PYONGYANG, North Korea — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in North Korea on Friday for a series of talks aimed at persuading the country to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs — a mission that in his conversations with at least two outside experts he has said was doomed from the outset.
The dire assessment from Pompeo comes despite that fact that he is one of the most visible proponents of North Korea talks in the Trump administration.
Pompeo has repeatedly said he believes that the country’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, is serious about negotiations. He is making his third trip to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, even as others — including his rivals in the administration — have been more skeptical of the diplomatic efforts.
And he has tried to plan for success. He is traveling with North Asia experts from the State Department, CIA and National Security Council and is scheduled to spend many hours in meetings here, including all afternoon Friday and much of Saturday.
If the ultimate goal of North Korean denuclearization seems like a long shot, his proximate goal, according to one senior administration official, is at least to get North Korean officials to reveal their true intentions fairly quickly. Previous U.S. administrations spent years in detailed and ultimately fruitless negotiations, giving the North breathing space to further develop its lethal arsenal.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, does not believe that North Korea intends to surrender its nuclear or ballistic missile weapons programs, he has told others.
If failure is inevitable, Pompeo wants it to come more quickly this time, so the administration can return to its maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and diplomatic isolation of North Korea, he has told advisers.
If the administration decides to return to a campaign of maximum pressure, officials have privately acknowledged, the administration may not again be able to persuade the world that Kim is out of control and cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons.
That was last year’s tactic, when Trump branded Kim a “madman” and a murderer of his own people. Pompeo also then questioned whether Kim was rational and said, “I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from” its nuclear arsenal.
In recent months, however, Trump has redeemed Kim, calling him “very honorable” and “nice” while insisting that the North is “no longer a nuclear threat.” And Pompeo has repeatedly said in recent months that Kim is rational.
“After this meeting, Pompeo will probably again say that Kim Jong Un is intelligent and trustworthy, which is truly unfortunate,” said Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “I think we’re headed in the direction of giving up and accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear state.”
But Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, insisted that was not the case.
“Our policy toward North Korea has not changed,” she said. “We are committed to a denuclearized North Korea, and Secretary Pompeo looks forward to continuing his consultations with North Korean leaders to follow up on the commitments made at the Singapore summit.”
Defenders of the Trump administration’s strategy note that at least the North has ended its provocative missile and nuclear tests.
But in the meantime, North Korea could continue perfecting its weapons systems. And countries that have perfected their weapons technology, as Kim has said the North has done, rarely need such tests.
Pakistan, for instance, has not carried out a nuclear weapons test for 20 years but is widely acknowledged to be a major nuclear power.
Michael Green, who negotiated with North Korea during the administration of President George W. Bush, agreed that the Trump administration would soon be forced to accept North Korea as a nuclear state.
“If the North Koreans don’t fire off missiles or nuclear weapons but instead just don’t comply with denuclearization, the administration is going to have a very hard time, having sold the Trump-Kim relationship the way they did, going back to China and the allies and saying in effect, ‘We were duped,'” Green said.
As they did the last time Pompeo came to Pyongyang, the North Koreans will most likely offer a parting gift. In May, they handed over three U.S. detainees whom Trump greeted in a triumphant ceremony at an air base outside Washington.
This time, the North is considered likely to approve the transfer of what officials here will attest are the remains of U.S. service members missing since the Korean War.
Whether any U.S. bones are actually in the boxes will be determined only by later scientific tests. The last time such transfers were made, some of the remains were found to have come from animals and the kind of random human bones easily gathered from the country’s many gulags — a main reason Bush ended the transfers.
During his visit, Pompeo will be pushing the North Koreans for “real action, real change” toward what he has said is Kim’s stated commitment for complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.
So far, however, the only actions U.S. intelligence agencies have detected have been efforts to expand weapons facilities and conceal the number of weapons it has as well as the facilities used to make them, according to reports.
Still, Pompeo must keep trying to persuade Kim to reverse course for at least another few months, and probably until after November’s midterm elections, largely because Trump will not stand for an earlier declaration of failure, according to those who have spoken with him about North Korea. Trump replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state with Pompeo largely because of Pompeo’s contacts with North Korea as the director of the CIA.
“Many good conversations with North Korea — it is going well!” Trump tweeted this week after reports of North Korea’s continued weapons development surfaced, adding: “If not for me, we would now be at War with North Korea!”
Such declarations have made Pompeo’s task here harder, analysts say, because they have let the North Koreans know that Trump is so deeply invested in dialogue that he will not declare the endeavor a failure anytime soon.
But corralling the president’s rhetoric on North Korea is only a part of Pompeo’s challenge on this trip, which includes later stops in Tokyo, Hanoi, Abu Dhabi and Brussels.
The trip to Brussels for the annual NATO summit meeting could be particularly fraught, with Trump planning to meet with President Vladimir Putin of Russia days later in Helsinki.
Trump recently sent sharply worded letters to at least four NATO allies, saying that the United States was losing patience with what he said was their failure to meet security obligations shared by the alliance. Trump has falsely claimed that countries such as Germany owe NATO money.
Last month, Trump attended a disastrous Group of 7 meeting in Quebec during which he reportedly told allies that “NATO is as bad as NAFTA.” Trump later insulted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in a Twitter post as “very dishonest & weak.” European diplomats have said they are deeply anxious about the coming NATO summit meeting because of Trump’s unpredictability.
State Department officials have played down the possibility of a contentious meeting in Brussels, saying that White House economic officials mishandled the G-7 gathering, while they will be in charge of the NATO one.
But if Trump tells off NATO allies and soon after embraces Putin just as a trade war with Europe, Japan and Canada heats up, the foundations of the postwar order could shake.
In a recent interview, Pompeo tried to allay concern about the growing number of trade and strategic disputes with allies.
“The rift between the United States and Europe is much overstated,” he said, adding that “in the end the traditional values-driven alliance between Europe and the United States, that trans-Atlantic alliance, will remain strong as it has for coming on 70-plus years now.”
These next few days could prove whether he is right.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.