The modified Boeing 757 had taken off from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington late Monday night, bound for North Korea, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to the back of the plane.
He was headed to Pyongyang, he told the only two reporters allowed on the trip, to nail down the agenda that President Donald Trump and Korean leader Kim Jong Un would tackle when they convene for their historic summit. Pompeo didn’t know exactly who he’d meet, he said.
But he added that he would raise the issue of three Americans detained in North Korea, cautioning that he had no commitment for their release.
I hope North Korea “will do the right thing,” he said. “We’ve been asking for the release of these detainees for 17 months,” he added. “We’ll talk about it again. It’d be a great gesture if they’d agree to do so.”
Over the next day and a half of long meetings, red wine toasts and negotiations in the isolated North Korean capital, the newly minted secretary of state would score the most dramatic foreign-policy victory of the Trump administration, securing the release of the three men and bringing them back to American soil.
This account is based on pool reports by the reporters from The Associated Press and The Washington Post who accompanied Pompeo and were able to observe and report on events as they unfolded.
While the administration had been signaling the release of the prisoners for days beforehand, the trip had been a closely held secret until Trump announced during remarks from the White House Diplomatic Room on Tuesday that he’d dispatched his top diplomat.
Pompeo traveled with a small team that included Brian Hook, the State Department’s head of policy planning; Matt Pottinger of the National Security Council; Lisa Kenna of the executive secretariat; and Heather Nauert, the State Department’s acting undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.
Pompeo’s jet, a C-32A known as the “Big Plane,” lifted off from Andrews at about 9:30 p.m. on Monday, then refueled at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska, before taking off again for Japan.
It was nearly 7 p.m. on Tuesday in Washington – almost 24 hours after Pompeo had left Andrews – when the former CIA director landed in Pyongyang.
Displays of power
On the tarmac, Pompeo was greeted by several officials, including the vice chairman of the Party Central Committee, Kim Yong Chol, the official in charge of relations between North and South Korea, and Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong.
Pompeo stepped into a black Mercedes limousine, and his team and the reporters piled into a bus and Chevrolet vans for the 23-kilometer ride – a little over 14 miles – to the capital city.
The American motorcade passed farmland, housing blocks and morning commuters, most of whom were walking or biking on a paved path on the side of the road. Matt Lee of The Associated Press, who had covered then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s trip to North Korea during the Clinton administration’s attempt to negotiate with the isolated regime, noted that the city had been considerably built up since that visit in 2000.
The motorcade’s winding route took the Americans past the city’s largest and most prominent displays of power, including a library and research center famous for its huge statues of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and various monuments celebrating the glory of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including Pyongyang’s own version of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.
Their destination was the Koryo Hotel, the main lodging for foreigners, where portions of Albright’s delegation had stayed 18 years ago.
Once they arrived, Pompeo met for about an hour with Kim Yong Chol, discussing the Trump-Kim summit and Pompeo’s schedule, before Kim hosted a luncheon on the hotel’s 39th floor, where he formally welcomed the Americans.
Over a table arrayed with dishes of poached fish and duck served with red wine, Kim raised the possibility of better relations and offered some pointed political remarks.
“You have visited Pyongyang at such a good time, at such a warm and lovely spring, and a good atmosphere has been established between North and South, so everything is going well in Pyongyang now,” the North Korean official said.
Kim then told the Americans that “we have perfected our nuclear capability,” adding that “this is not the result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside.”
“It is our policy to concentrate all efforts into economic progress in country,” Kim said before making an appeal laced with flattery.
“I hope the United States also will be happy with our success,” he said. “I have high expectations the US will play a very big role in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
‘For decades, we have been adversaries’
He then toasted Pompeo, who stood and returned the salutation. The group with him, Pompeo said, was “equally committed to working with you to achieve exactly” that: peace on the peninsula.
“For decades, we have been adversaries,” the top US diplomat continued. He said he hoped “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,” Pompeo allowed. “But you have been a great partner in working to make sure our two leaders will have a summit that is successful.”
Not long afterward, Pompeo was given about an hour’s notice that he would be granted an audience with Kim Jong Un. They met that afternoon for about 90 minutes to discuss plans for the summit.
The reporters were not allowed to attend, but on Pompeo’s return to the hotel, they asked whether there was good news about the detainees.
