WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s high-wire gambit to accept a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sets off a scramble among U.S. officials to assemble a team capable of supporting a historic summit of longtime adversaries and determine a viable engagement strategy.
State Department officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were downplaying the immediacy of talks in the hours before the White House rolled out the South Korean national security adviser, who made the surprise announcement that Trump would meet with Kim.
The apparent lack of coordination marked a pattern of mixed messaging that has characterized the Trump administration’s North Korea diplomacy since Pyongyang launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile last year, sparking the Trump White House’s biggest national security crisis to date.
Now the White House has committed to an unprecedented meeting at a time when the administration lacks a fully staffed cadre of diplomats and advisers.
The U.S. point person on North Korea, special envoy Joseph Yun, announced his retirement in late February and has not been replaced. More than a year in, the administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea. And the Senate has not confirmed the top U.S. diplomat to eastern Asia.
Thursday’s announcement suggested that the White House will be driving the process, but much of the grunt work will go to rank-and-file diplomats.
Hours earlier, Tillerson said there may be no talks at all. “We’re a long way from negotiations,” Tillerson said.
The top U.S. diplomat was quickly upstaged by the White House with an announcement that the president would meet the North Korean leader.
Past negotiators say full-fledged talks would require the United States to have a disciplined process and a team across government agencies working out the nuts and bolts of any agreement. They urged the administration to get ready for such a heavy lift if it was prepared to make a serious attempt.
“It’s going to take time to get this underway under any circumstances. I would get going right away,” said Wendy Sherman, who served as North Korea policy coordinator for the Clinton administration and lead negotiator with Iran during the Obama administration.
“When we did the Iran negotiation, we wrote an entire agreement, over 100 pages, before we began the negotiation, so we had a sense of what we were trying to achieve,” Sherman said. “It was incredibly detailed and incredibly technical. There’s homework to be done.”
Traditionally, talks would require a lead negotiator with gravitas and the trust of both the White House and Congress, who would nail down the details of any agreement over a series of meetings before proposing any summit with the U.S. commander in chief. But Trump has long fashioned himself his own negotiator, potentially rendering past diplomatic playbooks void.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a long-standing nuclear-disarmament advocate, cheered the president’s decision to engage directly with North Korea but called on the White House to take steps to make sure the U.S. is best prepared to take on the task.
“As we embark on one of the most crucial diplomatic negotiations in recent history, I urge President Trump to empower his diplomats to sustain momentum and provide expertise,” Markey said in a statement. “Any negotiation with North Korea will only succeed if it draws upon the collective expertise … of a fully resourced and staffed State Department. Diplomacy is a team sport, bigger than any individual.”