North Korea is making Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the bad guy in a sputtering diplomatic process that’s obviously not working.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at this stage seems to harbor more disdain and distrust for Pompeo, if that is possible, than he does for National Security Adviser John Bolton. Yes, Kim hosted Pompeo at a lavish luncheon in Pyongyang as recently as last October, but the seeming goodwill all went wrong when Pompeo sat beside President Donald Trump at the summit with Kim in February and Trump told Kim, in effect, much though I love you, this conversation is going nowhere.
Humiliated by Trump’s sudden walkout from the meeting in the historic Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Kim appears to be holding Pompeo, not Bolton, personally responsible for the debacle.
That’s why Kwon Jong Gun, director-general for American affairs at the North’s foreign ministry, made clear that Kim and Trump would damn well not meet again if Pompeo were anywhere in the vicinity. Considering that his words were carried in English by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, he clearly was speaking at Kim’s behest when he said he was “afraid, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled.”
Even if talks with the U.S. resume, said Kwon, “I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but (an)other person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”
The State Department very properly and primly did say the U.S. “remains ready to engage North Korea in a constructive manner.” It would seem, however, the U.S. and North Korea are inexorably returning to square one, the state of play before the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last June when the two signed off on a meaningless statement promising “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, with no hint of when or how.
If there’s one thing nobody expects Kim to do, that’s to give up his nukes and the missiles for carrying them to distant targets. It was to demonstrate he might just return to testing missiles, maybe nukes too, that Kim made a show of witnessing the test of what was described as a new tactical weapon this week. The weapon was not quite a missile, but the North’s media machine called the test “an event of very weighty significance.”
And Kim, whose highest title is “chairman” of the state affairs commission, also was identified in the state media as “supreme commander” of the armed forces. Though “chairman” would suggest power enough, the added military title was designed to convince everyone the North might just go on the warpath again with nukes and missiles, last tested in late 2017.
In fact, Kim in a speech last week “left no doubt as to his intentions of reinforcing his nuclear posture,” says Lee Sung-yoon, North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. As evidence, Lee quotes Kim saying the U.S. “has grown fearful of the threats posed by our rapidly-developing ‘nuclear’ armed force” and “we must frustrate the hostile forces' sanctions on the strength of self-sufficiency”—a reference to economic growth as well as military power.
As for “vilifying Pompeo,” says Lee, that’s “a ruse, a deflective deception to make the real point,” that the U.S. must “get rid of the root cause that pushed us into a nuclear state and obstacles on the way to denuclearization by its own hands.”
In other words, Lee says, Kim still insists on “dislodgement of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence,” i.e. “eviction” of U.S. forces from Korea and Japan “and removal of nuclear strategic assets from Guam and Hawaii.” As for blackballing Pompeo as a negotiating partner, Lee says that’s just another instance of “raising the stakes, playing hard to get”—all in “the North Korean playbook.”
To Evans Revere, a former senior diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Seoul, “the idea of North Korea dictating to the United States who should lead its negotiating team is, of course, ridiculous and insulting” —a reflection of “Pyongyang's desire to keep those members of the U.S team who are very firm about denuclearization as far out of the game as possible.” It was, he says, “no accident that the North Koreans in Hanoi only wanted to talk to Trump, whom they see as a softer target than his advisers when it comes to a deal.”
Revere harks back to Pompeo's relations with the North Koreans. They’ve been “fraying since at least the time of his ill-fated visit to Pyongyang in July 2018,” says Revere, when the North Koreans accused him of making “gangster-like’ demands” and Kim refused to meet him.
Although Pompeo did see Kim on his fourth visit to Pyongyang in October, Revere says the North Koreans “have not forgiven him” for having made “some specific and tough demands” for denuclearization. Nor is Pompeo “a fan” of Kim Yong Chol, the vice chairman (under Chairman Kim) of the ruling Workers’ Party and a member of the state commission.
“Pompeo's prickly ties with Kim Yong Chol are widely known,” says Revere. Indeed, Pompeo before the Hanoi summit wanted to see him “to resolve the major differences that existed between the two working-level negotiating teams and the North Koreans refused.” Naturally, when Trump at the summit demanded that Kim “agree to the U.S. definition of denuclearization and also take major steps to denuclearize,” the North Koreans remembered that Pompeo had made the same demand back in July.
Trump has said he would be glad to see Kim for yet another summit, but the North Koreans may not go for it without a guarantee in advance of the deal they want—beginning with relaxation of sanctions. At his recent summit in Washington with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, Trump did say “I enjoy being with the chairman and it really is productive.”
Those words were no doubt welcome by Moon, who’s been pressing hard for reconciliation and dialogue while pressing for his own fourth summit with Kim. Trump played to Moon’s ego, saying he’s “been fighting this battle a long time,” has done “an excellent job” and is “a great ally” but the bottom line remained the same as at Hanoi.
“I think that sanctions now are right now in a level that is fair, and I really believe something significant is going to happen,” Trump told the assembled media. Sure, “various smaller deals” might happen, including sanctions relief, but “we’re talking about the big deal”—“and the big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons.”
For North Korea, clearly the key to getting Trump to go for a step-by-step process, in which denuclearization would never happen, is first to get rid of Pompeo.