US President Donald Trump’s decision to tap a hard-liner as his new secretary of state ahead of a historic US-North Korea summit hints at serious intentions for the talks, and his determination to tighten his grip over North Korea policy, experts say.
The decision to pick Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who has been loyal to Trump, could boost US-North Korea talks, they say. But concerns also persist that there is now no one left in Washington to challenge Trump’s decisions.
Trump on Tuesday announced that he sought Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s resignation and nominated Pompeo for the post, who he said had a “similar thought process” to himself. Before leaving on a trip to California, Trump spoke openly of his differences with Tillerson, saying, “We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things.”
The decision came less than a week after Trump accepted an invitation from Kim to meet for talks by May to achieve denuclearization in a surprising turn of events following a year of tensions heightened by the North’s nuclear and missile provocations.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers farewell remarks in Washington on Tuesday. (EPA-Yonhap)
The shake-up of his team shows that he wants to be well-prepared for the unprecedented summit with Kim, said Kim Yeon-chul, a professor at Inje University.
“The current situation is a result of three-way (behind-the-scenes) talks among North Korea’s United Front Department, South Korea’s spy agency and the CIA,” he said. “Giving Pompeo the task of preparing for North Korea-US talks signals Trump’s determination to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim.”
Woo Jung-yeop, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said that Trump sought to have a top diplomat better aligned with his policy views so that the US could promote its commitment to a maximum pressure campaign and pursuit of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the communist state.
“Rather than a shift to a tougher stance on North Korea, the move could be seen as empowering the State Department, which has been seen as being increasingly sidelined by President Trump, for the upcoming negotiations with North Koreans,” he said.
Pompeo, a former Republican congressman, has been one of Trump’s most loyal cabinet members and more in sync with Trump on foreign policies. He also closely communicated with his South Korean counterpart Suh Hoon when Seoul engaged with Pyongyang during and after the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
“One of the key features for any negotiator is that they have to be able to credibly represent their leadership,” Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, said during a forum in Washington. “That your counterpart knows that whatever deal you make, you know that your boss will back you up.”
Pompeo could be a more “credible negotiator” if he can credibly say he represents the president and if the president is able to convey that sort of representational status, he said.
Mike Pompeo (AP)
Other experts, however, point out that tapping Pompeo shows that the US is shifting to a tougher stance on North Korea and that there is now a higher possibility of the use of a military option against the reclusive regime if talks with North Korea fall through.
Tillerson was a rare member of the Trump administration who was vocally supportive of talks with North Korea, which sometimes put him at odds with Trump. Pompeo, on the other hand, is seen as a hard-liner more in favor of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.
“If Tillerson is out and Pompeo is in, some would see that as you have more advocates for a preventive attack if this diplomacy thing doesn’t work,” Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told the same forum.
Another concern is that there are no diverse voices in the Trump administration, said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong University.
“His pick of Pompeo shows that he wants to become the ultimate decider. Those who held views that were different from Trump’s continue to leave the Trump administration,” Park said. “What is scarier than appointing a hard-liner (Pompeo) as a top diplomat is that there is no one around Trump who can criticize his policies.”
Meanwhile, Seoul’s top diplomat dismissed concerns that Trump’s decision would undermine coordination between South Korea and the US.
She said that Tillerson’s departure comes as “a sudden change,” but it would not affect the close coordination between South Korea and the US on the North Korean nuclear issue.
“As (we have) maintained (coordination) closely, I believe (we) can continue to do so with the new person,” Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters on her way to work Wednesday morning, referring to Pompeo.
Despite the sudden change, Kang plans to leave for the US on a three-day visit Thursday as she was scheduled to meet Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and discuss matters concerning President Moon Jae-in and Trump’s respective meetings with North Korean leader Kim.
Lee Do-hoon, the Foreign Ministry’s point man on North Korean nuclear issues, left for Washington on Wednesday to coordinate with US officials ahead of the planned foreign ministerial talks.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com