President Donald Trump’s decision to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state with CIA Director Mike Pompeo comes just days after the president surprised many by announcing his plans to meet soon with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Korea experts and other foreign policy analysts disagree on what impact having a new chief U.S. diplomat will have on the likelihood that the summit will ever take place and on the prospects for its success. But they agree that Pompeo will have very little time to prepare for a high-risk summit between the president and a nonconventional U.S. adversary.
Much work to be done
Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center has helped prepare several presidents and secretaries of state for Middle East peace talks and summits.
Miller told VOA that time is of the essence because there is a tremendous amount of work to do to prepare the U.S. position in advance. He said he believes that is one likely reason Trump made the change in State Department leadership now.
“Part of the reason Trump did this was to identify a team leader to do summit preparation, and I am assuming that is Pompeo, because nobody else in the government right now can do it,” he said.
Trump stressed that he likes, respects and admires Pompeo. He told reporters that he has a better chemistry with Pompeo than he ever had with Tillerson, and that he and Pompeo agree with each other on global issues.
Miller said this rapport between a secretary and a president is something foreign leaders and negotiators pick up on instantly, and it makes a difference. He added, however, that even if Trump and Pompeo broadly agree, Pompeo should not simply echo the president’s views.
“The question is whether he is going to stand up and privately offer alternative counsel to the president, even when the president strongly disagrees, or is he going to shut up? Stand up, or shut up?” he said. “And the best secretaries of state privately, quietly convey their advice to the president with an honesty and clarity that serves the national interest. That is what this guy has got to do.”
Jeong Se-hyun, a former South Korean unification minister, told VOA the U.S.-North Korea talks are different this time because it is “top-down” from the president, instead of bottom-up from lower-level negotiators.
“The past U.S.-North Korea talks operated from the bottom-up. Working-level officials met and set the agenda. But this time, President Trump made his decision directly for the very first U.S.-North Korean summit. So, I don’t think the change in the secretary of state position will have a great impact in the U.S.-North Korean summit,” Jeong said.
"Decisions will probably be made directly by President Trump, and it is highly probable that the (talks) will move according to the president's instructions, rather than according to the secretary of state as a working-level official," Jeong added.
While Tillerson has often been an advocate for diplomacy, Pompeo has taken a harder line on the Iran nuclear deal and on the leadership in North Korea.
In July 2017, Pompeo said, “I am hopeful we will find a way to separate the (North Korean) regime from this system. ...The North Korean people, I’m sure, are lovely people and would love to see him go.”
Tough talk in past an asset?
Kim Tae-woo, the former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, told VOA that Pompeo's tough rhetoric on Pyongyang in the past could be an asset.
Pompeo advocated taking a hardline with North Korea, and replacing Tillerson with the CIA director “would mean that the U.S. is willing to show a strong message that it’s possible to take a military action without any tolerance if North Korea becomes deceptive once again or tries to buy time during negotiations,” Kim said.
Some experts say that Pompeo may adapt his language to his new role as the top U.S. diplomat, if he is confirmed by the Senate as expected in April.
VOA's Korean service contributed to this report.