WASHINGTON (AP) — It began with quiet words from State Department officials: Apply for a new passport immediately. You may soon be going to a country for which ordinary U.S. passports are not valid for travel.
Vague as it was, the instruction to two reporters last Friday left little doubt about our mystery destination: North Korea.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had visited the capital, Pyongyang, in complete secrecy while he was still CIA chief in early April to set the stage for an unprecedented summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Now, Washington was abuzz with rumors that he would be heading back soon to finalize details for the summit and bring back three U.S. citizens who had been held by North Korea for more than a year for alleged anti-state activities.
It would turn out to be my second visit to the isolated, authoritarian nation. Eighteen years ago, I had accompanied Madeleine Albright on her historic trip to North Korea, the first-ever by a sitting secretary of state — a highly choreographed and publicized two-day affair covered by some 80 journalists.
But this was something completely different: an under-the-radar, secret mission with only two American reporters as independent witnesses.
Since the death last year of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who suffered brain damage while in North Korean custody, U.S. nationals have been prohibited from traveling to North Korea without special passport validation.
An hour after handing over our passports, Carol Morello of The Washington Post and I were in possession of new ones and an extraordinary letter.
“Dear Mr. Lee,” mine read, “The Department of State grants your May 4, 2018 request for a special validation permitting travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea … Based on the information provided, we determined that the validation is in the national interest of the United States.”
The “national interest of the United States.” Hmm, I pondered, had I ever done anything before that would qualify?
Carol and I, who cover the State Department, were told to pack a bag and be on stand-by, but given no departure time, let alone a date. We were sworn to secrecy and advised that any leak of a potential Pompeo return to Pyongyang would be grounds for the two press seats on his plane to go empty.
Rumors of the trip intensified through the weekend as European diplomats who wanted to meet with Pompeo to discuss the administration’s imminent decision on the Iran deal — which Trump was preparing to withdraw from — were being told he would be out of the country on North Korea-related travel.
Still, Saturday and Sunday passed with no word.
Then, late on Monday afternoon, we were told we’d depart from the department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters at 7:45 that night. We would fly overnight with refueling stops in Alaska and Japan, and go on to North Korea, returning in reverse order at some undetermined point. The State Department had allotted 10 hours of time on the ground. Officials cautioned though that it could be as many as 24 hours depending on the unpredictable North Koreans.
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