The Americans, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim, had been held in North Korea for at least a year.
Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song were arrested in April and May of 2017, accused of carrying out “hostile acts” against the regime. Both worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which bills itself as the only privately run university in the North Korean capital.
Kim Dong Chul had been in North Korean custody since before Trump was elected, arrested in 2015 and accused of spying for South Korea.
Pompeo responded to the reporters’ question wordlessly, simply crossing his fingers.
Soon after his audience with the North Korean leader, though, an official arrived at the Koryo Hotel with news: Kim Jong Un was releasing the Americans.
“We’re granting amnesty to the three detained Americans,” the North Korean emissary told Pompeo, according to a US official. “We issued the order to grant immediate amnesty to the detainees.”
“That’s great,” Pompeo replied.
‘This was a hard decision’
“It should be a very brief ceremony,” the North Korean said, noting that the “ceremony” was more like a legal process. “You should make care that they do not make the same mistakes again,” the North Korean said in closing, according to the US official. “This was a hard decision.”
The detainees would be released that night at 7 local time, Pompeo was told.
Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Carl Risch, accompanied by a doctor, went to another hotel to get the men. At 7:45 p.m. in Pyongyang – 6:45 a.m. in Washington – Risch, the doctor and the detainees walked out of the hotel and headed to Pyongyang International Airport.
Forty minutes later, the detainees and their escorts arrived at the airport, where they met with the secretary and his team and boarded Pompeo’s plane. The three detainees walked without assistance from the van that had brought them from custody, and were seated with medical personnel in the middle section of the plane, which had been curtained off.
At 8:42 p.m. local time, just under an hour after the detainees were released from the hotel, Pompeo’s C-32A lifted off from the North Korean runway bound for the US military’s Yokota Air Base in Japan.
Pompeo, flush from the victory, came to the back of the plane to speak to the reporters. “It was a long day. It was a long day,” he said as they flew back to Japan. “But there were no moments where I felt like we were going to be anything but successful in the day.”
‘A long day… but worth the time’
He noted that there were “no glitches, but we were on the – what, 13 hours maybe on the ground, something like that from start to finish? So a long day. A long day for our counterparts, the North Korean team, as well. But worth the time and effort, and I think very productive.”
Having the three Americans on the plane, he said, was “incredibly exciting.” The men seemed to be in good health, Pompeo told the reporters: “All indications are at this point that their health is as good as could be given that they’ve been held.”
Pompeo wouldn’t share what the detainees’ first words to him were. “I just want to respect their privacy,” he said. But he confessed that when they noted they had left North Korean airspace, “we were all thrilled when we knew we were outside of that space.”
The secretary told the reporters that once they were in Japan, they’d be met by another plane with “even more robust medical capabilities” in the event the detainees needed it. “Hopefully in the next couple of hours a more complete readout of their complete conditions,” Pompeo said.
He touched briefly on his conversation with Kim Jong Un about preparing for the summit, saying it had been “good and lengthy.” The White House would soon announce the date, time and location, he said.
“That part is behind us for sure, and we had a chance to talk substantively about what we intend to be on the agenda, and also how we’re going to begin to coordinate in the days ahead. … Both sides are confident that we will set the conditions for a successful meeting between the two leaders,” Pompeo said.
He said he felt that Kim “is trying to set good conditions for the summit.”
Shortly before Pompeo and his team landed in Japan, at 8:30 a.m. in Washington, Trump jubilantly tweeted that the secretary “is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting.”
At Yokota Air Base in Japan, the detainees were transferred to a separate, waiting plane, and both planes took off for the 10-hour flight to Anchorage, where they would refuel. Many on Pompeo’s plane, exhausted, were already asleep before it took off.
The prisoners’ plane touched down in Anchorage at 1:21 p.m. local time Wednesday and took off within the hour, with an arrival time at Andrews set for the wee hours of Thursday morning. On the plane to Yokota, Pompeo told the reporters that Trump was planning to be at Andrews Air Force Base to meet the detainees when they arrived.
One of the reporters asked Pompeo if there had been a moment when he gave himself “a little pat on the back” for securing the Americans’ release.
“Still have work to do,” Pompeo answered. “I’m thrilled that we have them back. I’m happy that actually President Trump set the conditions for this to happen, and I’m thrilled with that. But there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve our ultimate goal.”
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this article.