World News

Cabinet Changes Could Delay Planning for Meeting with Kim Jong Un

Posted March 14, 2018 10:05 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The White House has created a working group to prepare for the landmark meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea. But Trump’s sudden ousting Tuesday of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could delay critical elements of the planning until the Senate confirms his successor, Mike Pompeo.

Few officials expect Pompeo’s arrival at the State Department to derail the meeting itself, as long as the president and Kim remain committed to it. But Tillerson’s departure deprives the White House of the person most experienced in efforts to reach out to North Korea. As the CIA director, Pompeo has focused more on the threats posed by Pyongyang.

Pompeo will not be able to establish contact with the South Korean foreign minister, let alone his North Korean counterpart, until the Senate approves his nomination — a process that officials on Capitol Hill said could take several weeks. The White House has not yet even completed the paperwork to begin that process, the officials said.

Adding to the confusion is the lack of official confirmation of a meeting from North Korea. Kim’s offer was relayed to Trump by two envoys from South Korea who had recently visited him in Pyongyang. But a U.S. official said Wednesday that the United States and North Korea had still not conferred directly about the meeting through the various diplomatic channels they use.

The radio silence from Pyongyang has sowed doubts among some North Korea experts about whether Kim even made the offer — or, at least, whether he pledged to refrain from testing missiles and to put his nuclear weapons program on the table in a negotiation with Trump.

“What is nagging at me is that these alleged promises or concessions from Kim Jong Un seem so out of character for North Korea’s 34-year-old leader,” Jung H. Pak, a former CIA analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said in an essay posted on the Brookings website.

Even if the South Koreans faithfully relayed Kim’s offer, the muddled aftermath of Trump’s surprise announcement illustrates how little control he has over the momentum behind the diplomatic opening. The leaders of North and South Korea are scheduled to meet at the end of April, setting the stage for the Trump-Kim summit meeting a month later.

“The president, and now Pompeo with him, are flowing into an initiative that has been driven by the Koreans,” said Philip D. Zelikow, who served in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “A lot of the key spadework on this is going to unfold before Pompeo is on the job.”

Zelikow, who has been involved in back-channel negotiations with North Korean representatives over the years, said that they have seized the strategic initiative for the meeting, which would give them an advantage in setting the time, place and agenda for the encounter.

“They are trying to delay and defuse the danger of a war,” Zelikow said. “The best-case scenario is that there would be some agreement on principles that would guide future negotiations.”

Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, traveled to New York on Monday to brief members of the U.N. Security Council about the president’s decision to meet with Kim. McMaster said the invitation vindicated the president’s strategy of imposing “maximum pressure” on the North.

But he also counseled caution, according to a person who heard him speak, laying out the possible hurdles and reaffirming that the sanctions needed to be kept in place. Matthew Pottinger, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, offered the diplomats a litany of reasons previous negotiations with North Korea had failed.

Two obvious candidates to consult on talks are no longer available to the White House. Joseph Y. Yun, a Korean-born U.S. diplomat who negotiated with Pyongyang for the return of a detained American, Otto F. Warmbier, resigned from the Foreign Service. Victor D. Cha, a Korea expert in the Bush administration, was on track to be ambassador to Seoul before the White House pulled the plug on his nomination.

Even inside the White House, some officials express regret that Cha was blocked. Among those now under consideration for the post, according to a person briefed by the White House, are two retired generals who commanded troops in South Korea: Walter L. Sharp and James D. Thurman.

With no ambassador in place and the State Department in flux, Pottinger and his staff are handling much of the preparations for the meeting. But the National Security Council is itself on edge, amid persistent rumors that McMaster might soon depart.

Even in a hawkish administration, Pompeo’s statements about North Korea have been hard-line. Last summer, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, he came as close as any official in calling for the removal of Kim.

“The thing that is the most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over” North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, Pompeo said.

“From the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right?” he continued. “Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent, and break those two apart.”

Pompeo’s CIA background could help him assess the authenticity of the North Korean offer. But with no diplomatic experience, he will not be able to offer Trump much advice on how to handle Kim or how to approach a complex negotiation.

Given all those limitations, said Jeffrey A. Bader, a former Asia adviser to President Barack Obama, Trump should consider appointing a special negotiator to take charge after his initial meeting with Kim.

“They got two months to pull this together,” Bader said. “They don’t have language from the horse’s mouth on North Korea’s offer, don’t have clarity on a plausible U.S. objective, don’t have a venue, don’t have a date — and they’ve got no experienced negotiator.”