North Korea Attacks Pompeo for Sanctions Error, Ignoring Immediate Correction

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un listens during a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump (not pictured) at the second US-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on February 28, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was discussing Iran and North Korea with reporters on Sunday when he inadvertently said “80-plus percent of the North Korean economy is sanctioned” instead of referring to Iran as he intended.

Pompeo quickly corrected his mistake, but North Korea on Wednesday slammed him for the “reckless” comment, either unaware Pompeo was referring to Iran or unconcerned with representing his remarks accurately.

Pompeo was talking to reporters at Joint Base Andrews on Sunday – on his way to the Middle East, Asia, and ultimately the G20 Summit – when he was asked a two-part question about sanctions against Iran and the possibility of talks resuming with North Korea in the near future.

The Secretary of State decided to tackle the second part first and talked about North Korea for a few moments before switching to Iran. This led him to commit the minor verbal stumble that would prove so irritating to the North Koreans. Pompeo said:

With respect to your second question, I hope so.  We have been working to lay the foundations for that since Hanoi.  We think we’re in a better place, and I think the remarks you saw out of North Korea this morning suggest that that may well be a very real possibility.  We’re ready to go. We’re literally prepared to begin at a moment’s notice if the North Koreans indicate that they are prepared for those discussions.

As for the sanctions, so today some 80-plus percent of the North Korean economy is sanctioned.  I think it’s important for everyone to remember. I think this is – of the Iranian economy. Yes, of the Iranian economy is sanctioned.  

This will be – I don’t want to get out in front of what we’ll announce tomorrow, but this will be a further effort to ensure that their capacity not only to grow their economy but to evade sanctions becomes more and more difficult, and it will be an important addition to our capacity to enforce sanctions against Iran to ultimately achieve the objective that we’ve laid out.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday that proceeded as if Pompeo had been referring to North Korea with his comment about “80-plus percent” of the Iranian economy being sanctioned.

“Even though the supreme leaders devote their all for establishing new DPRK-U.S. relations, it would be difficult to look forward to the improvement of the bilateral relations and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as long as the American politics are dominated by the policy-makers who have an inveterate antagonism towards the DPRK,” the Foreign Ministry said, using North Korea’s preferred name for itself.

A Foreign Ministry official accused the United States of being “ever more undisguised in its hostility toward us.”

“If the U.S. sanctions are affecting 80-plus percent of our economy, as Pompeo mentioned, the question is whether the U.S. target is to raise it up to 100 percent,” the official said.

“Our state is not a country that will surrender to the U.S. sanctions, nor are we a country which the U.S. could attack whenever it desires to do so. If anyone dares to trample over our sovereignty and the right to existence, we will not hesitate to pull a muscle-flexing trigger in order to defend ourselves,” the official added.

North Korea has been targeted with plenty of sanctions, to be sure, but the Foreign Ministry appeared to be looking for reasons to take umbrage against Pompeo at the same moment President Donald Trump appears to have improved relations with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to begin preliminary talks for a third face-to-face summit meeting. 

The North Koreans have long been angry with Pompeo and have demanded his removal from further nuclear negotiations, even though he has already paid four visits to Pyongyang as secretary of state. North Korean officials frequently denounce him as “reckless,” the very same insult deployed by the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.

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