While the United States has repeatedly stated that its goals regarding North Korea do not include a regime change, CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s recent statements regarding Kim Jong un may indicate the beginning of a shift from that position.
North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have developed rapidly in recent months, from the almost comical basis of Supreme Leader Kim Jong un’s tone deaf threats of annihilation, to a legitimate strategic concern with intercontinental ballistic missiles potentially capable of delivering on his promises. As a result, the U.S. Navy has maintained a presence in the waters around the Korean peninsula, as both a show of force, and as a means to utilize America’s ship-based Aegis missile defense system in the event of an attack. Despite the increasing threat posed by Kim’s regime, however, the United States has continually stood by its claims that it seeks a denuclearized North Korea, not a new figure-head for its government.
“As [President Donald J. Trump] and [Defense Secretary Jim Mattis] have made clear, all options are on the table. We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees,” Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told law makers in April.
However, in a discussion moderated by conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens at the Aspen Security Forum this week, the CIA Director seemed to indicate that the focus moving forward may be on Kim Jong un, rather than his nukes.
“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 said to the crowd. “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.”
Pompeo explained that both the defense and intelligence communities of the United States have been tasked with drafting plans for what “ultimately needs to be achieved” in regard to the North Korean threat, but when asked if those plans currently included a regime change, Pompeo didn’t seem as steady in his dismissal of the idea as other U.S. officials have been in the past.
“As for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system,” Pompeo said. “The North Korean people I’m sure are lovely people and would love to see him go.”
During the question and answer portion of the event, Pompeo again would not suggest that ousting Kim was off the table, instead warning that taking such action could potentially result in unforeseen consequences, which he described by saying, “What’s behind door number three?”
He went on to suggest that he didn’t see doing away with Kim’s regime as an “unadulterated good” for the United States, due to the number of uncertainties that could result. A humanitarian crisis would likely be significant among them, as North Korean citizens already live in difficult circumstances that would almost certainly be worsened by a collapse of the Kim-led domestic infrastructure.
“I wasn’t suggesting that was something we were working today to make happen tomorrow. But rather, to find a way to separate this fellow who day in and day out talks about the destruction of the West through the use of a nuclear armed missile,” Pompeo said. “And to the extent we can convince not only the Chinese, but the Russians, the Japanese, the South Koreans, that there is an outcome there that benefits each of them, I think we increase the likelihood that we get that outcome.”
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