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Senators Have More Questions For CIA Director Mike Pompeo After North Korea Trip


When President Trump sent his CIA director Mike Pompeo on a secret trip to North Korea, what was the calculation? And will it pay off? There are a lot of questions today about whether that was the right move before a possible U.S.-North Korean summit. The visit happened just before Pompeo's confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of state. And NPR's Michele Kelemen has been gathering reaction all day.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, says he expects America's top diplomat to be forthright. But Pompeo didn't even mention his trip to Pyongyang in their private conversations.


ROBERT MENENDEZ: I don't expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open. But I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be the secretary of state, when he speaks with the committee leadership and when he was asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit.

KELEMEN: The Republican committee chairman is brushing off those concerns. Bob Corker told a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor he welcomes Pompeo's secret trip to Pyongyang.


BOB CORKER: I like the fact that Pompeo had met with them. I hope that a lot of other people will meet with them.

KELEMEN: To prepare, Corker says, for President Trump's one-on-one with Kim Jong Un, now expected by June. The Obama administration has its own history of secret talks, both with Cuba and with Iran. President Obama even dispatched his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to North Korea in 2014 to secure the release of two American prisoners. Pompeo's trip was different and potentially risky, says Frank Aum of the U.S. Institute of Peace. But he says it made sense to size up Kim Jong Un in person.

FRANK AUM: You have to take big risks to get big rewards.

KELEMEN: Aum says it would have been better to have the State Department involved. But there's time for that.

AUM: There are a lot of competent State Department officials, people at the National Security Council who have looked at the North Korea issue for many, many years. And so it's not like we're coming into this blind and have not thought about this issue. We've been thinking about denuclearization for the last 30 years.

KELEMEN: It's not clear, though, if the president will listen to any of that advice or read up on the history, says Jean Lee, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center. Already, she says, the Trump administration is giving Kim Jong Un a boost.

JEAN LEE: It will already legitimize his position as a leader who is taken seriously enough by the United States that they would send the director of the CIA to Pyongyang. So that already is giving him some major propaganda points here.

KELEMEN: And Lee says the Trump administration doesn't seem to mind.

LEE: This is a president in the White House who has a sense for drama, loves drama and wants to make his mark in any way, regardless of the risks or ramifications. He has a lot of confidence and thinks that he'll be able to sidestep or bypass any of those concerns that might have stopped his predecessors from sitting down with the leader of North Korea.

KELEMEN: And that's exactly what concerns Senator Menendez.


MENENDEZ: A meeting is not a strategy. And I worry about a reality TV-show attitude that declares we've solved this when we know that's far from the case.

KELEMEN: He's planning to vote no on Trump's pick for secretary of state, though Republicans are sounding confident Pompeo will get enough support in the full Senate next week. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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