The two events are almost certainly linked. Although Tillerson's nearly 14 months leading the State Department have often been controversial, he was seen as a rare member of the Trump administration who was vocally supportive of talks with North Korea — a position that sometimes put him publicly at odds with Trump.
Pompeo, on the other hand, has gained a reputation for more hawkish positions not only about North Korea, but also other U.S. geopolitical rivals such as Iran and Russia. Adam Cathcart, a North Korea expert at the University of Leeds, wrote last month that Pompeo “tends to speaks about twice as fast as the President” about Pyongyang's weapons programs.
Here is a selection of comments by both men on North Korea that highlight their different approaches.
Tillerson on North Korea
- “We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We seek a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.” April 27, 2017.
- “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. . . . We are trying to convey to the North Koreans: ‘We are not your enemy, we are not your threat. But you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.’ ” Aug. 1, 2017.
- “Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.” Nov. 28, 2017.
- “Let’s just meet — we can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?” Dec. 12, 2017.
- “We're a long ways from negotiations.” March 8, 2018.
Pompeo on North Korea
- “As for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system. . . . The North Korean people, I'm sure, are lovely people and would love to see him go.” July 21, 2017.
- Trump “has made very clear that the United States finds it unacceptable for a rogue leader like Kim Jong Un to have the capacity of a ballistic missile with a warhead that is integrated and fully deliverable to the United States and hold America and the world at risk. He finds that unacceptable, and he is simply not going to permit it to happen.” Aug. 13, 2017.
- [Responding to a question about what would happen if Kim disappeared] “I am just not going to talk about that. Someone might think there was a coincidence if, you know, there was an accident. It is just not fruitful.” Oct. 19, 2017.
- “We are focused like a laser on achieving [North Korean denuclearization through diplomacy]. We are equally, at the same time, ensuring that the — if we conclude that it is not possible, that we present the president with a range of options that can achieve what is his stated intention.” Jan. 23, 2018.
- “Make no mistake about it, while these negotiations are going on, there will be no concessions made.” March 11, 2018.
The moves in the State Department could be an incisive sign of how the Trump administration views the potential talks with North Korea.
“If the administration is serious about beginning talks with the North Koreans, it’s likely that Trump is making this change now because he believes a more hawkish Pompeo will represent him better than Tillerson,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America think tank who has led unofficial negotiations with North Korea.
However, the differences in Tillerson's and Pompeo's stated positions on North Korea may well reflect the different offices the two men held when they made those comments. Patrick Cronin, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security, said he expects Pompeo to modify his language when he makes the jump to the State Department. “I think he's an adapter,” Cronin said.
“Mike Pompeo has been in sync with President Trump from day one — on North Korea in particular,” Cronin said. “There has been no doubt that he has been instrumental in shaping the administration's maximum-pressure-and-engagement strategy.”
Tillerson had become preoccupied with reforming the State Department, Cronin said, and had been reluctant to play the role of top U.S. spokesman on foreign policy. Pompeo will have to “right the ship” on these reforms, Cronin added.
It is not clear whether North Korean officials will take note of the change at the State Department. However, in January, North Korean state media ran an editorial that criticized comments Pompeo had made about North Korea, suggesting that they revealed “the sinister intention of the Trump group to turn back the climate of reconciliation” between North and South Korea.
Joel Wit, founder of the 38 North website and a former negotiator with North Korea, said Pyongyang may well view it as a positive for talks that Pompeo is closely aligned with Trump. “I think Pompeo is probably smart enough to know what the president wants, and he wants the president to succeed,” Wit said.
DiMaggio said Pompeo and Tillerson were “untested” diplomats, which put the United States at a disadvantage. “Pyongyang’s chief diplomat, Ri Yong Ho, is North Korea's lead expert on the U.S., with extensive negotiating experience,” she said.
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