WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo voiced cautious optimism in President Donald Trump’s ability to negotiate a nuclear deal with Pyongyang, but also struck a tone on the issue that was likely to trigger concern in Tokyo and Seoul, during a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.
Pompeo, who currently serves as CIA chief, told the hearing that the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, planned for May or early June, would lay the foundations for denuclearizing the North.
Referring to what would be the first direct engagement between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, Pompeo played down expectations of a “comprehensive agreement” in just a single meeting.
But he said he expects the unprecedented meeting to “set out the conditions that would be acceptable to each side for the two leaders that will ultimately make the decision about whether such an agreement can be achieved and then set in place.”
Under questioning, Pompeo would not take any option off the table, including military action.
At the same time, he claimed he was not advocating for regime change in North Korea and had never done so.
Last year, North Korea accused Pompeo of favoring such a policy after he told a forum in July that he was “hopeful” the U.S. could “find a way to separate that regime from” its nuclear weapons.
Pompeo also said Thursday that Pyongyang should not expect any rewards from talks until it takes irreversible steps to give up its nuclear arsenal, adding that the historical analysis was “not optimistic,” when asked if he believed the North would agree to dismantle its nuclear program.
He said that in past negotiations the U.S. and the world had relaxed sanctions too quickly.
“It is the intention of the president and the administration not to do that this time to make sure that … before we provide rewards, we get the outcome permanently, irreversibly, that it is what we hope to achieve,” Pompeo said.
“It is a tall order, but I am hopeful that President Trump can achieve that through sound diplomacy,” he added.
But questioned twice as to what the exact goal of the Trump-Kim summit, Pompeo was explicit.
The purpose is “to develop an agreement with the North Korean leadership such that the North Korean leadership will step away from its efforts to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons, completely and verifiably,” he said.
Asked again by Republican Sen. Cory Gardner if “the only goal the United States has” in relation to North Korea is denuclearization,” Pompeo offered one caveat.
“We need to ensure that we continue to provide a strategic deterrence framework for our allies in the region: the South Koreans, the Japanese and others as well,” he said. “But the purpose of the meeting is to address the threat to the United States.”
Last year, the North conducted its most powerful nuclear test and launched more than 20 missiles — including two intermediate-range weapons that flew over Japan and another long-range missile that experts say puts the whole of the United States in striking distance, a critical milestone that Trump had vowed not to let happen.
Regional security experts and observers said Pompeo’s remarks fit well with Trump’s “America First” policy, which has left allies Japan and South Korea at times concerned.
South Korea and Japan, rely on extended deterrence, or the so-called U.S. nuclear umbrella, for their security. Through mutual defense treaties, Washington has promised to treat an attack on Seoul or Tokyo as a threat to its own security, and to respond swiftly to aggression against them.
But the U.S. has far less incentive to intervene on their behalf if North Korea can respond with a nuclear strike against the U.S. homeland, some experts say. This phenomenon, whereby a nuclear-armed adversary can separate a security guarantor from its ally, is known as “decoupling.”
“This is where America First gets unstuck,” said Euan Graham, a former British diplomat who served in Pyongyang and who is currently director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia. One “can’t expect allies to be on board with a strategy that is so narrowly focused on the homeland threat.”
Still, in a sign that might placate the two U.S. allies, Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, held talks Thursday with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
“The fact that Bolton has been engaging his Japanese and South Korean counterparts is some crumb of comfort,” said Graham. “But the risk of decoupling will only increase each time we hear similar sentiments from POTUS or his national security principles.”
This was a “poor start for a prospective secretary of state on that score,” he added.
However Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specializing in North Korea, said that a U.S. Secretary of State’s “foremost obligation is to represent the United States,” which made it “appropriate for Pompeo to prioritize addressing the threat as it pertains to the American people.”
“That said, effectively advancing U.S. interests also requires strong alliances, and it’s important for him to understand that the United States suffers, too, if no one wants to be our ally because we’ve thrown the ones we have under the bus,” Oba said. “Our alliance commitments matter.”