CIA Director Walks the Line on North Korean Regime Change

photo: Aspen Security Forum

CIA Director Mike Pompeo signaled Thursday that a key goal of the Trump administration is to “separate” North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from control over Pyongang’s nuclear capabilities.

“It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today,” Pompeo told the Aspen Security Forum. “So from the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart.”

Moderator Bret Stephens of The New York Times pressed Pompeo to clarify whether he was suggesting a U.S. policy with an explicit goal of regime change in North Korea. “I think there are real questions as to whether you can ever get rid of capacity, since that’s how North Korea stays in business, that’s why it’s relevant,” Stephens said. “So, are you suggesting that then the alternative is some kind of regime change?”  

At first the CIA director demurred.

 “No, I think we can tackle every piece of that,” he replied. “So I think we can tackle capacity, too. These weapons systems still need development, they need testing, they need people who are willing to work on these programs.”

But later, he hinted at a more aggressive effort to oust Kim or to sharply limit Kim’s control over the regime’s missile and nuclear programs.

“To the extent we can convince China it’s in their best interest to help us, convince Kim it’s not in his best interest to move down that path, there are still many tools,” Pompeo said. “I’m hopeful that we will find a way to separate that regime from this system. The North Korean people, I’m sure, are lovely people and would love to see him go.”

Pompeo noted that when he is with Trump, the President “rarely lets me escape the Oval Office without a question about North Korea.”

“It is at the front of his mind,” he said.

During the wide-ranging conversation, the CIA director left no doubt that he distrusted Russia on several fronts and was closely watching Moscow’s moves.

He said that he expected Russia to stay in Syria because “they love a warm water naval port, and they love to stick it to America. I think they find any place they can make our lives more difficult. I think they find that that’s useful for them. From an intelligence perspective, it’s also clear that they have intention of remaining there.”  

Asked if he had seen any evidence that Russia had pursued a serious strategy against ISIS, the director replied, “no,” and added he had seen the “most minimal” evidence of a Russian effort to degrade and dismantle ISIS.

He added, however, that he hoped the United States and Russians could cooperate on some counterterrorism efforts.

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

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