SEOUL, South Korea — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended an olive branch to senior North Korean officials on Wednesday: “All the opportunities your people so richly deserve” in exchange for the shutting down of the North’s nuclear weapons program.
“For decades, we have been adversaries,” Mr. Pompeo said in a toast during a lunch in honor of his visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. “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.”
Mr. Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday on a mission to smooth any remaining wrinkles in the weekslong preparations for a planned summit meeting between North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Trump, according to pool reports by journalists traveling with Mr. Pompeo. He also secured the release of three American citizens detained in the isolated country on charges of committing espionage and other vague “hostile acts.”
In his planned meeting with Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump hopes he can persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons by offering better ties with Washington that would help Mr. Kim rebuild his impoverished country. Mr. Kim has said that he is willing to discuss denuclearization, but that Washington needs to make North Korea feel secure enough to focus on economic recovery.
“There are many challenges along the way,” Mr. Pompeo said on Wednesday, addressing a senior North Korean official, Kim Yong-chol. “But you have been a great partner in working to make sure our two leaders will have a summit that is successful.”
Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party, has been a crucial aide to the North Korean leader in his fast-paced diplomatic overtures in recent weeks, accompanying him to talks with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and President Xi Jinping of China. Kim Yong-chol has also been a key North Korean contact for Mr. Pompeo as both governments have carried out preparations for their leaders’ planned meeting.
“It is our policy to concentrate all efforts into economic progress in our country,” Kim Yong-chol said at the lunch, reminding the Americans of Kim Jong-un’s policy shift adopted in a party meeting last month. “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.”
But Kim Yong-chol said the decision to engage in talks with the United States was “not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” trying to rebuff a widespread belief in Washington that Mr. Trump’s tactic of applying “maximum pressure and sanctions” had brought North Korea to the negotiating table.
The North Koreans feted Mr. Pompeo and a dozen staff members traveling with him with dishes of poached fish, duck and red wine on the 39th floor of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang.
On Wednesday, Mr. Pompeo met for about an hour with Kim Yong-chol, to discuss the agenda and other details for the potential summit meeting.
Mr. Pompeo had told reporters accompanying him on the trip that he wanted to “sit with senior North Korean leaders and try and make a big move toward making sure we’re prepared for the summit.” He also said he wanted to convince the North Koreans that Mr. Trump would not repeat what he has called mistakes of the previous administrations.
“We are not going to relieve sanctions until such time as we achieved our objectives,” he said. “We are not going to do this in small increments, where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure.
“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.”
If talks go well for Mr. Pompeo, Washington could soon announce the time and venue for the summit meeting.
But during a summit meeting this week between Mr. Kim and China’s president, Xi Jinping, Mr. Kim again hinted that he might have objections to Washington’s demand for a rapid dismantling of his nuclear arsenal. He urged the United States to abolish “hostile policies and remove security threats” against North Korea so that it no longer felt the need for a nuclear deterrent.
He proposed that North Korea and the United States take “phased and synchronous measures” in exchanging the North’s denuclearization with security guarantees and other incentives from the United States — an approach supported by China.
While Mr. Pompeo was in Pyongyang on Wednesday, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, hosted President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and China’s premier, Li Keqiang, in Tokyo for their first trilateral summit in two and a half years. The three leaders said they were committed to efforts to denuclearize the peninsula, and perhaps in a sign that the neighbors are contemplating a future where the United States plays a smaller role in the region, all three repeatedly vowed to meet more frequently in the future.
In a separate one-on-one meeting between Mr. Li and Mr. Abe, China and Japan moved to establish closer ties after years of frostiness, with Japan pledging new investments in China and the two countries agreeing to develop joint movie projects.
“The relationship between the two countries has come through a roundabout time,” Mr. Li said. “But the wind and rain have passed, and now we are under a bright sky.”