Mike Pompeo, Cleanup On Aisle 38
The secretary of state now has to deal with the fallout of the rushed agreement with North Korea.
A day after his boss feted Kim Jong Un in Singapore with a long-coveted face-to-face meeting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Seoul to sort out just what the United States and North Korea agreed to, and to reassure nervous allies, including South Korea and Japan.
North Korean state press played up its triumphant takeaways from the summit, including what it said was an agreement to gradually ease economic sanctions on Pyongyang and for both sides to simultaneously take steps to denuclearize the peninsula. That stood in contrast to the Trump administration’s insistence that no sanctions relief will come until North Korea jettisons its entire nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Pompeo has to reassure Seoul and Tokyo that U.S. concessions in the talks with North Korea won’t erode the U.S. security umbrella that for decades has protected allies in northeast Asia. Trump agreed to halt U.S.-South Korean military exercises — long a demand of China and North Korea, and until this week a non-starter for Washington — without apparently consulting South Korea or the Pentagon.
“We need to cultivate our garden, and that means paying attention to our alliances with Seoul and Tokyo, and leaving no doubt about our commitment to defense and deterrence for their security and ours,” Robert Gallucci, a former American chief negotiator on North Korean issues, wrote after the summit.
Pompeo faced immediate questioning from his traveling press about the content of the agreement with North Korea. It did not include an explicit reference to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” — something Pompeo had earlier insisted was the minimum condition for a deal.
“I find that question insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous,” Pompeo responded when asked about the lack of that wording in the agreement.
“A lot has been made of the fact that the word ‘verifiable’ didn’t appear in the agreement,” Pompeo said. “Let me assure you that the ‘complete’ encompasses verifiable in the minds of everyone concerned. One can’t completely denuclearize without validating, authenticating — you pick the word,” he said.
With Pompeo in the driver’s seat pushing negotiations forward, it will be his job to ensure nervous allies wondering why Washington has handed Pyongyang a major concession while securing little concrete in return.
“They’re questioning whether we have just basically handed North Korea de facto acceptance as a nuclear weapon state,” Mike Green, a former George W. Bush administration official and an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told reporters after the summit.
Other Korea hands noted that the agreement struck in Singapore lacked specifics and fell short of what’s been agreed many times before — and never carried out.
“What we essentially got was a reiteration of past commitments that really didn’t even meet the bar of the previous agreements,” said Victor Cha, a Korea expert who had been tapped as the Trump administration’s envoy to Seoul before he fell out of favor with the White House earlier this year.
For South Korea particularly, the suspension of the annual military exercises came as a surprise. The exercises are meant to ensure that South Korean and U.S. troops are ready to respond to sudden North Korean aggression.
“For now, there still is a need to find out the exact meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks,” a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential office said, reacting to the surprise announcement.
Amid the nervousness in Tokyo and Seoul, Russia crowed on Wednesday that the United States had essentially adopted a Chinese-Russian road map by jettisoning the military exercises. Moscow and Beijing have long pushed a plan known as “freeze-for-freeze,” referring to a halt to U.S. military maneuvers alongside a freeze in North Korean nuclear and missile tests. (Pyongyang had halted the tests before the summit.)
“Apparently, Washington and Pyongyang are moving exactly in this direction,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
And Pompeo will have to assuage concerns in Japan, too. To secure Kim’s signature on the Singapore agreement, Washington jettisoned its historic focus on North Korean human rights abuses — a question officials in Tokyo will likely raise with Pompeo in coming days. In the run-up to the summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a last-minute visit to the White House to secure Trump’s support in pushing for the return of Japanese citizens abducted in North Korea.
Trump pledged to work on the issue, but the Singapore agreement included no language on the return of abductees.
Another headache for U.S. officials in Japan: The agreement says nothing about North Korean short- and medium-range missile tests and development, a particular concern for Japan, located a chip shot away from North Korea.
Pompeo also has to sort out exactly what the agreement entails. Immediately after the meeting in Singapore, North Korean state media claimed that the United States made a series of private commitments that went far further than Trump and his team have publicly revealed.
“Kim Jong Un and Trump had the shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” state media outlet KCNA reported.
That claim appears to contradict an assertion made by Trump in a press conference following his meeting with Kim that the North Korean leader would begin implementing the terms of the agreement “right away” when “he lands” back in Pyongyang.
KCNA also reported that Trump pledged to lift punishing sanctions on North Korea over the course of negotiations, despite Trump’s pledge in Singapore that “the sanctions will come off when we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor.”
The sanctions regime that has placed unprecedented restrictions on the North Korean economy is now likely to slip. Speaking in Singapore, Trump said that Chinese restrictions on trade along its border with North Korea already appear to be weakening.
North Korean seafood — a lucrative specialty export — is already beginning to appear in Chinese markets, and Chinese firms are reportedly beginning to re-employ North Korean laborers, said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and Korea specialist.
Pompeo has to determine whether Kim left Singapore with a different understanding of what he agreed to, whether Pyongyang is looking to extract additional concessions from Washington through its public pronouncements, or whether it is simply trying to score a propaganda victory.
Pompeo dismissed North Korean state media reports by comparing them to U.S. media outlets.
“One should heavily discount some things that are written in other places … including from some of your colleagues,” Pompeo told reporters Wednesday.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @EliasGroll