The huge implications of Mike Pompeo's secret meeting with Kim Jong-un
News that CIA director Mike Pompeo secretly flew to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-un shortly after his nomination as secretary of state was leaked to the Washington Post yesterday. The timing could not be better for helping along Pompeo's prospects of confirmation. And the symbolism of the date for celebrating the Resurrection was not lost on the huge Christian communities of both Koreas. South Korea is a majority-Christian country, and even in officially atheist North Korea, Christianity's significance should not be underrated. During the awful period of Japanese occupation of Korea, Christianity was a major banner uniting Koreans in resistance, and it retains a flavor of righteousness that endures. The forthcoming negotiations are in no small part a psychological game, and these small symbolic issues matter more than most Americans understand.
The Pompeo-Kim meeting was virtually confirmed by President Trump. Seated next to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he spoke of "direct contacts at very high levels ... extremely high levels" and stated that "a lot of good things are happening." This is incredibly good news, though with North Korea's track record of broken promises and deception, President Trump's caution in adding, "We'll see what happens" is fully justified.
The master showman Trump is already teasing the world audience by creating a mystery over where the first ever meeting between the heads of the United States and North Korea will take place, mentioning that there are five finalists (to use beauty pageant terminology – which is perfectly appropriate, considering where the master showman cut his teeth on staging global televised events). Rising to the bait, speculation is hot and heavy domestically and overseas over which lucky capital will be crowned as the potential site of a summit that could, maybe just possibly, end the gravest threat to world peace (as President Obama reportedly told Trump in the limo ride to his inauguration) with the "Helsinki Accord," and maybe the "Singapore Accord," or possibly the "Ulaanbaatar Accord," among the five so far unnamed possibilities. Bloomberg went so far as to create a map of what it sees as the candidates.
My money is on Ulaanbaatar for practical logistical reasons: Kim's heavily armored and reportedly very well stocked special train cars can reach the Mongolian capital within a reasonable amount of time. For reasons of security, he, like his father, is loath to fly anywhere because of the danger of being shot down. The fleet of Air Koryo, the North Korean Airline, does have a VIP-configured Ilyushin IL-62 that probably could reach European destinations nonstop with a light load, but this aircraft model was introduced in 1963, the era of the Boeing 707 and DC-8, and would make a terribly embarrassing racket at Geneva or Oslo airports, not to mention the safety issues of such an ancient airplane relying on parts from the Soviet era. The last IL-62 was manufactured in 1995.
The most modern airplane in Air Koryo's fleet, the Tupolev TU-204, a Boeing 757 lookalike (a stubby version of Trump Force One), regularly flies from Pyongyang to Kuala Lumpur, so it could make it to potential Southeast Asian summit locations.
As for the chances of success in getting North Korea to drop its longstanding nuclear push, I think the odds are improving. In Syria, Trump has demonstrated his willingness to attack, and the worthlessness of Russian air defense equipment bought by North Korea and Syria. Another factor in the equation that must be considered is that Kim Jong-un, unlike his father and grandfather, has actually lived in the West, having attended boarding school in Switzerland in his youth. He understands, as they could not, the material superiority of the West. He also grew up with the fall of the Soviet Union and the freeing of the Chinese market (if not politics), resulting in vast material progress for China. I suspect he understands that pursuing communism blindly is a dead end. The Chinese example shows how an opening to the West can be combined with maintenance of dictatorial political power in the hands of a Communist Party.
This is where Trump's self-proclaimed deal-making skills could actually come to the fore.
It would be foolish to predict a triumph from the forthcoming summit, but it would be almost equally foolish to dismiss the possibility of serious progress. Any promises the North Koreans might make would have to be accompanied by serious, frequent inspections that would virtually demand an opening of the country far beyond anything it has experienced since the founding of the N.K. state. That might just be possible, because the firewall cutting North Koreans off from the outside word already has crumbled thanks to DVD players, cell phones, and other devices that have made the poverty of the nation obvious to any North Korean inclined to look. The downsides of openness already are creeping into a formerly hermit-state dictatorship, while the benefits have not.