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Is Mike Pompeo backing off Trump’s demand that North Korea get rid of its nukes?

President Trump has assured us he'll drive a hard bargain with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and he set the goal posts firmly at Kim's  getting rid of his nuclear weapons. Asked last month what he meant when he said “denuclearization,” Trump said: “It means they get rid of their nukes — very simple.”

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounded a somewhat different tune Sunday.

The newly installed top U.S. diplomat at times seemed to echo Trump's hard line. He reiterated on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump's goal was “the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.” Pompeo confirmed when asked by “Face the Nation” that the goal was “total, full, complete” denuclearization. Asked whether that meant “dismantling,” “getting rid of the centrifuges, stopping all enrichment, getting inspectors on the ground,” Pompeo confirmed all of it.

But at different points, he also appeared to suggest that a deal might come up shy of making North Korea get rid of all of its current nukes. He said on both shows that the objective was to prevent North Korea from having the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. And he explicitly called for its getting rid of missiles, without saying the same about existing warheads.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States is assuring Kim Jong Un that the U.S. is not trying to oust him. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Here's Pompeo on “Fox News Sunday” (emphasis added):

Look, we’ll have to see how the negotiations proceed, but make no mistake about it: America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into [Los Angeles] or Denver or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning, Chris. That’s our objective, that’s the end state the president has laid out, and that’s the mission that he sent me on this past week to put us on the trajectory to go achieve that.

And here's Pompeo on “Face the Nation”:

The president has a commitment. And he will make this commitment to Chairman Kim, I am confident, that says, if you do the things we need to do, so that America is no longer held at risk by your nuclear weapons arsenal, and that you get rid of your [chemical weapons] program and missiles that threaten the world, we will ensure that your people have the opportunity for the greatness that I know Chairman Kim wants them to have.

Some experts saw this as a slight but significant moving of the goal posts when it comes to the Trump-Kim summit.

It seems possible Pompeo is using the talking point about Kim striking the United States simply because of Trump's “America First” approach. Perhaps it's just his way of reinforcing the stakes of this potential deal specifically for Americans.

But a closer parse suggests that there may be more focus on Kim's halting the existing nuclear program and getting rid of his Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program — which would be the delivery system for striking the United States. Pompeo explicitly talks about needing North Korea to “get rid of your [chemical weapons] program and missiles that threaten the world,” but he doesn't say the same thing about getting rid of nukes.

From there, the question is what precisely is meant by “dismantle” and “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” This could all simply be the fits and starts involved in complex diplomacy and peace talks, but Trump decided to set that firm line. And it seems conspicuous that, in two lengthy interviews about the process, Pompeo wouldn't just reiterate that very specific demand.