On Red Lines and Reunification: Recent Remarks by the CIA Director on North Korea (updated)

[UPDATED on 5 February 2018:] Donald Trump surely makes the North Korean state nervous. But when CIA Director Mike Pompeo actually emerges from his operations bunker in Virginia, he tends to speaks about twice as fast as the President, and probably gives analysts in Pyongyang twice the reason to pause.

A North Korean editorial on 27 January provided a rejoinder to a couple of new data points which Pompeo provided in a number of interviews and prepared remarks which the CIA Director made in Langley, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., on 22 and 23 January. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described it thus:

In an interview with U.S. CBS on Jan. 22, he said: north Korea is to delivering a nuclear attack on the United States in few months. The U.S. government is working diligently to extend that timeline. But the core risk that the policymakers needed to know was that north Korea’s nuclear weapons program is continuing to expand, advance, become more powerful, more capable, more reliable.

He, in a lecture in Washington D.C. on Jan. 23, uttered that the logical next step of north Korea would be to develop the capacity to deliver from multiple firings of ballistic missiles simultaneously. He added that it might put nuclear missile technology for auction to earn money and that various options would be presented to the president in case it is impossible to settle north Korea’s issue in a diplomatic manner.

It is ill-boding that the U.S. is building up public opinion about the story of “nuclear and missile threat” from the DPRK at a time when high-ranking officials of the U.S. political circle and administration were openly making reckless remarks on the military options against the DPRK.

The CBS interview is available here; should anyone wish to check against the KCNA assertion that any high American officials have described the North Korean nuclear program as “reliable.”

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on 23 January (which, as he noted with great satisfaction, was the one-year-anniversary of his appointment as Director), Pompeo made more substantive North Korea-related statements.

The following comments are from his prepared remarks, which, it should be added, North Korea was the only adversarial country specifically mentioned. The video below is cued up to the relevant section.

North Korea is ever closer to being able to hold America at risk…I want everyone to understand that we are working diligently to make sure that a year from now I can still tell you that they are several months away from having that capacity. It’s not a static time frame.

There is much effort all across the US government to ensure that Americans don’t have to feel at risk. We saw what happened in Hawaii. It is an imperative — an American, national imperative — that we as an intelligence agency deliver the information to our senior leaders such that they can resolve this issue in a way that works for the American people.

Further comments were made during the extended Q and A at the conservative think-tank, which were subsequently discussed by The Guardian and by Reuters. The London newspaper appeared to see his remarks as “a new red line” on North Korea, something which the Hankoryeh‘s correspondent in Washington saw as somewhat feckless.

Reuters cut to another area of hot debate among North Korea analysts, namely the question of reunification as Kim Jong-un’s ultimate endgame.

Pompeo said the CIA believed Kim’s aim was more than just deterrence against the United States to preserve his rule and that he would use his weapons for his ultimate goal of reunification of Korea under his control.

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Recall Trump’s speech at the National Assembly in Seoul:

North Korea is a country ruled as a cult. At the center of this military cult is a deranged belief in the leader’s destiny to rule as parent protector over a conquered Korean Peninsula and an enslaved Korean people.

That is remarkable! I suppose only leaks, archives, or scuttlebutt will tell who or how these interpretations were formed, but the Pompeo and Trump quotes seem to be very much in line with the writings of B.R. Myers in Pusan. For all of the voice-in-the-wilderness qualities which Myers ascribes to his work (against the hoodwinked and monolingual herd, naturally) on the North’s reunification through nukes strategy, it appears that his specific interpretation of things seems to be winning out in both the CIA and the National Security Council these days. (As for the US Department of State, I have no idea.)

Perhaps Myers will ultimately pen something for posterity about his views of what Trump and Pompeo are saying, specifically if there is any relationship (anthropologists might drum up the word “positionality” here) between his writings and the statements and policy interpretations of the Trump administration. Or perhaps those of us who regularly read his blog will have to be content with watching Myers shoot unemployed fish in a (Twitter) barrel over issues like Stalinism in North Korea which were already covered in his 2010 book. Anyway, generally speaking, if the President of the United States owes you a citation in a major foreign policy address, you’re probably winning (and, if in the UK, madly filling out an “impact case study” so as to keep your department solvent). Congratulations.

Finally, given the new CIA Director’s overt excitement about making his agency more deadly, it might be useful to revisit the repertoire of American plans (with a bit of South Korean help, presumably) to, as Barbara Demick recently put it at a Cambridge Union debate, “take out” Kim Jong-un.

Back in May 2017, Pompeo was accused of trying to kill Kim Jong-un with chemical weapons. After receiving some attention in the Anglophone media in October 2017, this particular assertion has gone completely underwater, but it continues to feed into a stream that bolsters North Korea’s internal narrative, and perhaps in an attempt to re-channel rumours — like this, this and this one — about the regime’s assassination of Kim Jong-nam. Such official narratives about alleged operations are congruent with the 2012 campaign to mobilize along the Chinese border to protect, yes, new statues of Kim Jong-il from being blown up by CIA plots, and of course have a history predating the Korean War itself.

[Original post, 30 January 2018:] On 30 January 2018, the Washington Post‘s David Nakamura broke the story of how the Trump administration’s ongoing push for potential preemptive military strikes on North Korea had resulted in the termination of the nomination process for Victor Cha as US Ambassador to South Korea.

As I write this, President Donald J. Trump is giving a speech which is likely to contain yet more strong non-Twitter, policy-vetted language for North Korea and possibly Kim Jong-un personally, along the lines of his United Nations address in September 2017. It also seems probable that Trump will refer (yet again) to the case of Otto Warmbier, whose arrest and subsequent medical trauma in Pyongyang and death at home in Cincinnati, Ohio, led to a ban on travel to North Korea for American citizens.

Amid all this, the CIA Director had some choice words in an interview with the BBC which was broadcast on the day of the State of the Union.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo (interview in Langley, broadcast on 30 January 2018)

Unofficial transcript of North Korea portions by Adam Cathcart, University of Leeds

Q. Isn’t there a danger that [the President’s tweets] on North Korea will lead to some kind of escalation?

A. Kim Jong-un has never appreciated the risk that he presents to the world, in the way that he does today. And it is also our judgement that our partners who are also at risk from North Korea have now come to understand that it is Kim Jong-un who presents this risk. And so, when you see this language that the President chooses to use, that there [are] many audiences for it, and I can share with your audience today, that I assure you that Kim Jong-un understands the message that America is serious about this.

Q. Are there options that are available, do you think, that are short of all-out-war? Because there a lot of people who think that that option would cause massive destruction and loss of life.

A. Well they are right about that. There, there is a, a — list of tasks that might have to be undertaken, and they would in fact cause enormous damage, and our President and our senior leaders are mindful of that. But we are going to present the President with a range of alternatives, to assist with what the President has said is our policy.

Q. Do you think it is possible to remove the ability of Kim Yong-un [sic] to fire those missiles, to either take him out or to take out the ability to launch missiles?

A. Many things are possible.

Q. How much time to you think there is? Because some people in the past have talked about it being an imminent threat?

A. We talk about him having the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States in a matter of a handful of months.

Image: Mike Pompeo speaks with the BBC at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. 

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