‘Nobody in the bullpen’: White House approaches North Korea talks without envoy
The Trump administration is barreling ahead in its high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with North Korea even though it lacks a full-time envoy to oversee the negotiations.
Currently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is serving as the point man on the administration’s effort to convince North Korea to give up its atomic arsenal. But some lawmakers and former officials are urging President Donald Trump to put a special representative in charge, arguing that Pompeo can’t give the topic the explicit, sustained attention it requires.
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The calls for an envoy come as Trump aides remain coy about details of their strategy to deal with the isolated Asian country. There have been no formal talks announced since Trump held a much-ballyhooed June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, although there are reports that Pompeo will go next week to Pyongyang.
Kim’s regime, meanwhile, is reported to have upgraded a nuclear facility and stepped up its production of fuel for nuclear weapons, raising questions about its true intentions.
“This is like going to the World Series with nobody in the bullpen,” said New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “To address a challenge the magnitude of North Korea, the United States needs an empowered secretary of state and a competent and resourced diplomatic staff to back him up — especially a top official dealing exclusively with North Korea.”
Until recently, the U.S. had a special representative for North Korea policy: Joseph Yun, a respected career Foreign Service officer. Yun retired in February, just weeks before Trump upended diplomatic convention and agreed to meet with Kim, a brutal dictator who has expanded North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Yun’s departure exacerbated existing staffing shortages at the State Department, to the point where his predecessor in the role, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, was tasked with helping plan the summit. Ultimately, State, with Pompeo at the helm, coordinated with the National Security Council, the CIA and other agencies to pull off the June 12 Trump-Kim meeting, held in Singapore.
The meeting resulted in a vague U.S.-North Korea statement committing to denuclearization, but few specifics. The hard work lies ahead, analysts say, as the two sides hammer out what they mean by denuclearization, the timeframes involved, what the U.S. will give Pyongyang and more. It could be many months before a comprehensive nuclear deal is reached.
Pompeo, who took over as secretary of state in late April, assured lawmakers this week that people across the government are working on the steps ahead. He said he is charge of the inter-agency effort, but he declined to detail the U.S. strategy for the talks, saying that could be “counterproductive.”
“They’re watching this hearing,” he said of the North Koreans.
There’s no doubt U.S. officials have kept busy on the North Korea front. Pompeo this week spoke with his counterpart in South Korea, while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has raised the issue on a swing through Asia, with stops in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. The Senate on Thursday also finally confirmed a U.S. ambassador to South Korea, filling what many analysts said was a glaring hole in the Trump administration’s approach to the nuclear issue.
But while Pompeo is considered a smart, versatile player — with special insight into North Korea from his time as CIA chief — he is still new to diplomacy and has limited knowledge of nuclear technicalities. Kim, on the other hand, is likely to dispatch highly experienced negotiators for future discussions — delegates who will wrestle with every word of any deal.
As the chief U.S. diplomat, Pompeo also has plenty of other crises to tackle, including escalating U.S. tensions with Iran, fraying U.S.-European ties, and general global discontent with Trump’s trade and environmental policies.
“At the stage of the game, the appointment of a senior U.S. envoy dedicated to [the North Korea] process would make a great deal of sense,” said Suzanne DiMaggio of the New America think tank. “The next weeks and months will be critical, and it’s difficult to see how Pompeo can devote the day-to-day attention needed to keep things moving forward.”
Asked if the administration plans to fill the special envoy’s position, the State Department said it had “no personnel announcements at this time.” Yun, who is now with the U.S. Institute of Peace, did not respond to requests for comment.
Sung Kim, who previously held the North Korea role, would be an obvious choice, but his current job as the U.S. ambassador in Manila is also important, especially given the authoritarian antics of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Evans Revere, a retired Foreign Service officer with extensive North Korea knowledge, said that if Trump wishes to name an envoy, “it will have to be a person of considerable gravitas, very high rank and be someone who can speak authoritatively on behalf of the president.”
“If we have learned nothing else after over a quarter of a century of dealing with the North Koreans on the nuclear issue, if you are not directly engaged with [North Korea’s] leader and his inner circle, you are almost certainly wasting your time,” Revere said.