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Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo's North Korea Trip Gets Cancelled


President Trump is giving his secretary of state new marching orders on North Korea. Don't go right now. Trump tweeted that he has asked Mike Pompeo to wait until China starts helping the U.S. get to its goal - the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about this latest turn of events. Hey, Michele.


CHANG: So how much of a surprise was this?

KELEMEN: It was certainly a big surprise to the reporters covering this building.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KELEMEN: You know, it was just yesterday that Secretary Pompeo was introducing us to his new special representative on North Korea, Stephen Biegun, who's going to lead the U.S. efforts to try to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.


MIKE POMPEO: It's a very timely moment for Steve to join the team and come onboard. He and I will be traveling to North Korea next week to make further diplomatic progress towards our objective.

KELEMEN: So remember; that was yesterday he said...

CHANG: Not that long ago.

KELEMEN: And so planning - the planning was well underway for that trip. And I'd also say that, you know, these tweets from the president were the first time really that Trump himself seemed to be acknowledging that this diplomacy isn't really going so well. You know, after his summit with Kim Jong Un, he was telling us that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat, and we can all sleep well. Well, now he's telling the secretary of state to put off this trip.

CHANG: So what happened behind the scenes?

KELEMEN: Well, what we know from the tweets is that President Trump felt that China wasn't helping. He acknowledged that this could be because the U.S.-China trade dispute - you know, the U.S. needs China to help keep the pressure on North Korea...

CHANG: Right.

KELEMEN: ...To continue with these sanctions. But Trump is also imposing tariffs on Chinese goods. So here's a place where these two policies are clashing. And, you know, it's not the first time that he's pointed fingers at China on this. Even before that summit with Kim Jong Un, there was a lot of back and forth about whether it would actually happen. And Trump at the time suggested that it was China that was getting in the way. So perhaps we're seeing this same game kind of play out on this trip.

CHANG: What was Pompeo even expected to accomplish by going to North Korea this next time?

KELEMEN: He didn't seem to have any big expectations. There weren't any plans to meet Kim Jong Un, who snubbed him the last time he went.

CHANG: Yeah.

KELEMEN: But it would have been a chance for the new envoy, Stephen Biegun, to get to know some of the people that he's going to be working with.

CHANG: And tell us a little more about Biegun.

KELEMEN: Well, you know, he has a lot of foreign policy experience on the Hill and in the Bush White House, most recently at Ford Motor Company. But I've known him mostly as a Russia expert. He doesn't seem to have a lot of experience with North Korea. But he was clearly gearing up for this. Let's take a listen to what he said yesterday.


STEPHEN BIEGUN: The issues are tough, and they will be tough to resolve. But the president has created an opening, and it's one that we must take by seizing every possible opportunity to realize the vision for a peaceful future for the people of North Korea.

KELEMEN: So he seemed to be ready for this hard slog, but he's going to have to hold off for a bit.

CHANG: And while Trump was criticizing China, he also had some warm words for Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator. I mean, this is becoming a pretty familiar pattern.

KELEMEN: It is. You know, he used to call him the little rocket man.

CHANG: Right.

KELEMEN: And now he says he'd like to send his warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. He looks forward to seeing him soon. So continue on with that - warm words for the North Korean dictator.

CHANG: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. 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.