Why sending the U.S. spy chief to meet Kim Jong-un was a 'savvy' move by Trump

The revelation that CIA chief Mike Pompeo met secretly last week with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic seesaw of sorts for foreign policy observers, delivering both relief and anxiety.

U.S. 'unequivocally dominant' despite North Korea's nuclear confidence

CIA director Mike Pompeo, left, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump are the main players in an unorthodox U.S. diplomatic manoeuvre. (Yuri Gripas, KCNA, Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

It's probably the clearest indication yet that U.S. President Donald Trump's unconventional diplomatic approach toward North Korea might be working to achieve his desired "peace through strength." It's also a blaring warning that the North is more dangerous than ever, confident it now has the long-range nuclear goods to strike the continental United States.

The revelation that CIA chief Mike Pompeo met secretly last week with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic seesaw of sorts for foreign policy observers, delivering both relief and anxiety.

Trump confirmed that Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, met secretly with Kim to lay the groundwork for historic face-to-face talks between the leaders of the two nuclear-armed powers.

The high-level co-operation from the hermit kingdom looks to be a promising step — one that experts say should be tempered with the startling conclusion that Defence Secretary James Mattis made in November.

Pyongyang, Mattis told reporters, has the ability to "threaten everywhere in the world" with its nukes.

It's in this context that Pompeo met with Kim over the Easter weekend.

This is an unorthodox White House approach — having the American spy service in the driver's seat for communications with North Korea that might ordinarily be conducted via diplomatic channels.

Trump tweeted that the meeting, which happened while Pompeo was awaiting confirmation from the Senate to become the new secretary of state, "went very smoothly."

There's good reason for North Korea to want to keep things that way, amid biting sanctions that the pariah state wants lifted.

"Kim Jong-un now thinks he has a negotiating chip. He has the spectre of saying he can do something. Before, he didn't have a deliverable nuclear weapon that could hit us," retired Army Lt.-Col. Dan Davis, who served as a U.S. adviser to the Second Republic of Korea Army, said.

"Now, he's thinking he's got something he can actually negotiate with."

North Korea likely believes it's operating from a position of strength, or a nuclear "sweet spot," said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official in the Obama administration. The regime otherwise wouldn't have the nerve to pursue such ambitious diplomacy, he said.

"The sweet spot for North Korea," he said, "is having the ability to attack the U.S. homelands and amp up the threat perception in the United States so that North Korea increases its leverage without actually conducting any sort of offensive attack."

North Korea tests its intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15. This undated photo was released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang Nov. 30, 2017. (KCNA/Reuters)

The dramatic advances in North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Oba said, don't mean they intend to deploy those weapons against the U.S. The North Koreans realize the U.S. nuclear capabilities and conventional military force far exceed theirs, he said.

"It would be committing suicide," as Davis put it. "They've come to a poker game without any face cards. We've got a deck of kings, queens and aces — and time is on our side."

What puts the U.S. in an "unequivocally dominant" bargaining position, he said, is that Kim won't stomach indefinite negotiations without a deal in the face of tough sanctions impeding his country's bid for economic modernization.

Trump's "fire and fury" rhetoric antagonizing North Korea has arguably worked so far, Davis says. The unconventional approach has yielded "healthy developments," said Stephen Noerper, a former State Department analyst and the senior director of the Korea Society.

Pompeo's role in the Kim talks furthers the narrative that Trump wants his intelligence community to effectively run diplomatic efforts. Counterintuitive as it may sound, Noerper argues, it's a shrewd tactic, given how Pyongyang operates, with its national intelligence apparatus outranking its foreign ministry.

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"From the North Korean perspective, to have the U.S. send the CIA director makes perfect sense," he said. "It's someone [Kim] would see as enjoying the personal support of the president, and having the highest level of security clearance and access to private information."

If it's not the way such diplomatic missions are usually conducted, so be it, Noerper said.

"Whether it was intended or not, it was a savvy move."

In the meantime, North Korea is making predictable diplomatic moves, including having Kim approach China in advance of the talks.

Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have also met ahead of an all-important inter-Korean summit, in which North Korea and South Korea are expected to discuss a way to formalize a peace agreement after being technically locked in a 70-year war.

Kim, left, and South Korean Culture Minister Do Jong-whan attend a rare concert by South Korean musicians in Pyongyang on April 1. (AFP/Getty Images)

Pompeo's trip could confirm that Kim is serious about talks.

Although critics believe the success of Trump's pressure campaign has been overstated, many also say the positive momentum is hard to deny.

"It's ill-advised to rely primarily on intelligence channels to conduct diplomacy, and to favour the CIA over the State Department," said Oba, the former Korea desk officer at State. At the same time, he said, there can be value in employing different channels in dealing with a country as secretive and mercurial as North Korea.

"If one of those channels happens to be the CIA director and North Korean intelligence, and if that's working," he said, "then that's good for us."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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