CIA director Mike Pompeo reportedly travelled to North Korea for a secret meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ahead of planned talks between Mr Kim and Donald Trump.
The Easter weekend meeting, initially reported by the Washington Post, would represent remarkable high-level contact between two nations that have turned to diplomacy after months of escalating martial rhetoric.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to confirm the story, saying: “The administration does not comment on the CIA Director’s travel.”
After Pyongyang spent the first stretch of Mr Trump’s presidency testing intercontinental ballistic missiles while threatening to annihilate neighbouring nations and US territories, the North Korean regime used the Winter Olympics in South Korea to pivot towards negotiations.
Meetings between North Korean and South Korean officials led to South Korean officials conveying an extraordinary offer from Mr Kim to meet with Mr Trump and seek “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula.
Mr Trump accepted the proposal, and he cryptically hinted at “direct talks at very high levels” with North Korea this week in saying he expected the talks would occur by June.
Later in the day, after Mr Trump appeared to suggest he had spoken directly with Mr Kim, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders clarified that “the administration has had talks at the highest levels” but that “that they were not with him directly.”
Already a key member of the Trump administration’s foreign policy team as head of the CIA, Mr Pompeo has been nominated to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. As America’s top diplomatic official, he would play a critical role in managing relations with North Korea.
During confirmation hearings before the US Senate, Mr Pompeo telegraphed skepticism about talks with Pyongyang yielding a deal to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, saying “no one is under any illusions”.
Nevertheless, he said, a meeting could “set us down the course to achieve a diplomatic outcome that America and the world so desperately need.”
The looming meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Kim, which would be the first time the leaders of the two countries encounter one another face-to-face, has nourished hopes of a broader breakthrough in a part of the world that in preceding months had sparked fears of nuclear war.
A South Korean official said this week that he hoped talks between his nation and the North could lead to a peace treaty concluding the Korean War, which ended in a 1953 truce. Mr Trump embraced that possibility, saying “they do have my blessing to discuss the end of the war”.
“Subject to a deal they have my blessing and they do have my blessing to discuss that”, he said.