In the aftermath of Trump's unexpected announcement that at the invitation of Kim Jong Un, he would meet with the North Korean leader in what is set to be a historic meeting, the first of its kind between the leaders of the two nations at a still unknown location, it emerged that not even Trump's top diplomats were aware of the impromptu decision.
According to press reports, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his ongoing Africa trip that he spoke with President Trump on his decision to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un only after it was announced by South Korean officials and the administration. Speaking in Djibouti, Tillerson was asked about his months-long public position that the time was not right for sitting down with North Korea.
"With respect to talks with North Korea versus negotiations -- and I think this seems to be something that people continue to struggle with the difference," Tillerson replied. "My comments have been that we're -- the conditions are not right for negotiations, but we've been saying for some time we are open to talks. President Trump has said for some time that he was open to talks and he would willingly meet with Kim Jong-un when conditions were right and the time was right. And I think in the president's judgment, that time has arrived now."
Tillerson then admitted that it was all Trump: "In terms of the decision to engage between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, that's a decision the president took himself," he added. "I spoke to him very early this morning about that decision and we had a good conversation. This is something that he's had on his mind for quite some time, so it was not a surprise in any way, because I think this has long been something. He's expressed it openly before about his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un."
To be sure, the U-Turn by the president surprised many: prior to announcing the meeting, Trump and Kim traded sharp barbs and threats on the global stage, with Trump calling the North Korean “short and fat” and a “madman.” Kim responded by calling the president a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Trump also threatened to use military force if necessary to stop North Korea’s nuclear threat, saying the country would be met with “fire and fury.”
Meanwhile, further confusion emerged after the White House said on Friday that the meeting between the two nations would in fact face pre-conditions, contrary to the initial narrative, and that the US expects North Korea to take "verifiable and concrete actions" before the Trump-Kim meeting is greenlit.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says President Trump won’t meet with Kim Jong Un “until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea” https://t.co/qTID7SRySB pic.twitter.com/bJrQz4kvPQ— CNN (@CNN) March 9, 2018
So in an attempt to clarify and summarize the current status of the proposed Trump-Kim talks, which as the president said would take place before May, CIA Director Mike Pompeo appeared on TV today to vouch that the U.S. "will make no concessions to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un" in discussions leading to potential talks between the reclusive leader and President Donald Trump, or during any subsequent negotiations.
Kim, on the other hand, must stand by the concessions he’s offered, including ceasing nuclear and missile testing, continuing to allow U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and leaving denuclearization “on the table,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday.”
CIA Director Mike Pompeo tells @johnrobertsFox the U.S. will make "no concessions" during negotiations with North Korea. Watch the full interview at 2P/7P ET on @FoxNews Channel. pic.twitter.com/SP7xLqBMmu— FoxNewsSunday (@FoxNewsSunday) March 11, 2018
In an attempt to spin the narrative, Pompeo justified Trump's decision by suggesting that the US leverage over North Korea has never been greater: "Never before have we had the North Koreans in a position where their economy was at such risk, and where their leadership was under such pressure that they would begin conversations on the terms that Kim Jong Un has conceded to" and added that the discussions with North Korea, should they occur, “will play out over time."
Pompeo also said that sanctions on North Korea will continue, especially as they are having an impact on North Korea’s economy and have brought Kim to the negotiating table, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“Now we have a situation where the president is using diplomacy but we’re not removing the maximum pressure campaign,” Mnuchin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The president is going to sit down and see if he can cut a deal.”
Separately, Pompeo said that it’s still the CIA’s assessment that North Korea is “a few months” away from being able to reach the U.S. with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile, Pompeo said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. From Bloomberg:
General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Jan. 30 that while the regime has “made some strides,” it hasn’t yet demonstrated having all the components for a strike with nuclear ICBM.
“It’s possible he has them and so we have to place the bet that he might have them, but he hasn’t demonstrated them,” said Selva.
Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Kim has shown he’s mostly interested in preserving his own regime. Speaking on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS", Dempsey said that “we’ve seen he’s willing to do nearly anything to do that... And this is why this negotiation will be so challenging.”
A key question is whether any U.S.-North Korean talks include reducing the conventional military threat that Kim poses to South Korea as well as denuclearization, with its “thousands of artillery pieces and rockets arrayed along the Demilitarized Zone,” Dempsey said.
“Our negotiators will have to decide, how compartmentalized do we want it to be?” Dempsey said. “Are we trying to bring stability to the Korean Peninsula, which takes you on one path, or are we trying, simply, to denuclearize?” he said. “That will be an important decision.”
Additionally, Pompeo also repeated his agency’s conclusion about Kim’s personality that in spite of the bombast, “we know a fair amount about him. We know that he is rational in the sense that he responds to stimulus. We’ve seen this.”
The CIA director's explanation came at a time when some have suggested the unprecedented meeting between the presidents - which upends decades of American foreign policy - could become a stalling tactic by Kim to avoid additional economic sanctions while continuing to develop weaponry.
As Bloomberg adds, when asked on ABC whether the meeting may not happen, Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said, “There’s the possibility. If it does, it’s the North Koreans’ fault. They have not lived up to the promises that they made.” Holding the meeting in Pyongyang is not highly likely, but nothing has been ruled out for a location, he said.
Deputy Press Sec. Raj Shah tells @jonkarl on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Pres. Trump's possible summit: "He has stated a commitment to denuclearization to South Korea, they've relayed that to us, so we're open to this invitation." pic.twitter.com/Rsb5IABo2I— ABC News (@ABC) March 11, 2018
Meanwhile, traditional Trump foes have expressed strong skepticism that Trump has the diplomatic skills to achieve the breakthrough: Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser for President Barack Obama, said that it’s right to pursue a diplomatic approach, but the question is whether Trump is equipped to succeed with a complex and volatile situation that needs seasoned diplomats. Translation: Trump better not succeed where Obama did not even try.
“This is not a real estate deal or a reality show,” Rhodes said on ABC; then again decades of conventional diplomacy achieved absolutely nothing and allowed Kim to developed advanced ICBMs, so perhaps a diplomatic realty show is precisely what is needed to actually achieve results.