President Trump is in Vietnam for his second formal summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. From the beginning of this process, one of the biggest concerns was that Trump would be too eager to cut a deal. His lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize, for example, suggests he is quite invested in a legacy-defining outcome.
To combat this perception, the administration has emphasized a hard line: No sanctions relief unless and until North Korea has totally and verifiably denuclearized.
Except with Trump meeting with Kim again, that line has clearly been softened. And its softening suggests that eagerness to cut a deal may be lurking.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on NBC News last week and played up what he labeled as the toughest sanctions North Korea has ever faced. “And we won’t release that pressure until such time as we’re confident that we’ve substantially reduced that risk,” he said.
That caught the ear of many, including CNN’s Jake Tapper, who noted in an interview with Pompeo on Sunday that “substantially reduced that risk” was not as firm as the complete and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons.
But Pompeo insisted there had been no change. He said the sanctions implemented by the United Nations Security Council in 2017 would indeed remain in place until there was “full, verified denuclearization.” But he also suggested other types of sanctions could potentially be relaxed before then.
“Remember these sanctions cover a broad array of activities,” he said. “The core economic sanctions, the sanctions that prevent countries from conducting trade, creating wealth for North Korea, those sanctions are definitely going to remain in place. There are other things we could do — exchanges of people, lots of other ways that North Korea is sanctioned today — that if we get a substantial step and move forward, we could certainly provide an outlet which would demonstrate our commitment to the process as well.”
This seems like a shift in emphasis at least. Pompeo had not previously carved out these other types of sanctions when delivering his ultimatums; he simply said no sanctions relief without total denuclearization, full stop.
Maybe he thought it was just assumed that he was talking only about the U.N. sanctions? But a look back at Pompeo’s remarks suggests this is more than just a matter of emphasis. At multiple points over the past year, Pompeo has said outright or clearly suggested that no sanctions would be lifted short of total denuclearization. What’s more, he often did so while emphasizing that the Trump administration wouldn’t entertain the kind of incremental approach that it now seems to be considering.
“We’re not going to relieve sanctions until such time as we achieved our objectives,” he said in May 2018. “We are not going to do this in small increments, where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure.”
He added in June: “The president has been very clear: Sanctions will not be lifted until such time as the denuclearization itself has been completed. Look, we’ve been down the path before where promises have been made and not kept.”
Pompeo repeatedly mentioned sanctions remaining in place without indicating that he was referring to just U.N. or economic sanctions. In fact, in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July, he made clear that both U.N. and U.S.-imposed sanctions were included in the ultimatum.
“Until North Korea eliminates its weapons of mass destruction, our sanctions and those at the United Stations will remain — United Nations — will remain in effect,” he said.
In November, CBS’s John Dickerson asked whether “any economic sanctions” would be lifted before total denuclearization. Pompeo again said they would not be:
DICKERSON: Mr. Secretary, you said that North Korea will not see any economic sanctions lifted until it has demonstrated complete denuclearization. Is that still your position?
SECRETARY POMPEO: It is. Not only complete denuclearization, but our capacity to verify that that has taken place.
But by last month, we started to see some cracks in the ultimatum. While interviewing Pompeo, Fox News’s Rich Edson noted that Kim in his New Year’s address floated limited sanctions relief for incremental steps, including a pledge not to transfer arms. Pompeo did not dismiss it out of hand.
Edson then asked him whether the administration’s position remained the same, that North Korea had to give up its nuclear arms to get any sanctions relief. Pompeo demurred. Rather than saying this was the demand, he instead described it as “the objective”:
EDSON: And the position is still the same: They must give up their nuclear weapons in order to get sanctions relief from the United States?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I don’t think there has been a single variant from the core proposition, which is the fully denuclearized North Korea, as verified by international experts, is the objective of this administration. We intend to achieve that.
Fast-forward to today, and Pompeo is now making clear that certain types of sanctions (though not the core U.N. sanctions) could indeed be on the table. And that’s a shift — both tonally and practically — from where this whole thing began.
It doesn’t mean he and Trump will launch themselves headlong into a bad deal. But it does mean they aren’t being as firm as they once were.