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Reporter's Notebook: A Look At Secretary Of State Pompeo's Trip To North Korea


We now have a when and a where for the summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Those details arrived, as does a lot of news these days, via the president's Twitter account. The location, he tweeted, will be Singapore. The date - June 12. Much of the diplomacy between now and then will fall to Mike Pompeo. That would be Trump's new secretary of state. Pompeo has already flown to Pyongyang and back this week. His plane touched down at Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington a little before 3 this morning.

Also arriving home - three American detainees whose release he helped secure from North Korea and two reporters who had been invited along for the ride. One of those reporters is Matthew Lee of The Associated Press, and he is in our studio now. Welcome home, by the way. Have you gotten any sleep at all?


MATTHEW LEE: None. It's been a relatively - certainly horizontal sleep-free four days for...

KELLY: A lot of plane sleeping going on.

LEE: ...For us, yes.

KELLY: Well describe the scene this morning at Andrews. The president showed up. The first lady showed up. The vice president showed up. You just filed your report on that, and you described it as a really carefully choreographed scene.

LEE: It certainly was. It was quite a show, and it was an emotional time clearly for these three Korean-Americans who had been in jail in North Korea with very little prospect of getting released.

KELLY: One of them commenting he was just excited to see daylight.

LEE: Precisely, yes.

KELLY: He hadn't seen it in so long.

LEE: Yes, I mean, there are a few worse places to be than being held in a North Korean prison or labor camp as these guys were.

KELLY: Were you given any access to these three detainees? Were you able to interview them?

LEE: No. The State Department was very careful about wanting to sequester them in a space that was blocked off by curtains, and so we couldn't see them on the plane. And the intention was for them to spend time with the medical personnel, including a psychiatrist for any PTSD issues in this small cabin-type area aboard Secretary Pompeo's plane.

KELLY: So more details that may emerge as these three are debriefed - I want to ask you, Matt Lee - this is not your first time traveling to North Korea, not your first time traveling there with the U.S. secretary of state. You went along on the plane with Madeleine Albright when she traveled in 2000, and I'm curious what differences you saw.

LEE: The whole feel of this trip - it was very secret. No one was supposed to know about it, although there was rampant speculation that it was going to happen. It was very low-key compared to the Albright trip of 18 years ago, which had been, you know, a big thing. This time, we got off the plane. Secretary Pompeo was greeted by some North Korean dignitaries. We got into a motorcade that was quite interesting. It was a Mercedes limousine that Secretary Pompeo got into. Myself and Carol Morello of The Washington Post and some of the staff got into a Chevy van...

KELLY: (Laughter) Always the way, yes.

LEE: ...Which interestingly enough had a name called the American Road. We tried to ask our driver what exactly that meant, but our questions went unanswered.

KELLY: And as you're driving by in your Chevy, what do you see out the window? What's it look like?

LEE: We arrived early in the morning, like what would be rush hour in a normal city. There was more traffic than certainly there was 18 years ago. But still, we're talking very, very little. Most of the morning commuters that we saw were either on bicycles or on foot - farmers, soldiers, people who are potentially office workers and lots of children in school uniforms walking to school along the side of the road. The city, from what I remember from 18 years ago, was not a sprawling metropolis of skyscraper-type buildings. That has changed.

KELLY: Suggests money is coming from somewhere to pay for that.

LEE: Exactly, exactly. Despite the maximum pressure campaign of the Trump administration, which is only, you know, a year old - but previous U.S. administrations - the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration had both imposed severe sanctions on North Korea, and yet the city is still growing up and out.

KELLY: Was it a done deal, a fait accompli when Secretary Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang that these detainees would be coming back home with you all?

LEE: I think it's fair to say that they expected yes, that they were very hopeful yes. But of all the unpredictable countries in the world, North Korea is perhaps the most unpredictable, so nothing was a hundred percent certain. Even after Pompeo's 90-minute meeting with Kim Jong Un - when he came back to the hotel, we went up to him in the lobby and said, how do things look for the Americans? And he couldn't give a hundred percent answer. He had his fingers crossed.

KELLY: Really?

LEE: And it wasn't until about 10 or 15 minutes later when Kim Jong Un sent an emissary to the hotel that they knew we were going to be going home with these three men.

KELLY: Matthew Lee, diplomatic writer for The Associated Press just back off the plane from Pyongyang - Matt Lee, thanks so much.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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