The admission from President Donald Trump on Tuesday that there is a “a very substantial chance” that talks aimed at negotiating North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs “won’t work out” has left the United States out on a limb.
It also left Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with little to say as he appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
While appearing before lawmakers chiefly to answer questions about the State Department’s budget and staffing concerns, a few representatives took the opportunity to express their concerns over the negotiations with North Korea, now in jeopardy after National Security Adviser John Bolton said that North Korea would have to submit to the “Libya model” of giving up its nuclear program.
Noting that things did not end well for Libya (a country now on the verge of total collapse), North Korea responded angrily, saying it would not proceed with the summit under these circumstances.
Most of the questions and statements made by lawmakers on Wednesday focused on hoping the talks would happen, asking the administration to maintain pressure on North Korea, and not giving its leader, Kim Jong-Un, the upper hand.
Pompeo was able to answer most of those concerns with promises to maintain pressure, assuring the room that the United States had made, “Zero concessions … and [has] no intention of doing so” and hoping the United States would be “historically successful” without giving any details on how it would get there.
The only lawmaker to really push Pompeo was Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX), who peppered Pompeo with a series of probing questions which revealed one very crucial thing: Despite all of President Trump’s talk and all the talk about sanctions and unprecedented pressure, Kim is very much in the driver’s seat.
Castro’s first question was whether the summit would happen, to which Pompeo responded, “Sir, that decision is ultimately up to Chairman Kim.”
Castro then asked Pompeo to define “complete” de-nuclearization of North Korea, and, with a sigh, Pompeo listed virtually every aspect of the nuclear program that the United States wants dismantled. Castro wanted to know if Pyongyang would be able to have a civilian nuclear program, but Pompeo didn’t have an answer to that. Nor did he have specifics on how the nuclear material would be moved out or if Russia would be involved.
The Texan lawmaker then went after the administration’s incoherent foreign policy: “One of the things that has hurt this administration is that on any controversial issue of foreign policy … you often get two or three or four different answers, depending on who you’re speaking to in the administration. … So let me ask you: Who is in charge of these negotiations? Is it you or Mr. Bolton?”
Pompeo replied, “President Trump.”
Castro also pressed him on who might lead the team and asked for specifics. Pompeo said he would be leading the team, but declined to give more details on who else would be on the team and how it would be structured.
Castro also asked Pompeo if he would pursue the “Libya model,” or if he finds it “not appropriate here, as Mr. Trump has indicated,” and if the administration was considering regime change down the line.
Contradicting the president, Pompeo said there was no distinction to be made between the two, focusing on “a rapid de-nuclearlization, total and complete,” but did not give a clear answer on regime change.
This was Pompeo simply doubling down on the same statement — and contradiction — that he mentioned in his prepared testimony at the top of the hearing, which was written as though the summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, was still moving ahead. Calling the de-nuclearization of North Korea a “top national security priority,” Pompeo said:
The maximum pressure campaign of diplomatic and economic sanctions is bearing fruit with the historic meeting set to take place on June 12th. This campaign has been undertaken in concert with an unprecedented number of allies and partners. Our posture will not change until we see credible steps taken toward the complete, verifiable, and irreversible de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Watch the full exchange here:
President Trump, less than 24 hours earlier, backtracked on calling for North Korea’s immediate de-nuclearization, even though he had already boasted that he’d never asked for it, but that Pyongyang had nonetheless “given up” its nuclear program.
As of now, North Korea seems to be continuing along its own path, with or without the United States. It invited journalists to witness the dismantling of a nuclear testing facility this week.