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Pompeo's Trip To North Korea May Pave The Way For Direct Talks

Apr 18, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 6:18 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning, in a tweet, President Trump confirmed that his CIA director, Mike Pompeo, recently met with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. Trump tweeted that, quote, "meeting went very smoothly, and a good relationship was formed." Now, the statement came hours after The Washington Post first reported this meeting. And I'm joined in the studio by the Post's intelligence and national security reporter, Shane Harris. Shane, good morning.

SHANE HARRIS: Good morning.

GREENE: So you and your colleagues reported that Pompeo met with Kim over the Easter weekend. I mean, I guess over the Easter vacation. He's in North Korea for the vacation. What exactly do we know about this meeting?

HARRIS: Well, we know that at this meeting, which was preceded by some pretty high-level communications between the CIA and its counterpart in North Korea already - this, of course, being sort of long distance - Pompeo makes the trip. He goes there. He meets with Kim Jong Un in person over the Easter weekend and secures some concessions or some terms, really, from North Korea about what it's willing to negotiate over when President Trump and Kim Jong Un ultimately meet, possibly sometime in the next month or so.

And importantly, it's at this meeting we understand that the Americans get assurances from the North Koreans that they're willing to put this all-important issue of denuclearization on the table. So they're kind of setting the stakes or the terms of the negotiation before the two leaders actually meet face-to-face.

GREENE: OK. So on the table, that doesn't necessarily mean that the regime in Pyongyang is ready to denuclearize. But based on your report, do you think the White House just wanted to know that President Trump wasn't going to get there and Kim wasn't just going to say, like, I'm not going to talk about this, go home?

HARRIS: Exactly. This is the thing that really - that President Trump wants. He tweeted about it actually this morning, saying denuclearization will be a great thing for the world and North Korea. I don't think the White House wanted to come to the table and find out that they weren't even really to begin negotiating. They at least wanted to know that this was something that they could have a debate over. And it was interesting, in the days after Pompeo returned from North Korea, administration officials started saying on background, well, we now have very strong assurances from the North Koreans that this issue is up for negotiation.

They wouldn't have said that had they not had really strong assurances, which was kind of a clue to us at the time too that something extraordinary had happened here, that they had gotten some pretty high-level concessions. And as it turns out, we think that they got them directly when Pompeo was in North Korea. And that gave the White House the confidence to think that they could say, yes, this is now on the table.

GREENE: This is normal for a White House to have emissaries who are doing some sort of work ahead of time before a big summit. Some things not necessarily normal here. This is, I mean, this is North Korea, after all, and sending a top American official there is significant. And also, I mean, Pompeo was not the nation's top diplomat. Rex Tillerson - I mean, secretary of state is - I mean, Pompeo is going through confirmation hearings to become secretary of state. But that's odd to have someone speaking as the nation's top diplomat when that's not his job.

HARRIS: Yeah, it is very unusual. And in this period, you know, it's a sort of awkward time because Rex Tillerson is at this point heading for the exits. President Trump had dismissed him via a tweet about two weeks earlier. But he was still, I mean, he literally - his official last day in the State Department is the day that Mike Pompeo, we think, is going to North Korea for that weekend.

But even before that, I mean, you know, you raised this excellent point that the foreign policy towards North Korea and this administration has not been handled so much by the State Department. It is coming out of the CIA. Mike Pompeo was already having direct communications remotely with his counterparts in the North Korean intelligence agency. So for all intents and purposes, Mike Pompeo has been acting like the secretary of state when it comes to North Korea.

GREENE: Well, let - I want to play a little bit of tape here because the issue of face-to-face talks between President Trump and Kim came up during Pompeo's confirmation hearing last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: I'm optimistic that the United States government can set the conditions for that appropriately so that the president and the North Korean leader can have that conversation, will set us down the course of achieving a diplomatic outcome that America so desperately - America and the world so desperately needs.

GREENE: So Pompeo is already facing some skepticism, may not even be recommended by the Foreign Relations Committee. I mean, if he's there talking about these things in general but it hasn't been disclosed that he made a trip there, could that raise even more concerns among members of Congress?

HARRIS: I think it could. I mean, members of a committee that's evaluating a nomination don't like to be caught flat-footed by this. And this is not just an ordinary mission that he was sent on. And as we've discussed, he wasn't the secretary of state yet. So I think there's going to be some real questions about why weren't they informed about this or who in Congress precisely did know, and what were they told? But now this does perhaps create an opening for Mike Pompeo to say to his critics, look, I'm not some, you know, hawk that you're making me out to be, at least not always. Here I am trying to have a conversation with North Korea on this hugely important issue.

GREENE: Shane Harris of The Washington Post joining us in the studio this morning. Shane, thanks a lot.

HARRIS: You bet. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.