Editor’s note: This news analysis is based on an exclusive interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
IN FLIGHT OVER THE PACIFIC — Say whatever else you want about President Trump’s relentless tornado diplomacy aimed at North Korea; it is at least original.
“Unconventional,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledges with a smile.
“He stares at these problems and says if we keep banging away the way we have been forever — the positions are staked out — the likelihood of success is almost nil,” he told The Washington Times. “Let’s try and come at this from a different direction.”
Mr. Trump’s latest meeting with North Korean President Kim Jong-un — whom he once dubbed “Little Rocket Man” — came about in typical Trump fashion.
The president was going to be in South Korea after Group of 20 meetings in Japan “and says, ‘I’m gonna be up there,’” Mr. Pompeo recounted. “From Pyongyang to the border is not that far. Maybe Chairman Kim will come meet me!”
This alone would be enough to make history. But Mr. Trump was not finished doing things differently.
“He decides the best way to communicate this is to the world,” Mr. Pompeo said.
So Mr. Trump took to Twitter.
“After some very important meetings, including my meeting with President Xi of China, I will be leaving Japan for South Korea (with President Moon),” the president tweeted to his 61 million followers around the world at 7:51 a.m. Saturday. “While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”
Within an hour, Mr. Pompeo said, they heard from officials in North Korea.
“They responded saying, ‘Hey, what does this mean? What are you really thinking?’”
It was, Mr. Pompeo said, “20, maybe 30, hours between tweet and meeting.”
In his first interview just hours after returning from the DMZ with Mr. Trump, Mr. Pompeo is clearly pleased with the day’s events. He is seated at the desk in his office aboard the Air Force 757 carrying him home after an eight-day diplomatic journey around the world.
Last week, Mr. Pompeo headed east out of Washington to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along the Gulf of Oman, where Iran is accused of bombing two oil tankers and is threatening to resume enrichment of nuclear material.
Then it was on to Afghanistan, where Mr. Trump is urgently pressing for a stable peace with the Taliban so U.S. troops can come home.
From there, Mr. Pompeo ventured to New Delhi to encourage India — the world’s largest democracy — and its 1.3 billion people to take a larger, more powerful role in that region.
Then it was on to Japan for the G-20 and to South Korea, where Mr. Trump was hoping for a historic handshake with Mr. Kim.
“Look, for decades now this has been a challenge,” Mr. Pompeo said. “For the last 12 years, there’s been this real worry that they had a functional nuclear capability.”
After decades of “strategic indifference” by previous administrations, Mr. Pompeo has been the spear point of Mr. Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea.
“President Trump set about seeing if there wasn’t a possibility — beginning with sending me when I was CIA director on Easter weekend of 2017 — to see if it was possible, if Chairman Kim was ready to do this.”
Any optimism remains cloaked in caution and wariness of the pitfalls of negotiating with despots.
“There is always a risk,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The president always says it may not work. That is certainly the case even today.”
A Trumpian gamble
When Sunday morning dawned over Seoul, Mr. Trump still had no idea whether Mr. Kim would show up. As with so much of what Mr. Trump does, it was a gamble.
At a meeting with business leaders in the morning, Mr. Trump joked that since he had made such a public invitation, it would be easy for the North Korean dictator to humiliate him by not showing up for the handshake at the DMZ.
But even that vulnerability revealed the uncommon confidence of Mr. Trump.
So around 2 p.m., Mr. Trump, Mr. Pompeo and a clutch of American officials loaded into a fleet of helicopters and headed for the DMZ.
“We landed just outside the DMZ,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Mr. Trump went up to the observation point where U.S. and South Korean soldiers keep an armed eye on North Korean soldiers across the border and spent some time talking to American and South Korean soldiers posted there.
“Then we learned that Chairman Kim had arrived,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Mr. Trump headed for the border. He walked up to the leader formerly known as Little Rocket Man and shook his hand. And then the two men walked across the border and into history.
Courtesy and respect
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Pompeo is careful to refer to the North Korean leader as “Chairman Kim.” It may seem strange for American leaders to salute a dictator with his communist title, but there is a purpose to such honorifics.
“He treats his counterparts with respect,” Mr. Pompeo said of Mr. Trump.
“They are the leaders of their people and entitled to the right to execute sovereignty over their nation, and he respects that. And I think the other leaders see that, so they are prepared to engage in ways they might not be with a president who was different from that.”
With “Chairman Kim,” Mr. Trump is no different.
“He talks about his relationship. I watched him deal with [Mr. Kim] today in the room. It’s a serious conversation. They both respect each other,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Perhaps that respectfulness is all the more appreciated coming from a guy who is more than willing to publicly hurl withering insults at people.
During an hourlong press conference in Japan on Saturday, Mr. Trump reminded reporters of that cutting wit.
CNN’s deeply jaundiced White House correspondent, Jim Acosta — a frequent target of Mr. Trump’s abuse — asked Mr. Trump whether he failed to bring up an issue with another world leader because he was “afraid of offending.”
“No, not at all. I don’t really care about offending people. I sort of thought you’d know that,” Mr. Trump shot back, sparking an eruption of laughter from reporters.
In searching for peace on the Korean Peninsula, the central question is how to ensure North Korea the security it would need in order to give up its nuclear ballistic missile program.
“We have to find out what that would mean for them,” Mr. Pompeo said. “They have talked about a few things. One would be just documenting the end” of the 1950-53 Korean War, which is technically ongoing, by signing a formal peace treaty.
But there is “enormous generational mistrust” between North Korea and those seeking to disarm the regime. Mr. Pompeo thinks that mistrust is somewhat misplaced.
“For an ordinary American sitting in Wichita, Kansas, where I am from, there is no interest in the destruction of North Korea. We just want peace. We want them to not threaten the world with their nuclear weapons,” Mr. Pompeo said.
It is a difficult challenge for North Korea, Mr. Pompeo said, one that is made all the more difficult with the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. In that case, the Libyan strongman, persuaded by President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and the fate of Saddam Hussein, had agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction only to be savagely killed anyway by Islamist rebels with a helping hand from NATO forces.
“They stare at history where in previous cases some country has given up their nuclear weapons and the country was essentially then run over and the leader killed,” Mr. Pompeo said. “That has to be on their mind.”
Despite the cautious optimism, he said, negotiating today beats the “strategic indifference” of past administrations.
“My observation is that [talking] decreases overall risk. In the absence of working with the North Koreans to try and resolve this problem, the risk just accumulates,” Mr. Pompeo said. “And it’s accumulated over a period of time. We have to crack the code. We have to resolve this.”