Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is making a bold and risky push to reinvigorate a diplomatic effort with North Korea that is struggling to make progress amid increasingly belligerent rhetoric from Pyongyang. Inside the Trump administration, frustration mounts as officials debate how bad the situation really is and what to do about it.
When Pompeo arrives in Pyongyang next week, alongside his freshly appointed special envoy Stephen Biegun, he will be under severe pressure to show tangible evidence that his diplomacy is producing real results. If Pompeo’s trip is a failure, skeptics inside the administration and around Washington will push for a change in tactics to acknowledge the reality that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is not living up to his promises. It will be the most significant trip of Pompeo’s diplomatic career.
Despite his public optimism, President Trump privately has been expressing frustration with the negative publicity surrounding his North Korea diplomacy, according to administration officials. This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed “grave concern” in a new report that claims Pyongyang is continuing to develop its nuclear capabilities, despite Kim’s pledge to denuclearize.
Last week, North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a statement blaming unnamed “high-level officials” in the Trump administration for “going against the intention of president Trump” by criticizing the Kim regime’s lack of progress. The main goal of Pompeo’s trip, officials said, is to reverse the downward trend, set the diplomacy on a positive footing and quiet the critics in Washington and Pyongyang.
But Pompeo has few tools to induce more concessions from Kim. And if he takes a harder line, he risks blowing up the negotiations altogether.
“Pompeo is stuck,” said one senior administration official who was not authorized to speak. “He’s a prisoner of championing a policy that’s based on what the president would love to see happen, but not based on reality and the facts on the ground.”
In anticipation of Pompeo’s trip, Trump sent a letter to Kim. Officials briefed on the letter said it implored Kim to take steps to advance diplomacy while also urging him not to take any more negative steps that might jeopardize this opportunity — what officials called a carrot-and-stick message.
Even the decision to send the letter was a matter of dispute within the Trump team. National security adviser John Bolton, who has taken a hard line internally, argued against sending the letter. Bolton and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have also argued against giving Kim a new concession in the form of a declaration officially ending the Korean War. The Pentagon declined to comment, and a National Security Council spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
The Trump administration has already announced limited sanctions against Chinese and Russian firms helping the Kim regime bust sanctions, but some officials want to see Trump pivot toward a tougher public stance to respond to Kim’s misbehavior. The Trump team cannot even agree on how grave the situation is.
“It’s now a process designed to measure not how much progress we’re making, but how much damage is being done,” the senior administration official said.
That confusion leaves Pompeo with the difficult task of reversing the downward trend in the diplomacy without having anything new to offer. His last trip to Pyongyang ended in failure, when Kim refused to meet him and the North Koreans blasted him as soon as he left. He must show something publicly this time to prove to the public, internal administration critics and the president that the diplomacy is not going as badly as it looks.
If the trip is another failure, internal critics and some in Congress will push for more pressure on North Korea, more sanctions, a resumption of U.S.-South Korea military exercises, and other measures to show Kim he can’t jerk around the United States. The argument against these measures is that they could create a rift in the U.S.-South Korea alliance and risk sinking the whole process — with the blame falling on the U.S. government.
There are some positive signs. Biegun, though not a North Korea expert per se, is a highly experienced professional who will hopefully add some regularity to U.S. negotiations with Pyongyang. Having the secretary of state fly halfway around the world every time there’s a problem isn’t sustainable. Pompeo may also be working other angles we just don’t know about.
But the fundamental problem with the Trump-Kim scheme remains: Until there is tangible evidence Kim is actually willing to denuclearize, each concession only plays into his strategy to stall for time, relieve financial pressure and normalize his regime’s status as a de facto nuclear state.
Unlike Trump, Pompeo has never said he believes Kim is sincere, only that the United States must test that sincerity. Time is almost up for North Korea to pass or fail that test. Pompeo must not return from his fourth trip to Pyongyang empty-handed.