Mike Pompeo, the head of the CIA, has reportedly visited North Korea and meet with leader Kim Jong Un.
The highly unusual, secret visit was undertaken over the Easter weekend as the enemy nations prepared for a meeting between President Donald Trump and Mr Kim within the next few months.
Two officials confirmed the trip anonymously to The Associated Press. The Washington Post, which first reported Pompeo's meeting with Kim, said it took place just over two weeks ago, shortly after the CIA chief was nominated to become secretary of state.
Mr Trump, who was hosting Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Florida estate, said the US and North Korea were holding direct talks at "extremely high levels" in preparation for a possible summit with Mr Kim. He said five locations were under consideration for the meeting, which was slated to take place by early June.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr Trump and Mr Kim had not spoken directly.
Mr Kim's offer for a summit was initially conveyed to Mr Trump by South Korea last month, and the president shocked many by accepting it.
US officials indicated over the past two weeks that North Korea's government had communicated directly with Washington that it was ready to discuss its nuclear weapons programme.
It would be the first-ever summit between US and North Korea during more than six decades of hostility since the Korean War. North Korea's nuclear weapons and its capability to deliver them by ballistic missile pose a growing threat to the U.S. mainland.
The US and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic relations, complicating the arrangements for contacts between the two governments. It is not unprecedented for US intelligence officials to serve as a conduit for communication with Pyongyang.
In 2014, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper secretly visited North Korea to bring back two American detainees.
At his confirmation hearing last week to become secretary of state, Mr Pompeo played down expectations for a breakthrough deal on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons at the planned Trump-Kim summit, but he said it could lay the groundwork for a comprehensive agreement on denuclearisation.
"I'm optimistic that the United States government can set the conditions for that appropriately so that the president and the North Korean leader can have that conversation and will set us down the course of achieving a diplomatic outcome that America and the world so desperately need," Mr Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
After a year of escalating tensions, when North Korea conducted nuclear and long-range missile tests that drew world condemnation, Kim has pivoted to international outreach.
The young leader met China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing in late March, Kim's first trip abroad since taking power six years ago. He is set to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the demilitarized zone between the rival Koreas on April 27th.
- Digital Desk and Press Association