WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that Washington's chief diplomat Mike Pompeo was en route to North Korea to prepare for a landmark nuclear summit, as a flurry of diplomacy with Pyongyang at the center gathered pace.
Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are expected to meet later this month or early in June for talks that would have been nearly unthinkable a year ago, when the two mercurial leaders were trading barbs and Pyongyang tested a barrage of missiles.
But after a historic summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, held amid a spectacular detente on the Korean peninsula, the mood is decidedly more upbeat, and Trump has said a date and location have been set for his face-to-face with the North's leader.
"At this very moment, Secretary Pompeo is on his way to North Korea in preparation for my upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un," Trump said in a televised address from the White House.
"We have our meeting set. The location is picked -- the time and the date. Everything is picked. And we look forward to having a very great success," he said.
"We think relationships are building with North Korea. We will see how it all works out. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. But it can be a great thing for North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the entire world."
Pompeo, who met Kim in Pyongyang about a month ago while still director of the CIA for exploratory contacts about a possible summit, left Washington on Monday night with a delegation of senior officials, bound first for Japan, then North Korea.
Speaking to reporters accompanying him on the unannounced trip, the secretary of state said he expected to meet with "the most senior leaders" in Pyongyang, including possibly Kim himself.
"We're prepared to meet with anyone who is speaking on behalf of the North Korean government and can give us solid answers so we're prepared," he said.
Pompeo said his trip aimed first and foremost to nail down a "framework for a successful summit between the two presidents" -- including an agenda, a precise date and time and specific venue.
Its second purpose, he said, was to establish that the United States would not "relieve sanctions until such time as we achieved our objectives."
"We are not going to do this in small increments, where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure," he warned. "That won't lead to the outcome that I know Kim Jong Un wants and I know President Trump is demanding."
"We're hoping to set out that set of conditions that will give them this opportunity to have a historic, big change in the security relationship between North Korea and the United States, which will achieve what the president has tweeted about and talked about: complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization."
In addition to planning the summit, Pompeo has been pressing the regime to free three detained US citizens. Trump has said to "stay tuned" on the issue, and Pompeo said their possible release would be on the agenda of his meetings in Pyongyang.
"We'll talk about it again," he told reporters. "I think it'd be a great gesture if they would choose to do so."
Pompeo's trip came on the heels of talks in northeast China between Kim and China's Xi Jinping -- their second meeting in six weeks -- at which Kim reiterated his commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Kim's unannounced trip to the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian was his second visit to China since March, highlighting efforts by the Cold War-era allies to mend relations that cooled as Beijing supported UN sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
A senior State Department official traveling with Pompeo said he "will be listening for signs from North Korea that things have substantially changed since Kim declared on New Year's Eve that he would mass produce nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them."
"The secretary is clear-eyed about not repeating the mistakes of the past," the official said.
"We are not going to fall for theatrical pronouncements on the end of their nuclear program. That is not convincing evidence of dismantling their nuclear program. It wasn't then, and it won't be now."