SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un views US forces stationed in South Korea as a counterweight and "bulwark" against China's "real threat" to his sovereignty, said former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
The former top US diplomat said that a critical lesson he had learnt from nuclear talks with Pyongyang is Mr Kim's perception of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), although the Trump administration "didn't get all the way to try to convince Chairman Kim that his nuclear weapons pose more of a threat to him than they did a security blanket".
Mr Pompeo, who also previously served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and visited Pyongyang multiple times, said Mr Kim declined to give an explicit answer when asked about the implications of the withdrawal of US forces on the Korean peninsula for his regime, recalling his in-person meetings with Mr Kim.
"Chairman Kim, I would say, tell me what it would look like if America pulled its troops from South Korea... He would smile and say, 'I'm not particularly interested in that', suggesting somehow that he didn't want to tell me how important it really was," Mr Pompeo said on Wednesday (March 16) in an annual B.C. Lee Lecture on US policy in the Indo-Pacific hosted by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
But Mr Pompeo said the North Korean leader's stance on US forces came to the fore as the Trump administration proceeded with nuclear negotiations.
"As we developed our relationship more fully, what became very clear is he (Mr Kim) views the United States of America on the Korean peninsula as a bulwark against his real threat, which came from Xi Jinping," Mr Pompeo said, referring to the Chinese President.
"He knew that having American troops…(was) the counterbalance not only for the South Koreans, not only for the Japanese, not only for the United States and our Western interests, but for him as well."
Mr Pompeo went on to say that the summits between Mr Kim and Mr Xi, which were held in the run-up to three Trump-Kim meetings, do not necessarily evince their close coordination.
"I think a more nuanced, better analysis is that Chairman Kim knows, just like the rest of us in the world now, that Xi Jinping threatens his sovereignty as well," Mr Pompeo told participants at the event.
He warned that China would be the one that could topple the Kim Jong Un regime.
"If he is to lose power, it is most likely not to come from the United States, not likely to come from South Korea, but because Xi concludes that a little more territory, a little more real estate, and a little less freedom on the Chinese border is something that the Chinese Communist Party needs," Mr Pompeo said.
"We need to look no further than Hong Kong or Tibet or Xinjiang to know that what Xi Jinping will demand of Chairman Kim is total and complete subservience."
But it is also crucial to note that there have been discrepancies between the North Korean leader's stance on the USFK indirectly conveyed by South Korean and US officials and the country's position on the matter in public statements.
After his visit to Pyongyang, South Korea's then-national security adviser Chung Eui-yong in September 2018 said Mr Kim viewed there was no correlation between an end-of-war declaration and the withdrawal of the US forces.
North Korea's pronouncements have, on the other hand, shown different opinions on the matter. A North Korean government spokesman's statement, which was issued in July 2016, elucidated that pulling out US troops from South Korea was one of the five major preconditions for achieving "denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula".
The party regulations, which were revised in January 2021 at North Korea's Eighth Party Congress, still stipulate its goal to make "aggressive forces of US imperialism withdraw from South Korea and eventually terminate the US political and military domination over South Korea".
The most recent example is another press statement released last August under the Party Central Committee's Vice-Department Director Kim Yo Jong, with authorisation from the North Korean leader.
Ms Kim explicitly said the "root cause that periodically aggravates the situation on the Korean peninsula will never be eliminated as long as US forces are stationed in South Korea".