War Stories

Pompeo’s Doomed Mission to Pyongyang

The secretary of state is being set up to fail in North Korea.

Mike Pompeo behind a microphone.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York City on Sept. 24.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Apart from Brett Kavanaugh, the most nervous man in Washington currently may well be Mike Pompeo. The secretary of state is flying to North Korea this weekend with hopes of nailing down the framework of a disarmament deal with Kim Jong-un. If he fails, President Donald Trump, who has pronounced himself “in love” with Kim, will be upset. He will almost certainly fail.

There is no reason for Kim to let Pompeo succeed, and some of this is Trump’s doing. Ever since the June summit in Singapore, where he appraised the man he once called “Little Rocket Man” as a great and trustworthy leader, Trump has dropped even the slightest hint of pressure against Kim’s regime. He has publicly said Kim should feel no rush to honor his vague pledge to “denuclearize”; he’s declined to back up his own negotiators’ demand that their North Korean counterparts at least define the term; and U.N. sanctions are still in place, but he has called for no action against Russia or China for violating them. When Trump confessed at a rally last weekend in West Virginia that he and Kim “fell in love” at their summit, he pulverized the last shred of leverage that Pompeo might have brandished this coming weekend.

Kim will likely hold off playing any cards until his next summit with Trump—which Trump has been keen to organize, possibly in Washington, for some time. The “U.S. dotard,” as Kim once called him, believes that only he knows how to negotiate with foreign leaders, so he may, in that sense, welcome Pompeo’s empty-handed return as a chance to display his own prowess at the “art of the deal.” In their one-on-one session at the previous summit, Trump gave Kim some tangible favors—including the suspension of U.S.–South Korean military exercises—for nothing in return. Kim, who has proved quite shrewd at pushing the buttons of allies and adversaries, has reason to hope for a reprise at the Trump summit to come.

According to the Washington Post, South Korean President Moon Jae-in—who has galvanized this nascent détente since the historic Winter Olympics visit and is keen to accelerate the steps toward peace, investment, and trade—proposed a deal, just this week, that he hoped would break the logjam between Trump’s and Kim’s negotiators: In exchange for the verified dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the United States would declare a formal end to the Korean War, which has persisted as a tense cold war since the armistice of 1953.

For Kim, this would be a good deal. Yongbyon is not the only—and may not be the principal—site where North Korea enriches uranium. Meanwhile, he could wave a peace declaration as a rationale for lifting economic sanctions and removing U.S. military forces from South Korea and the region—in short, for getting everything the Kim dynasty has desired for more than 60 years.

Certainly, from Kim’s point of view, Moon’s proposal would be far better than the Trump administration’s insistence that the next diplomatic step must entail a comprehensive list of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities. Pompeo had referred to this demand as a “declaration for declaration”—the U.S. declares peace; North Korea declares its atomic holdings.

It’s a clear signal of Kim’s confidence that he rejected not only Pompeo’s formula but Moon’s as well.

Ever since Singapore, Kim’s negotiators—many of whom have been at their jobs since the arms talks with the Clinton administration, a quarter-century ago—have pretty much twiddled their thumbs in their sessions with the U.S. team. The Post story reports that they’ve entirely ignored Stephen Biegun, Trump’s recently appointed special envoy to North Korea. As Daniel Sneider, lecturer in Asia studies at Stanford, wrote in the Nelson Report, a private newsletter on Asian politics, they “clearly believe they can get the best deal from Trump himself”—a view vindicated by Singapore and reinforced by the many warm greetings sent since by the man in the White House with the puzzling case of adoration for tyrants.

Pompeo signed up to be America’s top diplomat, but he’s finding himself left out of the room where things really happen—and not to his, or our, advantage.