North Korea is “a handful of months” away from “being able to hold America at risk,” Pompeo estimated at the American Enterprise Institute in January. “We are working diligently to make sure that, a year from now, I can still tell you they are several months away from having that capacity.”
Pompeo, drawing on the work of intelligence analysts, has also described Kim Jong Un as a “rational actor” whose “mission is to stay in power” and who believes his primary means of doing so is to “hold the world at risk with a nuclear weapon,” which indicates that it will be no easy feat to persuade him otherwise.
“He’s marching to it,” Pompeo observed last fall at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There’s no external activity that could be undertaken to convince him to stop that, until such time as he concludes that there’s another way, or a better way, or a greater risk to him from continuing down that path.” Tillerson has similarly argued that Kim isn’t “crazy” but needs to be shown a “better path.”
Like Tillerson, Pompeo has insisted that the Trump administration wants to try everything short of military action to sway Kim off his current course. But he’s refused to rule out war if peaceful measures fail—a possibility Tillerson has tended to downplay. Still, Pompeo has set a higher bar for what could trigger a U.S. first strike on North Korea than other hard-line administration officials such as National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster or the president himself. At the American Enterprise Institute, Pompeo said Trump was intent on preventing North Korea—by force if necessary—from obtaining not a single “showpiece” nuclear-tipped long-range missile, but a whole “arsenal” of these missiles that can “reliably deliver” nuclear weapons to the United States.
For deterrence to work, “you have to be certain that what you aim to deliver will actually be successful. At the very least you need to make sure your adversary believes that it is certain,” he explained. “That’s what Kim Jong Un is driving for. He is trying to put in our mind the reality that he can deliver that pain to the United States of America. And our mission is to make the day that he can do that as far off as possible.”
Nevertheless, Pompeo isn’t dismissive of the threats posed by a North Korea that doesn’t quite have the ability to credibly threaten the United States with nuclear armageddon—one that, say, strikes a deal with Trump to freeze its nuclear-weapons program but not dismantle it. Pompeo has warned that the Kim regime could sell nuclear technology to other states or non-state actors like terrorist groups, motivate neighboring nations to develop their own nuclear weapons, or use its weapons as blackmail to try and reunify the Korean peninsula under North Korean rule. Kim Jong Un may act rationally, Pompeo argues, but the Supreme Leader of North Korea probably isn’t getting quality information and advice from his aides—a dangerous situation when nuclear weapons are in the mix. “It is not a healthy thing to be a senior leader and bring bad news to Kim Jong Un. Tell someone you’re going to do that and try to get life insurance,” he’s joked.
As for what advice Donald Trump will be getting, on Sunday Pompeo stated that Secretary of State Tillerson wouldn’t be spearheading nuclear negotiations with North Korea. “The president of the United States is going to take the lead,” he said on CBS. The question now is which Secretary of State Pompeo—the clear-eyed realist or denuclearization absolutist—will follow right behind Trump, and what that will mean for the fate of the most audacious American diplomatic gamble in decades.