Pompeo in Pyongyang: Feted at Lunch While Awaiting Detainee News

(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s second trip to Pyongyang this year was shrouded in secrecy until the president announced it Tuesday as part of his statement on the U.S. leaving the Iran nuclear deal.

By that time, Pompeo had been in the air for more than 12 hours, taking about a dozen senior staffers and two reporters. His goal was to finalize details about a proposed summit between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but the U.S. president had given strong hints that there was one more objective: securing freedom for three American detainees.

Touching down just before 8 a.m. local time on Wednesday, Pompeo sat in a black Mercedes limo for the 23 kilometer trip into Pyongyang, past farmland, housing blocks and morning commuters, most walking or riding bikes on the side of the road. His first stop was the Koryo Hotel, where former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stayed when meeting Kim’s father in 2000. From the hotel’s 39th floor, Pompeo dined on a lunch of poached fish, duck and red wine with Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party Central Committee.

Toasting the secretary of state, a scene that would have been unthinkable a year ago as Trump and Kim Jong Un traded threats of war, Kim Yong Chol said “everything is going well in Pyongyang now.”

Kim Yong Chol then suggested the emerging detente between the U.S. and North Korea was due to North Korea’s interest in focusing on “economic progress in our country.” He added that “this is not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” a point most foreign policy analysts would dispute.

Pompeo then stood and spoke.

"For decades, we have been adversaries," Pompeo said. “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. 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."

This account is based on reports from the two media outlets that accompanied Pompeo, the Associated Press and the Washington Post.

After the lunch, Pompeo received word that he would meet with Kim Jong Un. The two men spoke for about 90 minutes to discuss the planned summit. On Pompeo’s return to the Koryo Hotel, he crossed his fingers when reporters asked if there was any good news about the detainees. A North Korean official soon arrived at the hotel to say that “amnesty” had been granted to the three Americans.

‘Hard Decision’

Carl Risch, the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, and a doctor then went to another hotel to pick them up and brought them to the airport, according to a U.S. official. They arrived at the airport at 8:25 p.m.

The U.S. officials were told that it was a “hard decision” for North Korea to release the detainees, and warned that the three men should not “make the same mistakes again.”

Pompeo’s plane took off at 8:42 p.m. local time Wednesday en route for a refueling in Japan. Trump then said on Twitter that he plans to greet his top diplomat and the former detainees at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington at 2 a.m. Thursday.

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