Politics

'Ludicrous': Pompeo snaps at reporters seeking clarity on North Korea deal

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lost his cool Wednesday with reporters who pressed him on the vague agreement President Donald Trump reached with North Korea in Singapore this week.

During a visit to South Korea Wednesday, Pompeo bristled at and called “ludicrous” questions about why a document Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un signed on Tuesday did not include language that Pompeo has called essential to any nuclear deal.

When asked how a nuclear agreement would be verified, Pompeo snapped: “Don’t say silly things… It’s not productive.”

The exchange underscored the lack of clarity — seemingly even within the Trump administration — about precisely what Trump and Kim had agreed to in Singapore, as well as the huge challenge of disarming North Korea at anything like the speed promised by Trump, who boasted on Twitter Wednesday that there is “no longer a Nuclear Threat” from the country, which experts say possesses as many as 60 nuclear warheads.

Pompeo vowed Wednesday that the Trump administration would achieve “major denuclearization” by the end of Trump’s first term. But even that falls short of his oft-stated goal for North Korea. Hours before the summit in Singapore, Pompeo had reiterated the administration position that the “complete and verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the only outcome that the United States will accept.”

The agreement signed by Trump and Kim omitted the words “verifiable and irreversible” from that phrase, however, referring only to “complete denuclearization.” Asked about the seemingly softer language, Pompeo challenged a reporter: “It’s in the statement. You’re just wrong about that,” he said.

The word “complete,” Pompeo argued, “encompasses ‘verifiable and irreversible.’ I suppose we – you could argue semantics, but let me assure you that it’s in the document.”

Pressed further, Trump’s chief diplomat seemed to lose his temper: “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.”

But many North Korea experts were unimpressed by the statement’s language, and suggested that it had been a disappointment for Pompeo and other Trump officials.

“My sense is that we wanted a lot more going into this meeting in terms of specificity – first of all, some sort of commitment to ‘complete and irreversible’ denuclearization, some reference to a declaration that would be verified,” said Victor Cha, who served on George W. Bush’s national security council and was at one time the leading candidate to be Trump’s ambassador to South Korea.

“We don’t have the word “verifiable” in the document, which I think we were trying to get,” added Cha, speaking in a Tuesday conference call for reporters hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Pompeo also waved off questions about a North Korean state media report that Trump had agreed to a step-by-step process of denuclearization in return for gradual sanctions relief. Trump officials have previously ruled out that possibility, insisting that Pyongyang will be rewarded only once it has given up its nuclear arsenal.

“One should heavily discount some things that are written in other places,” Pompeo told the American reporters present, “including some of your colleagues.”

Although the agreement in Singapore offered no timeline for action, Pompeo — who will lead negotiations with North Korean officials to implement the Trump-Kim agreement — suggested that the process could move quickly. He said he expects negotiations with North Korea to resume “sometime in the next week,” adding that while President Donald Trump is “in the lead” on talks with Pyongyang, “I will be the person who takes the role of driving this process forward.”

“We have big teams ready to go. We’ve been working on it for months to have all of the relevant parties from our labs, smartest folks – by the way, not just Americans, but partners around the world.”

But when it came to specifics, Pompeo’s language turned fuzzy.

“We’re prepared to execute this once we’re in position that we can actually get to a place where we can do it,” he said.

Even as he defended the agreement Trump struck with Kim, Pompeo’s words were more muted about its significance than those of the president.

After arriving home from Asia earlier Wednesday, Trump boasted on Twitter that he had solved a North Korean nuclear crisis which at times over the past year seemed headed for a military resolution.

“Just landed — a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” Trump wrote.

“Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea,” he continued in a second post. “President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight!”

Trump has drawn bipartisan criticism at home for agreeing to pause joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, handing North Korea a win on one of its longtime policy goals. But Trump also defended that concession on Twitter Wednesday.

“We save a fortune by not doing war games, as long as we are negotiating in good faith — which both sides are!” he wrote online.

Pompeo said Wednesday that Trump had been “unambiguous” in his conversations with Kim that the military exercises will resume if Pyongyang negotiates in bad faith.

But critics said the issue with the pause in military exercises had as much to do with rhetoric as with substance.
“It was absolutely astonishing to hear President Trump refer to these military exercises with the South Koreans as ‘war games,’ as ‘provocative’ — using language that is very much out of Pyongyang’s playbook,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, an Asia expert also at CSIS.

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