Trump’s trusted diplomat faces daunting task with North Korea

Trump’s trusted diplomat faces daunting task with North Korea
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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBolton replacement inherits tough challenges — including Trump Saudi Arabia says it will take 'appropriate' action if Iran's role in attacks confirmed Clarence Thomas, Joe Manchin, Rudy Giuliani among guests at second state visit under Trump MORE is confronting a daunting task in putting meat on the bones of President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE’s agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Pompeo was instrumental in putting together the historic Trump-Kim summit and worked to engineer the meeting while he was still serving as Trump’s CIA director.

He has seemingly won the full confidence of his boss, who sent him to Pyongyang and entrusted that his secretary of State could pull off what could easily be Trump’s biggest success on the foreign policy stage thus far if negotiations yield results.

“You've earned my deepest respect and admiration and trust and you'll see why over the coming years,” Trump told Pompeo at his official swearing-in ceremony.

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All of that puts Pompeo in the best position of anyone to pull of the seemingly herculean task of denuclearizing North Korea, which is run by a government with a history of duplicity.

“The president left him all the hard part,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezAs NFIP reauthorization deadline looms, Congress must end lethal subsidies Senate Democrats warn Trump: Don't invite Putin to G-7 Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (D-N.J.) said of Pompeo.

Trump and Kim’s joint statement said the United States would offer North Korea “security guarantees” in exchange for “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

But the statement included no specifics on how denuclearization will be achieved, identifying neither verification methods nor a timeline.

The document named Pompeo, who met twice with Kim, as the lead U.S. negotiator going forward. It did not name his negotiating counterpart, saying only that it will be a “relevant high-level” North Korean official.

Pompeo has gone to work swiftly in seeking to follow up on the summit.

He immediately traveled to Seoul at its conclusion to brief South Korean and Japanese officials on the results, seeking to reassure the U.S. allies after they were caught off guard by Trump’s decision to cancel joint military exercises with South Korea.

Pompeo also traveled to Beijing, where his challenge was to ensure China does not ease sanctions on North Korea.

During his travels, Pompeo labored to defend the bare-bones Trump-Kim statement, saying the United States has not abandoned its demand for complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization despite the words “verifiable” and “irreversible” not appearing in the document.

In a moment that might reflect both fatigue and the pressure on his shoulders, Pompeo got testy with reporters who pushed him on the issue, saying a question about verification was “insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous.”

“Complete encompasses verifiable and irreversible,” Pompeo said. “I suppose we — you could argue semantics, but let me assure you that it’s in the document.”

Among the first challenges Pompeo will face now is getting a full accounting of North Korea’s weapons program, experts said.

“I would imagine that’s going to be the No. 1 issue on the docket when Pompeo starts his negotiations, you know, a week from now, or two weeks from now, because we cannot negotiate over denuclearization until we know what they have,” Victor Cha, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was under consideration to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea, said on a conference call this week.

“Now, we ourselves have a pretty good idea, but still the North Koreans have to fess up to that if we’re — if this going to be, you know, anything near serious,” Cha added.

Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, said Pompeo also faces a challenge at home: State Department staffing.

The department does not have a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, for example, and the acting assistant secretary has been sidelined in the North Korea negotiations despite being nominated to take the job permanently. Additionally, Trump’s choice for ambassador to South Korea had his confirmation hearing just this week, two days after the summit.

“With a State Department that has not really been properly staffed yet, how can the bureaucracy pursue extremely complicated, drawn-out negotiations,” Daly said on a conference call. “We are now faced with this very acute problem of staffing and whether in fact we have the horses in the functioning bureaucracy that will allow this to go forward if in fact Kim Jong Un is really interested in a gradual negotiation of denuclearization.”

Pompeo’s advantages going forward include Trump’s trust; the president declared after the summit that Pompeo “has been really doing a fantastic job.” Pompeo is also already keenly aware of who is he is negotiating with given his past work in the CIA.

Republicans in Congress are confident their former congressional colleague is up to the task.

“Having served on the Intelligence Committee with him, in addition him having come from a year at CIA, I think he goes into these negotiations with his eyes wide open,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryNegotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight House rejects GOP motion on replacing Pentagon funding used on border wall MORE (R-Texas) said. “He knows the history, he knows what the regime is like. And I think he is up to the task.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate Judiciary Committee requests consultation with admin on refugee admissions Trump reignites court fight with Ninth Circuit pick Trump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition MORE (R-S.C.) said he “thank[s] God every day Pompeo is on the team.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.), who has not been afraid to criticize Trump, said he is hoping to bring Pompeo before his committee to get more information on “what all happened at Singapore,” though he did not have a specific date yet.

“I have a lot of faith in Pompeo,” Corker said Thursday. “I’m glad he’s secretary of State, and I think he’s very clear-eyed.”

Earlier in the week, Corker also suggested Pompeo may temper any concessions Trump promised Kim, such as an apparent pledge to lift sanctions that was reported by North Korean state media.

“The president has a tendency from time to time to do something ad hoc that hasn’t been vetted with people around him, and then sometimes they’ll walk those back,” Corker told reporters Wednesday. “A good example is, we’re going to leave to Syria, and then [Defense Secretary James] Mattis comes in, and we’re not going to leave to Syria. So let’s have the people around the president come in and talk to us.”

Some Democrats, though, are skeptical a North Korea deal is possible, even as they express mild confidence in Pompeo.

“I certainly have more confidence in Pompeo as a negotiator than his boss,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights GOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Trump administration floats background check proposal to Senate GOP MORE (D-Conn.) said. “The expectations that Trump has set are clear: a full, total commitment to denuclearization. I just think that’s a bridge right now that doesn’t feel like the North Koreans want to cross.” 

Menendez was dismissive of the summit, saying Trump “really achieved nothing of any substance, even a definition of what denuclearization is, so I trust the secretary will work hard at hopefully making something happen, which means irreversible, verifiable dismantlement of the nuclear weapons.”