YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was traveling to North Korea on Tuesday in preparation for an upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump disclosed the trip, which was not announced ahead of time by the State Department, during remarks Tuesday at the White House on his intention to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.
The news about Pompeo came as anticipation is building over the planned summit to discuss the Kim regime’s nuclear weapons program that could take place by the end of June.
‘‘Plans are being made, relationships are building,’’ Trump said. ‘‘Hopefully, a deal will happen and with the help of China, South Korea, and Japan a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everybody.’’
Trump made no mention, however, of the three American prisoners in North Korea. Two people with knowledge of the trip told The Washington Post that Pompeo was expected to bring them home.
‘‘We’ll all soon be finding out,’’ Trump replied after a reporter asked him about the prisoners.
Three Korean-Americans — Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song, and Kim Sang-duk — have been accused of various acts considered hostile to the government. Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have dropped hints recently that they could be freed very soon.
One of the prisoners, Kim Dong-chul, a former Virginia resident in his mid-60s, was detained in October 2015, while the other two were detained after Trump took office.
In an interview with two reporters traveling with him aboard his plane, Pompeo said he plans to raise again the US desire that the three men be freed, adding, ‘‘It’d be a great gesture if they’d agree to do so.’’
The main purpose of Pompeo’s visit to North Korea is to finalize an exact time and location for the summit between Trump and the North Korean leader, how long their talks will last and to clarify expectations.
‘‘We also want to make sure what our expectations are not,’’ Pompeo said. ‘‘We are not going to head down the path we headed down before. We will not relieve sanctions until such time as we have achieved our objectives.’’
In his second visit to North Korea in as many months, and his first as secretary of state, Pompeo is flying into one of the world’s most reclusive countries with no assurances of exactly who he will meet. During his last visit over Easter, when he was CIA director, Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in an effort to assess what a summit might accomplish.
Just before he landed in Japan for refueling, Pompeo said he doesn’t know exactly who he will see this time. ‘‘We’re prepared to meet anyone who can speak on behalf of the North Korean government and give us solid answers so we’re prepared.’’
Pompeo’s return to North Korea comes in what it only his second week as the administration’s top diplomat. He has promised to ‘‘bring back the swagger’’ to a State Department that has been sidelined in some foreign policy debates. His high-profile visit appears to be a splashy step in that direction.
Pompeo may get an earful of complaints from the officials he meets. Pyongyang has been disgruntled over what it called ‘‘misleading’’ assertions from some US officials that North Korea is considering denuclearization because of its fear of US military prowess and to alleviate punishing sanctions — a ‘‘maximum pressure campaign’’ laid by Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who was fired by Trump in March.
North Korea made its displeasure clear on Sunday, the day before Pompeo departed Washington. A spokesman for its foreign ministry labeled the US claims of credit for the apparent shift in North Korean policy a ‘‘dangerous attempt’’ to upset a detente between two nations whose leaders only a few months ago were threatening nuclear war.
US officials have sought to tamp down expectations that Pompeo will be able to secure the release of the prisoners who were recently transferred from a labor camp to a hotel outside Pyongyang, further raising hopes their release is imminent
Now, with a high-level summit only weeks away, US officials have increasingly urged North Korea to release the three American prisoners in advance.
At least 16 US citizens have been arrested in North Korea since the 1990s. Several of them have been subjected to show trials and forced to make public confessions to crimes against the state before being sentenced to brutal labor camps. Most served part of their sentences before being released, usually after visits from high-profile Americans such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Last summer, North Korea turned over custody of American college student Otto Warmbier, who returned home to Cincinnati in a coma after 17 months in captivity after being detained during an organized tour of Pyongyang. Warmbier died a few days later, and Trump has highlighted his death in several major speeches, including the State of the Union address in January and remarks to the South Korean general assembly last fall.
Warmbier’s parents have sued North Korea in federal court, charging that the regime ‘‘brutally tortured and murdered’’ their son. Trump spoke with the family on Friday to offer support ahead of his summit, sources said.
The North Korean regime has long been one of the most brutal in the world, sentencing tens of thousands of its own people to brutal labor camps and killing political rivals. Among those assassinated by the regime since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 after his father’s death are Kim’s half brother and his uncle.