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 director, Chung Eui-yong, 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 administration’s North Korea diplomacy since Pyongyang launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile last year, sparking Trump’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. 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, “We’re a long way from negotiations.” The top U.S. diplomat was quickly upstaged by the White House with an announcement that the president himself 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 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, a North Korea policy coordinator for the Clinton administration and lead negotiator with Iran during the Obama administration.
Washington’s policymakers appeared caught off guard. The State Department said earlier in the day that its officials were prepared to engage in a preliminary round of talks to test North Korea’s sincerity but stressed that everything remained in early stages.
Traditionally, talks would require a lead negotiator with the trust of the White House and Congress, who would nail down the details of any agreement over a series of meetings before proposing any summit with a U.S. president. But Trump has long fashioned himself his own negotiator, potentially rendering past diplomatic playbooks void.