfax, Va., and was arrested in October 2015, three months before Warmbier. He had been based in the Chinese city of Yanji, near the border with North Korea, and traveled back and forth to the special economic zone of Rajin-Sonbong, where he managed a hotel business.
In a highly scripted appearance in Pyongyang six months after he was detained, Kim Dong-chul appealed for mercy for his “unpardonable” acts, wiping away his tears. He was accused of spying for South Korea’s intelligence agencies, seeking to obtain details of the North’s military programs and trying to spread “religious” ideas — a serious crime in the North.
He was sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage and subversion.
Then, a year ago, two men associated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or PUST, a private institution run by Korean American Christians, were detained.
Tony Kim, a 59-year-old accountant, had been teaching at PUST’s sister institution in Yanji for more than 15 years.
Since PUST began operating in 2010, he had made at least seven trips, usually for a month at a time, to teach international finance and management to students in Pyongyang, his son Sol Kim said in an interview.
He was detained at Pyongyang’s airport as he prepared to depart in April 2017, and North Korean state media reported that he was arrested for “committing criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn” North Korea.
Two weeks later, Kim Hak-song, an agricultural consultant who was also living in Yanji and working at PUST, was detained. He is about the same age as the other two, but relatively little is known about him.
He was also arrested on suspicion of “hostile acts” against North Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency said.