CIA Director Mike Pompeo secretly met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the Easter weekend. The discussions, held in the North, were in preparation for Kim’s historic talks with President Donald Trump.
The news of the clandestine trip comes amid rapid developments involving the two Koreas. History, for better or worse, will be made soon.
History was in the making on March 8 when Trump immediately accepted an offer, extended by Kim and conveyed by South Korean officials, to meet. No sitting American leader has ever sat face-to-face with his North Korean counterpart.
Trump, on Tuesday during discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Mar-a-Lago, said he would meet Kim by June somewhere in Asia outside the Korean Peninsula or in Europe.
CNN confirmed the news of the Pompeo visit, first reported by The Washington Post Tuesday evening. Neither Washington nor Pyongyang would comment on the CIA director’s visit. On Tuesday, Trump did say, however, that his administration “had direct talks at very high levels, extremely high levels with North Korea.”
The stunning revelation of Pompeo’s trip came within a day of two other surprises: reports that Chinese ruler Xi Jinping will travel to Pyongyang in June after Kim meets Trump, and news that South and North Korea are planning on April 27 to issue a declaration of intent to conclude a treaty formally ending the Korean War.
That day Kim will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the Peace House, located in the South Korean portion of Panmunjom, the so-called Truce Village in the Demilitarized Zone.
Fighting in the Korean War came to an end in July 1953 with an armistice signed in Panmunjom by China, North Korea, and the United Nations Command represented by the United States. South Korea refused to sign the truce document.
Trump on Tuesday said South Korea had his “blessing” to sign a peace treaty with North Korea, but blessing or no blessing, Moon, the South Korean leader, is intent on inking a treaty with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Moreover, Moon also appears determined to merge the South and the North in a single state, perhaps creating a confederation of some sort. He is now working on amending the constitution of his Republic of Korea—South Korea—so that it is compatible with that of Kim’s regime.
Moon, 65 and part of the “386 Generation,” is obviously sympathetic to the North Korean state. Many of his top advisers are clearly supportive of that regime.
South Koreans, for the most part, do not share Moon’s ambitions, however. Older citizens, many of whom remember American sacrifice during the war, are generally supportive of the United States, and the youngest South Koreans do not look to be in favor of unification. The uproar over Moon’s attempts in January to force links with the North cost him a sharp drop in his approval rating.
The 386ers, however, hold political power and are determined to achieve unification. Unification, driven by Seoul’s deeply anti-American political establishment, could therefore occur on North Korea’s terms.
And that is the treacherous situation Trump faces as he prepares to meet Kim. There is always the possibility the summit will not occur—Trump did leave himself an out Tuesday, saying there was a possibility “things won’t go well”—but momentum seems to be forcing the American leader to follow through on his bold promise.
The risk has always been that Pyongyang will use the prospect of peace on the peninsula to get South Korea to believe it no longer needs its alliance with the United States. After U.S. forces leave, the fear is that Kim, one way or another, will intimidate the South into submission.
American policymakers certainly know what Kim is up to, but unfortunately they are not in a strong position to stop him. Take the end-the-Korean War gambit. “I do not think anyone is going to stand in the way of a peace treaty,” David Maxwell, who served five tours of duty in Korea in the U.S. Army, told The Daily Beast Tuesday. “And how would they prevent it if they somehow wanted to?”
The problem for Trump is that the two Korean leaders have maneuvered him into accelerating the pace of events by, among other things, sending his CIA director to the North. And as events quicken, America is getting overtaken by developments.
Yet Trump is not the only powerful figure being marginalized by Kim and Moon. Xi Jinping obviously feels left out as he struggles to make his China relevant. And that is why he surprised everyone by arranging to visit the North Korean capital so soon after Kim visited his.
For Trump and Xi, there are too many summits occurring, and two avowed Korean unificationists—and not them—are driving consequential events.