Trump administration might need to scramble if talks with N. Korea proceed
The Trump administration has been ratcheting up pressure on North Korea for months with the stated goal of inducing Pyongyang into negotiations over its nuclear and missile program.
Now North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has signaled possible interest in talks. But if the long-shot negotiations proceed, the Trump administration will need to scramble.
The U.S. point-person on North Korea, special envoy Joseph Yun, announced his retirement in late February and hasn’t been replaced. More than a year in, the administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea. And the Senate hasn’t confirmed the top U.S. diplomat to east Asia.
While U.S. officials expected their “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against North Korea to produce results, the signals from Pyongyang have come sooner than many expected, raising the prospect of what could become one of the biggest diplomatic undertakings of the Trump presidency.
“Right now it’s kind of a case of the dog has caught the car and what is he going to do with it?” said Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence specialist on Korea who is now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “I don’t think they’ve planned that far ahead.”
On Thursday, South Korea’s negotiators, Chung Eui-yong and Suh Hoon, met with U.S. officials in Washington to catch them up on talks between the North and South that followed a cooling of tensions at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. U.S. officials said the meeting included White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Past negotiators say full-fledged talks would require the United States to have a disciplined process, a lead negotiator with gravitas carrying the trust of the president and Congress, 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 on the remote chance that Pyongyang’s signals turn out to be authentic.
“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.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested Thursday that Washington must first determine Pyongyang’s sincerity about denuclearization.
“We’re a long way from negotiations. We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it,” Tillerson said. He said he didn’t know yet whether “the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.”
State Department officials say they are confident they have the manpower necessary to engage Pyongyang during that initial stage of discussions. They cited Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Mark Lambert, the Korea desk director, as veteran diplomats with significant experience in North Korea diplomacy.
Lambert, who has been involved in six-party talks on North Korea in Beijing in the past, now runs the so-called “New York channel,” a communication link between the United States and North Korea through Pyongyang’s mission at the United Nations.
U.S. officials said Thornton, a veteran Asia hand, could guide the department through preliminary discussions with Pyongyang but would lack the bandwidth to lead full-fledged negotiations because of her other responsibilities across the region.
“We are very comfortable that if the negotiations occur we will have the best negotiators representing the United States,” Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steven Goldstein said.
Still, the lack of substantive diplomatic engagement with North Korea during the Obama administration has left a thin bench of people with face-to-face experience dealing with Pyongyang. Since President Trump took office, the ranks of U.S. diplomats and experts have thinned amid beleaguered morale at the State Department.
“The State Department has hemorrhaged Korean linguists and former negotiators,” said Doug Paal, an Asia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Norks will send people with 30 years of experience. This is a real challenge.”
Beyond the initial stages, the United States would likely need a high-profile lead negotiator to run the process full-time, someone with the full backing of the president and the ability to draw on resources from across the diplomatic, military and intelligence experts in the government.
The White House has been looking to hire a top negotiator from outside of government who would carry the trust of the president and the public stature necessary to lead any negotiations, a U.S. official said, declining to name the possible candidates.
Former President Bill Clinton, for example, tapped his former secretary of defense, William Perry, to oversee a North Korea policy review mandated by the Republican-led Congress in the late 1990s, and Perry then led negotiations with Pyongyang in the final days of the Clinton administration.
Former U.S. officials bristled at the idea that the person would come from outside the diplomatic ranks at the State Department, but they agreed that any lead negotiator above all must have the trust and full backing of the president. Many expected the White House to seek to take charge of the process.
Whether talks will progress to the point of needing such a person is unclear.
“The initial stage will be a sounding out period without putting specific proposals down,” said Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who negotiated with the North Koreans as a U.S. diplomat during the Clinton administration.
Einhorn said the Trump administration will want to be satisfied upfront that Kim is willing to get rid of his nuclear program within some reasonable period of time before agreeing to enter any formal talks.
“I think they will be disappointed in that,” Einhorn said. “I doubt he has any intention of giving up nuclear weapons.”
On the off chance that the administration is satisfied and talks proceed, negotiations at some point could return to the Six Party Talks configuration, with Russia, China, South Korea and Japan attending alongside North Korea and the United States.
The prospect of negotiations with North Korea comes as the Trump administration continues to grapple with infighting that has spilled into the public domain and perceptions that the president and his lieutenants aren’t always reading from the same script on foreign policy matters.
Regular questions about the rumored departures of key administration personnel running North Korea policy — from Tillerson to McMaster—threaten to undermine the authority of their charges conducting any negotiations with Pyongyang.
Questions about whether Tillerson speaks for the president dogged initial efforts to engage North Korea. Trump tweeted last October that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” At one point, North Korean officials were asking American visitors whether Tillerson would keep his job.
Last year, as North Korea set off its first successful intercontinental ballistic missiles, much of the United States began looking to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley as the voice of U.S. policy on the North Korea, rather than Tillerson.
McMaster, meanwhile, publicly floated the idea of “preventive war,” appearing out of step with Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who said military options were on the table but emphasized the need for pressure and diplomacy. Mattis warned a war would be catastrophic.
In recent weeks, the administration has been trying to bat away suggestions by its former top choice for South Korea ambassador that top officials were considering a “bloody nose” strategy — or a punitive strike on North Korea designed to send a message of American resolve. The administration hasn’t ruled out preventive strikes if diplomacy fails.
For now, U.S. officials have been cautious not to overplay the potential for talks with North Korea, which has opened the door to denuclearization in the past only to backtrack on its promises.
“We’re looking at a serious effort by all parties, but we’ve seen North Korea feign interest in denuclearization before only to renege on its pledges and agreements,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
“If and when we are satisfied that North Korea is ready for serious, credible talks, there are a range of State Department officials, beginning with the office of Korean Affairs, who are ready to engage with North Korean officials,” she added.