Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got very testy about a “silly” line of questioning at a Wednesday press conference in Seoul.
Pompeo dismissed as “ridiculous, ludicrous, and insulting” questions about how the U.S. will verify that North Korea has given up its nuclear weapons, as it promised to “work toward” in the declaration signed by Kim Jong Un at the historic meeting with President Trump. Pompeo was in Seoul debriefing South Korean President Moon Jae In on the Trump-Kim summit, where Trump offered a big last-minute concession to stop what he called “war games” with South Korea.
The secretary’s outburst comes just days after he himself said that a commitment to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” was needed from Pyongyang before sanctions for human rights violations could be lifted.
But experts suggest Pompeo's annoyance is directly linked to the need for the Singapore summit to be seen as a big win for the Trump administration ahead of this year’s midterms and 2020’s re-election campaign, while in reality, denuclearization is a long and drawn-out process that could take many years. And North Korea has promised it several times before and then reneged.
Asked why the terms “verifiable and irreversible” were not included in the declaration in relation to North Korea’s denuclearization, he snapped: “It’s in the statement. It’s in the statement. You’re just wrong about that,” according to the official State Department transcript of the press conference.
Pompeo then said the term “complete” — which is in the statement — encompasses verifiable and irreversible and that the confusion simply comes down to a matter of semantics.
When asked about how the verification process would work, Pompeo bristled:
“I find that question insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous. I just have to be honest with you. It’s a game and one ought not play games with serious matters like this,” he said.
Despite repeated questioning by the reporter seeking clarification about the process, Pompeo failed to give an answer, dismissing the line of questioning as “silly.”
Complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement, or CVID, is something U.S. officials, including Pompeo, have repeatedly said is what is needed before the administration will even consider lifting sanctions against North Korea — no matter what Pyongyang’s media outlets are saying.
“CVID is about complete disarmament, verified by third parties; it’s got to be irreversible, which means much processing infrastructure must be dismantled, and removed from the country,” John Hemmings, Asia director at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, told VICE News.
Part of the problem for Pompeo is that getting to that point is not an easy task, and will take a long time, despite his claim Thursday that he aims to achieve “major disarmament” by the end of Trump’s term in 2020.
“We’re hopeful that we can achieve that in the next — what is it? — two and a half years, something like that,” he said.
A recent study co-authored by former director of the nuclear weapons design center at Los Alamos Siegfried Hecker, suggests it could take between six to 10 years to eliminate the nuclear threat.
“Even if North Korea were to voluntarily and unilaterally disarm as South Africa did in the 1990s, it would take years to carry out the process. With a regime like North Korea, Pompeo realizes that it will require a lot of horse-trading to get North Korea to carry out each stage of this process, and that any unilateral announcement by the U.S. will result in North Korea cheating the agreement.”
Such a delay doesn’t work for Donald Trump.
Even as he was traveling home from Singapore, the U.S. President declared that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea” highlighting his desire for an instant victory, not one that could take a decade.
With the midterms fast approaching, and Trump’s own re-election campaign already underway, he wants the glow of an international foreign policy win to help boost his and the Republicans’ chances of victory.
“That vague agreement will be a problem for Trump,” Zhang Baohui, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, told VICE News. “Trump needs to deliver concrete results for denuclearizing North Korea [and] if not, people will say Trump has been duped by Kim. So it could become a political problem two years later if he seeks re-election. That is why Trump and Pompeo do not like criticisms of this agreement.”
Hemmings agrees: “The president is mobilized by pressure to ‘have a deal’ on paper as soon as possible, to help with the midterms. His base, in Middle America, have already been reflecting his apparent victory, showing that Trump can win a deal where no other can.”
While Trump is hailing his success Pompeo has been left to try and reassure countries in Asia that the declaration signed by his boss and Kim is a significant step forward, and that the cessation of war games with South Korea is not going to undermine the security of region.
Pompeo travels to China next, where he may have to defend his boss’ latest remarks about Kim.
In an interview with Fox News filed aboard Air Force One returning from Singapore, Trump praised Kim as a “tough guy” dismissing the human rights atrocities carried out against his own people.
“Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, with tough people, and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have – if you can do that at 27 years old, that’s one in 10,000 could do that,” Trump told Fox News.
When pushed that Kim had done a lot of really bad things, Trump brushed it off:
“Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”