Trump Barely Has Anyone to Talk to North Korea

Ivanka Trump and Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee, right, watch the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on Feb. 25. Ivanka Trump and Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee, right, watch the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on Feb. 25. Natacha Pisarenko/AP

There is no U.S. ambassador to South Korea. The U.S. diplomat in charge of negotiations with North Korea recently quit—and no replacement has yet been named. The State Department official in charge of East Asian affairs is a career diplomat who is serving in an acting capacity. So if North Korea does end up talking with the U.S., as the South says it’s offered to, whom exactly would they talk with?

“We have plenty of people who are more than qualified to have these types of conversations with the White House and also the Republic of Korea, our ally,” Heather Nauert, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, said Tuesday.

Those officials include Susan Thornton, a career foreign-service officer who is the State Department’s senior-most official on East Asian affairs, and who is the administration’s nominee to permanently take the job she has been doing since the end of the Obama administration; Marc Knapper, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Seoul; and Mark Lambert, the State Department’s director for Korea policy.

But the question remains of whether the U.S. has the bench strength needed to negotiate directly with North Korea—should such talks actually begin. Joseph Yun, the senior-most official who was in semiregular meetings with North Korean officials, announced late last month that he was retiring. His departure underscored the shortage of current U.S. officials who have ever met with a North Korean representative. Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, told me in an interview on Tuesday that it is uncertain “whether or not the United States has the capacity to engage in a major diplomatic effort with the North Koreans.”

“We have a hollowed-out State Department. I think we currently have only one person, a senior-level official, who has actually ever met a North Korean official,” she said. “So there’s a very thin diplomatic bench.” (A State Department spokesperson said in a statement: “There are numerous State Department officials in various ranks and positions, including in the office of Korean Affairs, who, over the course of their careers, have met with North Korean officials.)

DiMaggio was referring to Allison Hooker, a former State Department official who is now at the National Security Council, where she specializes in Korean issues. Hooker accompanied Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter, to the closing ceremony of the recently concluded Winter Olympics in South Korea. Although a senior North Korean official was also present at that ceremony, there was no interaction between Hooker and any North Korean official, an NSC spokesperson said.   

Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S.–Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and a founder of 38 North, a website devoted to the Korean Peninsula, said Wednesday that over the past decade or so, the United States’ “ability to deal with the North Koreans has declined, particularly in our experience of having face-to-face meetings with them.”

Wit said the U.S. has been relying too much on analyses of North Korean press reports and intelligence reports, “but the fact is we have almost no experience anymore of face-to-face meetings with the North Koreans, and that’s going to be absolutely essential in conducting any negotiation.”

Wit said that if the Trump administration accepted the North Korean offer of talks, then it would have to hire people who have met with North Korean officials. These people, he said, would include not only officials who have worked on proliferation issues in past administrations, but also humanitarian workers.

Wit said he and Gary Samore, who worked in both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s administrations on countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, wrote on the NPR website this week that the U.S. first needs to appoint an envoy for North Korea who could do the job made vacant by Yun’s retirement. That person could conduct regular negotiations until more-senior officials are brought in.

Wit said Wednesday that senior officials such as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can get involved, but “in the day-to-day work of negotiating, in any case, it’s probably best to have at least someone at a lower level who can push the ball forward, and then call in the higher-level officials when necessary.”

But before we get to any of this, the U.S. still needs to know what Kim offered. A senior administration official told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. would have meetings with South Korean officials this week in Washington about the offer. There’s been no word yet about it from the North Koreans directly.

“It’s a good idea for everybody to keep some perspective, take a deep breath, keep in mind that we’ve have a long history, about 27 years of history, of talking to the North Koreans, and the results over the 27-year history are of them breaking every agreement that they’ve ever made with the United States and with the international community,” that official said. “So, we are open minded, we look forward to hearing more, but ... the North Koreans have also earned our skepticism, so we’re a bit guarded in our optimism.”

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