Elephants in the Room

Mike Pompeo Will Be North Korea’s Trump-Whisperer

The new secretary of state could decide the success of the high-stakes Korea summit.

Mike Pompeo before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, DC, on Jan. 12, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Mike Pompeo before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, DC, on Jan. 12, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s departure will strengthen President Donald Trump’s hand as he prepares to meet with the enigmatic North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump lost faith in Tillerson some time ago and was unlikely to have taken any advice from his then-secretary of state in the runup to the Kim meeting. On the other hand, Trump has worked well with Mike Pompeo, in no small part because Pompeo has figured out how to avoid antagonizing his boss. Whether in his current job as CIA director or, if confirmed, as secretary of state, Pompeo will have considerable influence over the president’s approach to the upcoming meeting.

Trump’s decision to meet with Kim may have caught Tillerson by surprise, but it is unlikely to have come as a complete shock to Pompeo. The CIA director no doubt was fully apprised of South Korea’s outreach to the North, and of Kim’s offer to meet with Trump. Pompeo may well have been one of the very few people who spoke to Trump about the meeting before the president hosted South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s messengers bearing Kim’s offer. And if Pompeo did speak to Trump, he clearly did not dissuade him from taking the plunge and defying previous presidential convention by meeting with Kim.

Most Asia hands, particularly those who served in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations, have criticized Trump’s decision, arguing that all he is doing is providing Kim with a public relations coup. That may well be the case, but these are the same critics who warned Trump that his bellicose statements could trigger a war on the Korean Peninsula. So what exactly is it that they want? More lower-level talks, perhaps?

Some of these critics were involved in the Clinton-era negotiations that led to the so-called Agreed Framework, whereby Pyongyang, having expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, agreed to reconsider both moves and to freeze activity at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in exchange for the construction and funding of two light water reactors and Washington’s provision of fuel while the reactors were under construction. These negotiations were conducted at the sub-Cabinet level, with North Korea represented by a vice minister and the United States delegation led by an assistant secretary of state.

When North Korea’s 1998 test of a long-range missile, clearly meant as a delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons, appeared to render the Agreed Framework moot, Clinton, having rejected a military option in 1994 but determined to save the agreement, made a last-ditch diplomatic effort in the final years of his administration. But he failed to budge the North. The United States, Russia, China, Japan, and the two Koreas held several rounds of discussions — the so-called six-party talks — between 2003 and 2009, but they failed to stop the North’s momentum. Once again, the negotiations had been led by sub-Cabinet-level officials, and once again, the talks ultimately went nowhere. In April 2009, Pyongyang walked away from the talks, and the following month it detonated a nuclear device underground.

Given this dismal record, Trump may be calculating that the time has come to take a radically different approach. Far more than his verbal insults, Trump’s willingness to commit large-scale forces to the region, and, unlike his predecessor, to actually authorize a missile strike in Syria, should give Kim pause.

Trump appears to be chary of getting enmeshed in detail, however. Pompeo’s role as secretary of state and Trump’s principal diplomatic advisor, therefore, could well be crucial.

Tillerson simply could not have filled that role. His departure can only be a source of reassurance to anyone worried about the prospects for a successful presidential summit and hoping for a peaceful resolution of the latest Korean crisis.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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