Administration officials are scrambling to turn President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into a reality, preparing for an unprecedented, high stakes summit with little time, an understaffed State Department and a mercurial President who may not stick to his script when the time comes.
The White House will convene a meeting Tuesday to discuss preparations, an administration official said. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cut short a trip to Africa to “get his hands around what’s happening,” the official said. In the meantime, Tillerson and other senior officials reached out to allies worldwide and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to brief them on the decision.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the administration is preparing on a “number of levels,” an “interagency process” that she declined to describe further.
High stakes, North Korean silence
Foreign capitals are moving quickly as well, with the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers announcing plans to meet with Tillerson in Washington on Friday for more in-depth consultations.
Even as the world reacts, North Korea has maintained silence, not responding to Trump’s announcement last week. US Cabinet officials are moving to calm expectations and urge patience.
The stakes are high if this summit goes awry, analysts say, particularly if North Korea responds by resuming missile or nuclear testing. Indeed, many analysts stressed that Trump himself will be a wild card, both during the summit itself and afterward, should things go wrong.
“The greatest risk to negotiations is not North Korea,” said DJ Peterson, president of Longview Global Advisors, a geopolitics advisory group for businesses and political organizations. “It’s Washington, it’s the White House. You see people like Tillerson already trying to minimize any potential for missteps, miscues, miscommunications.”
“There are significant risks for failure here,” said Peterson.
That risk is compounded by the fact that the circumstances are topsy-turvy. Summit meetings between national leaders usually take place only at the very end of negotiations, after lower-level bureaucrats have hammered out every detail of an agreement and scripted every pause and handshake in their public appearance.
But the announcement Thursday surprised officials at the White House, Pentagon and State Department, not to mention US lawmakers and foreign leaders. Senior administration officials had to dissuade Trump from meeting Kim in April and convince him to wait until May, after the leaders of North and South Korea hold their own summit.
On Monday, Sanders said the administration fully expects the meeting to take place. “The offer was made and we accepted,” she said, noting that Pyongyang made several promises ahead of the meeting.
Trump touted those pledges, all conveyed through South Korean officials, on Twitter over the weekend. The North Korean leader reportedly expressed a commitment to denuclearization and Trump noted that Kim also “has promised” not to conduct missile tests “through our meetings. I believe they will honor that commitment!”
“We hope they will stick to those promises, and if so, the meeting will go on as planned,” Sanders said.
But with the administration understaffed and lacking regional experts, it’s a concern that Trump and his officials can be fully prepared in 10 weeks for this meeting, analysts say. Trump is not known to have a nuanced understanding of the Korean Peninsula or to be an avid consumer of the daily intelligence briefing.
The administration is also lacking an ambassador to South Korea as well as a special envoy for North Korea, and there are a slew of questions to address.
Those questions range from the basic where, when and how to more nuanced issues, including how the US should approach the talks, whether Washington should accept anything short of North Korean denuclearization and whether to involve the fates of three Americans held hostage by Pyongyang.
Returning to Washington from Africa, Tillerson told reporters Monday that he was ready to prepare Trump for the challenge ahead.
“I have a lot of confidence in my ability to create the conditions for successful negotiations between two very disparate parties,” Tillerson said. “But I’m not the only guy working on this. Others are working on this as well.”
The top US diplomat indicated the US wouldn’t be inclined to have the talks take place in China. “I think we’re going to be wanting to find a nice neutral site where both parties will feel confident with the site for this meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un,” Tillerson said, “and so my view is we ought to find someplace that’s neutral.”