By Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday Washington is prepared to walk away from nuclear talks with North Korea if an upcoming meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un heads in the wrong direction.
“A bad deal is not an option,” Pompeo said in his written opening statement for a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. “The American people are counting on us to get this right. If the right deal is not on the table, we will respectfully walk away.”
In his first public testimony in Congress since becoming secretary of state last month, the former Republican House member was questioned for more than three hours about a variety of world hotspots, focusing largely on North Korea and Iran but with tough talk also for NATO ally Turkey.
Pompeo expressed hope the North Korea summit will take place on June 12 in Singapore as scheduled after Trump said there was a “substantial chance” it will be called off amid concerns Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear arsenal.
He said Trump would be leading the talks but declined to discuss how many people, or who, would be on the summit team.
Pompeo, who was CIA director before becoming secretary of state after Trump fired Rex Tillerson, has met twice with Kim in Pyongyang. On his most recent trip he brought back three Americans who had been held by North Korea.
Pompeo also addressed tensions with Iran over its nuclear program, saying Washington was seeking to meet with European and other allies on the way forward after Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 Iran deal earlier this month.
He said he intends to meet with allies in June to discuss next steps to stop what he described as all of Tehran’s nuclear and non-nuclear threats.
“We’re not very far along … A number of discussions have taken place below the foreign minister level,” Pompeo said.
In a major speech on Monday, Pompeo demanded sweeping changes or said Tehran would face the “strongest sanctions in history” unless it changes its behavior.
Committee members repeatedly asked Pompeo about Americans held in Iran. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord prompted concerns among families of American prisoners held by the Islamic Republic that it will be more difficult to win their release.
Pompeo said Turkey should stay in NATO but that it “should act in a way consistent with what we try to achieve in NATO.”
Relations between Washington and Ankara have deteriorated recently. Turkey supported the U.S. fight against Islamic State, but has become increasingly worried about U.S. backing for Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is coming to Washington to meet with Pompeo on June 4.
The hearing was contentious at times, particularly when Democratic Representative Greg Meeks confronted Pompeo about his aggressive questioning of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton when he was a congressman during Republican-led hearings about the fatal 2012 attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi.
Meeks accused Pompeo of neglecting the issue now that he is secretary of state, and of treating Clinton, who lost to Trump in the 2016 presidential election, “with venom” as he accused her of not caring about diplomats’ safety.
“I ask you, Mr. Secretary, should we conclude that because you’ve not mentioned it one time, not once, should we to conclusion based upon that fact, that you do not care about diplomatic security, Mr. Secretary?” Meeks asked.
“No you should not conclude that,” Pompeo said, raising his voice and saying his first state briefing was on security.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott)