Talks have been stalled since a second summit between the US and North Korean collapsed in February
Washington (AFP) - Donald Trump has said he's in love with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But if there's someone with whom the US president is even more smitten, it's Mike Pompeo.
North Korea on Thursday demanded that the United States remove the secretary of state from future negotiations after Pompeo apparently encouraged Trump to stand firm and walk away from a summit with Kim in Hanoi in February.
The State Department offered a low-key initial response, with a spokesman saying the United States "remains ready to engage North Korea in a constructive negotiation" but not commenting directly.
Trump is famously fond of flattery and dismissive of aides. But even though he is eager to strike a potentially historic deal, North Korea is likely misreading US domestic politics by attacking Pompeo.
The top US diplomat is one of Trump's few senior aides who has managed to avoid public ruptures with him, amenably rallying to the defense of the president's every move even after pushing different policies.
Pompeo was instrumental in the secret diplomacy that eased soaring tensions with North Korea and set the stage for two summits between Kim and Trump, with Pompeo traveling four times last year to Pyongyang, first as CIA director and then as secretary of state.
"It would be very difficult for the US to make a move after the statement to change the negotiating team without making it look like Kim Jong Un is dictating the terms," said Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and managing editor of the North Korea analytical website 38 North.
"I don't think it's going to gain them anything," she said of the North Koreans. "It only makes it more difficult to get back to negotiations."
- Seeking to 'wean' Trump from aides -
Senior North Korean foreign ministry official Kwon Jong Gun, in a statement carried by state media, called Pompeo "reckless" and immature.
He also denounced Pompeo's testimony to Congress earlier this month in which, pressed by a senator concerned over what human rights groups say are rampant abuses in North Korea, agreed that Kim was a "tyrant."
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that North Korea believed it could achieve its goals through Trump and was "trying to wean the president away from his advisers."
"I think they're trying to get another summit," he said. "They feel that is where they can make more traction by appealing to Trump's sense of wanting to have a success, or maintaining the success they have already claimed."
North Korea has already shut out Stephen Biegun, the State Department pointman on North Korea, who has failed for months to arrange a meeting on anything other than the logistics of the Hanoi summit.
But North Korea also denounced Pompeo in July last year for his "gangster-like" insistence on disarmament -- and welcomed him back to Pyongyang several months later.
- Mixed messages from Washington -
Trump has quipped that he and Kim are "in love" and spoken of his "beautiful" letters -- and his affection has not dimmed after the Hanoi summit.
In an extraordinary intervention last month, Trump -- who has hailed his punishing pressure campaigns on Iran and Venezuela -- blocked the imposition of tough new sanctions on North Korea.
Trump said he intervened because he and Kim get along "very well" and that he wanted to maintain the relationship.
His move came despite the insistence by Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump's hawkish national security advisor, that the United States will not relent on pressure until North Korea's full denuclearization.
Just a day before Trump reversed the sanctions, the Treasury Department had announced action against two Chinese shipping companies over deliveries to North Korea.
Town said the administration's messaging on North Korea has been inconsistent from the start. She noted that Bolton -- who before entering the White House mused about attacking North Korea -- took the lead in public statements after the Hanoi summit.
"What message does that send the North Koreans, and how much of it is for a domestic audience?" she asked.
"It certainly wasn't helpful to the diplomatic process of getting back to negotiations if that's what the US really wants to do."