Mike Pompeo, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea on April 18, 2018.

Mike Pompeo, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea on April 18, 2018. AP / Ahn Young-joon

Pompeo’s Secret Korea Trip May Not Save His Nomination, But It Could Save Trump’s Summit

The president needs a "win" somewhere so badly that at the summit he may accept a nuclear freeze and a determined process as a major victory. That is a good thing.

Even if you politically oppose President Donald Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, you should welcome Pompeo’s surprise meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un. More than anything else that has happened in the Trump presidency, this trip could bring us closer to resolving one of the most dangerous nuclear crises in the world today.

The trip itself is historic. It is the United States’ first official meeting with Kim and the highest-level contact between the two nations since the successful negotiations held between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

Those talks in 2000 brought us tantalizingly close to a deal to end North Korea’s nuclear program before they had tested any bombs. Even though the U.S. intelligence agencies knew that North Korea was secretly trying to start a uranium-enrichment program, Albright’s successor, Secretary of State Colin Powell, promised in March 2001 that the “administration would pick up where the Clinton administration had left off” since “U.S. negotiators had reportedly been close to finalizing a deal under which North Korea would have stopped its missile development.” President George W. Bush, at the urging of Vice-President Dick Cheney, killed the process. North Korea exploded its first bomb five years later.

The Pompeo trip is an effort to correct the mistakes of the past. His talks with Kim, and the high-level talks between North and South Korea in preparation for their own summit, clearly establishes new, serious momentum towards deals with Pyongyang. Experts have urged such talks for years; their pleas have increased as the Trump administration veered dangerously close to conflict. In February, John Bolton — now the national security advisor — argued that now is the time to bomb North Korea.

That is why veteran North Korea hands Suzanne DiMaggio and Joel Wit urged last month, “The administration needs to catch up—fast…Washington should quickly reach out to Pyongyang and begin the process of summit preparation. A smart first step would be a face-to-face meeting—ideally between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho—as soon as possible.” Tillerson is gone, but Pompeo’s secret trip is more than most could have hoped for. 

It gets better. Trump’s abrupt “blessing” for these initiatives has unleashed strong support from conservatives for the very negotiations they slammed when Democrats (and Powell) tried them. A Twitter search of “Korea” quickly reveals a flood of tweets (whether real or bots) with this theme: "Trump will deserve a Nobel Peace Prize if North Korea and South Korea end the war and North Korea gets rid of their nukes.”

This is why Republicans do arms control better than Democrats. They are not smarter nor do they strike better deals. But when a Republican president supports arms reductions or peace talks, he takes three-quarters of the party with him and the Democrats swing solidly in support. That delivers the bipartisan consensus needed for sustained national security policy. Republican presidents have led the way in nuclear reductions.

Can Trump actually end the Korean war and the Korean nuclear program? North Korea, of course, is not going to give up its nukes any time soon. And Kim is still calling the tune. But Trump has invested so much in this dance and needs a "win" somewhere so badly, that at the summit he may accept a serious freeze of North Korea nuclear programs and a determined process as a major victory. That is a good thing. A slow walk towards disarmament is preferable to a fast race towards nuclear war.

I have been privately putting the odds of a disastrous vs. successful summit at 60-40, favoring disaster. But those odds have now shifted to 50-50 — and moving in the right direction. 

Is Pompeo the right man to guide these talks? Maybe. A strong case can be made that he should stay as CIA director and continue using the intelligence channel with North Korea established years ago by his predecessors. Was disclosure of this secret trip also a gambit to rescue his sinking nomination to be secretary of state? Almost certainly. On Tuesday, there was a flood of senators announcing their opposition to Pompeo. The coordinated leak of the trip may have been an effort to build a dam. But it hasn’t worked, at least not yet.

On Wednesday morning, after news of his trip broke, two key senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced their opposition. Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said “his personal record is deeply troubling” and that he “has a preference for military action before exhausting diplomacy.” Keeping the trip secret, even as he was questioned about North Korea policy before the committee seems to have hurt Pompeo. “Even in my private conversations with him,” said Menendez, “he didn’t tell me about his visit to North Korea.”

“I believe our nation’s top diplomat must be forthright,” said Menendez, putting in the knife, “and, more critically, his past sentiments do not reflect our nation’s values and are not acceptable for our nations top diplomat.” His fellow Democrat on the committee, Senator Ben Cardin, echoed his sentiments adding “Mr. Pompeo has made repeated, damning statements about members of the Islamic faith and the LGBT community…that are completely antithetical to American values.”

Pompeo does not have the support of any Democrat on the committee and is likely to be reported out of the committee with an unfavorable recommendation, the first time that has happened since the Senate began recording such votes in 1925. His initial foray into global diplomacy did not seem to have saved his nomination, at least among Democrats, but they may build support for beginning a process of freezing and eventually rolling back the increasingly dangerous North Korean nuclear program.

Lots could go wrong. The summit will not take place until May or June. That is years away in Trump time. Stay tuned.