Will Mike Pompeo Make the Koreans an Offer They Can’t Refuse?

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is sworn-in by Vice President Mike Pence at the U.S. Department of State. As former CIA director, Pompeo already had a security clearance, but still needed to be confirmed by the Senate. (Photo Credit: Dept. of State.)

And just like that, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is back to its old ways. After bilateral talks in the capital city of Pyongyang last week, not only did it set back the course of negotiations over its nuclear weapons program, it managed to throw an ethnic slur at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

After the end of the first serious round of talks following the historic but largely symbolic summit between President Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un, Pompeo told reporters that the sessions had been “productive.” No sooner had Pompeo, who is Italian on his father’s side, left the country than an official North Korean statement said “The U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.”

I suppose Hollywood stereotypes have reached as far as North Korea.

Pompeo isn’t the Godfather

In the opening scene of The Godfather, young Michael Corleone, recently returned from World War Two, described his father’s negotiating style.  After a bandleader refused to release Don Vito Corleone’s godson Johnny Fontane from his contract, Vito made what Michael called “an offer he couldn’t refuse…” sign the contract or die. Later in the film, Don Corleone uses the line himself to announce his intentions to secure a movie contract for Johnny.

But Pompeo isn’t Don Corleone, Luca Brasi isn’t on the U.S. State Department’s negotiating team, and no Korean leaders will be waking up with a severed horse’s head in their beds. With all the personal insults that have flown between Trump and Kim — “Little Rocket Man” and “dotard” being the most memorable — I’m surprised that no one has talked about how personally insulting the latest Korean broadside is.

Most analysts have interpreted the Korean statement as merely an indication that there is a long way to go before we approach anything remotely approaching a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. I agree that it is. But it was also an unnecessarily personal reference to the secretary’s heritage. Had an anonymous American diplomat said the same kind of thing about Kim Yong-chol, the former North Korean spymaster leading his country’s delegation, the press, and the Democrats, would rightfully be in an uproar.

Who was behind it?

The comment can’t be accidental. Where Trump speaks off-the-cuff and with little thought for the wider ramifications of his words, the Koreans choose their words carefully. They are designed to create a specific effect. Maybe that effect was just to see how angry they cold make Pompeo by insulting him publicly. If so, they failed, since, in public at least, he brushed-off the comments.

The Korean statement was anonymous, but if I had to place a bet, I’d say it was made by Choe Son-hui, the same person who in May called Vice President Mike Pence’s statements “ignorant and stupid,” Choe is a fluent English speaker and the senior woman in the Korean government. She also presents herself as the stereotype of the North Korean government: dour, stern, and humorless.

I’m convinced that she is either off the rails, saying what she wants without sanction, or the designated “bad cop” to her bosses’ “good cop.” Since the Winter Olympics, we’ve seen three distinct personalities: Kim Jong-un’s ebullient schoolboy, Choe Son-hui’s angry hardliner, and Kim Yong-chol’s sensible “adult in the room.” Choe herself seemed primed for a larger role in the negotiations, but she’s seemingly stuck in a supporting role.

Continue to watch her.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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