North Korea

Mike Pompeo's Reckless Approach to North Korea Shows Why He Shouldn't Be Secretary of State

Pompeo's past support for regime change, and his current refusal to disavow the idea, disqualify him for the position of America's top diplomat.


Ron Sachs/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

There are many reasons CIA Director Mike Pompeo should not be secretary of state, but the biggest may be his reckless, dishonest, and incoherent remarks about North Korea to the Senate last week. This becomes all the more troubling given President Trump's Wednesday announcement that Pompeo is already at the forefront of U.S.–North Korea relations, having met with Kim last week.

Two exchanges during Pompeo's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee deserve note. The first, at the 53-minute mark of C-SPAN's video, began when Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) pressed Pompeo to clarify how he'd like U.S.–North Korea tensions to be resolved. Pompeo was evasive, claiming it is a "misstatement" to say he supports regime change and offering the exceedingly vague goal of "a position where Kim Jong-un is unable to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon," which could mean anything from assassination to Kim's sudden embrace of America. When Cardin kept pushing, Pompeo said he has "never advocated for regime change" and is not doing so now.

A little over an hour later, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) tried to nail down Pompeo's view of ground war on the Korean peninsula. Markey introduced the subject by citing Defense Secretary James Mattis' belief that the United States is "never out of diplomatic options" in North Korea; the Pentagon's assessment that "the only way to locate and destroy—with complete certainty—all components of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs would be through a ground invasion"; and the projection that between 30,000 and 300,000 U.S. troops would die in the first few days of such a war alone.

Pompeo was undeterred by the prospect of such catastrophe. "I suppose I could hypothesize such situations," he said of supporting a first strike ground war. "Could I imagine one? Yes….I can imagine times when America would need to take a response that moved past diplomacy" and on to unprovoked, mass-scale war on a regime armed with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons it will almost certainly use if faced with the existential threat of a preventive U.S. attack.

This is reckless beyond belief, and it should disqualify Pompeo completely for the role of chief diplomat.

Global interventionist John Bolton's nomination to the post of national security advisor is ominous enough. Bolton should not be granted Pompeo's help in diminishing the role of diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy and undermining comparatively restrained administration voices like Mattis. The secretary of state should not be less committed to diplomacy than the secretary of defense.

Pompeo's testimony was also dishonest, and crudely so: He expressed support for regime change in North Korea less than a year ago. "As for the [Kim] regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system," Pompeo said in Colorado last summer. "The North Korean people, I'm sure, are lovely people and would love to see him go." Anyone of good conscience agrees that Kim leads an inhumane and abhorrent government. But to deplore the regime is not the same as to hope for a forcible U.S.-orchestrated ouster, as Pompeo clearly did. If he lied about having "never advocated for regime change," why should we take seriously his claim he does not support it now?

Is this the representative the United States should have on the world stage? The president's proclivity for demonstrable falsehoods is well-established. Should we field a secretary of state with the same failing? Will the U.S. be credible at the negotiating table with a diplomat who so clearly contradicts himself on record? Will that enhance American security or foster global stability or peace?

And then there's the internal incoherence of Pompeo's remarks: In what scenario will an unprovoked U.S. ground invasion of North Korea not involve regime change? What hypothetical does Pompeo imagine in which he finds himself supporting the former without the latter? Even if regime change is not the primary goal of such an attack, it is inconceivable that Kim would believe his position safe and react accordingly.

U.S. ground war on North Korea, as M.I.T. political scientist Barry Posen has explained at The New York Times, would not be a surprise attack. It is "all but inevitable that many thousands of civilians, and American and South Korean soldiers, would die," Posen writes, as the Kim regime, deprived of its central aim of survival, would unleash hell on its way out.

Posen concludes the "complexity, risks, and costs of a military strike against North Korea are too high." Pompeo, incredibly, does not. This would be foolish in any case; it is madness coming from a man who would be secretary of state.