House Republicans said Wednesday that CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s secret trip to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong Un could be a positive step toward peacefully resolving the nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula.
“If we’re talking, we’re not fighting,” said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas. “I think the entire world is interested in solving the North Korea problem diplomatically.”
President Donald Trump confirmed on Twitter Wednesday that Pompeo, who he has nominated to be his new secretary of state, traveled to North Korea earlier this month to discuss issues surrounding a planned summit between Trump and the regime’s leader. Pompeo’s Easter weekend journey was first reported by the Washington Post Tuesday.
“Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!” Trump tweeted.
When Trump agreed earlier this year to meet with Kim, the leaders had been eyeing May for a possible summit date, but the time and location are still being debated. Pompeo’s talks with Kim are the highest-level negotiations between the two countries since Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim’s father in 2000.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., credited Trump’s “outstanding” leadership for setting the stage for what would be a historic summit between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader.
“In the past, we have never had an administration—whether you’re dealing with the Clintons, Bushes, Obama, whatever it may be—no one has been able to bring North Korea to the table and here, in just over a year under President Trump’s leadership, discussions for meetings between our president and Kim Jong Un are underway,” Hice said.
House members are wary of placing trust in Kim, but if the alternative is war, a diplomatic solution is vastly preferable.
“I think setting up this meeting and having dialogue with this dictator, we have to be cautious but generally it’s a good move,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill. “If we can figure out a way diplomatically without using military force to bring Kim Jong Un to the table, that’s a good thing.”
While word of Pompeo’s unannounced trip took some in Washington by surprise, Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., said high-level negotiations are to be expected ahead of the potential summit.
“Whenever the United States engages in a major summit between world leaders on something as important as security in North Asia and the potential of denuclearization, which has evaded four presidencies, you want to have preparation for talks,” he said. “You don’t have two world leaders just go and meet.”
The visit to North Korea came weeks before Pompeo’s Senate confirmation hearing for the secretary of state job, and it was not discussed during that hearing. He has still not been formally confirmed for the position, which Trump tapped him for when he fired his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, in March.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., joined several other Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in announcing his opposition to Pompeo’s nomination Wednesday. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the committee’s ranking Democrat, also revealed he will vote against Pompeo, in part because the CIA director did not mention his North Korea trip in their private meetings.
"I don't expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be secretary of state, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit," Menendez said in a talk at a Washington policy think tank.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the committee is so divided on Pompeo that it may send his nomination to the full Senate without a favorable recommendation.
Some Republicans have argued Pompeo needs to be confirmed promptly so he can fully take the reins to prepare for the Trump-Kim summit. The Pyongyang trip suggests he is already heavily involved in that process.
“Having Mike Pompeo, his expertise in this area is tremendous,” Hice said. “I think him going ahead and having a meeting, laying the groundwork for future discussions is very wise.”
Despite signs of progress so far, LaHood stressed that “the devil will be in the details.”
“Are they going to disarm? Are they going to get rid of their nuclear capability?” he said. “Are they going to bring down some of the barriers and walls North Korea has put up and be part of the democratic institutions and democratic countries that are already there?”
In the past, North Korea and the U.S. have had differing understandings of denuclearizing the peninsula and the North Koreans have used negotiations to stall or extract concessions without holding up their end of agreements.
The White House has indicated that this time none of the “maximum pressure” the administration has applied to the regime economically and militarily will be lifted without verifiable steps toward disarming. Hurd supports that approach.
“This is a show that the U.S. is serious about talks,” he said of Pompeo’s visit, “but this shouldn’t change our posture of moving the seventh fleet to that region to make sure that we can react militarily if we have to. It shouldn’t change the sanctions regime that we’ve been working on with our allies.”
Past experience with the North Korean government may offer scant cause for confidence about the outcome of the summit, if it occurs at all, but if Kim is now serious about dismantling his nuclear weapons program, Pompeo and Trump have an opportunity to bring peace to a volatile region.
“I would say I’m cautiously optimistic,” Hurd said, “but we have to continue to do the things that brought the dictator Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table and we’ll see if these talks produce something fruitful.”