By Tessa Berenson
March 9, 2018

President Donald Trump announced that he would have a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a typically unplanned way.

The president popped his head into the White House briefing room Thursday evening to tell reporters a “major announcement” was coming in just two hours, one that turned out to reverse a position staked out by his own Secretary of State just one day earlier.

But experts say if he is actually going to meet with Kim — still not a certainty — it will take a lot more planning and forethought than that.

In past administrations, experts say it would take extensive preparation and negotiations with multiple agencies to prepare for a meeting like this. Generally, at least the National Security Council, the State Department, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community would all play a role in coming up with a negotiating strategy.

All of this would be so that “when the two principals met, there was some kind of understanding of what they were going to talk about, what potential agreement they would reach, and a lot of it would be relatively well scripted,” says Jay Lefkowitz, who served as President George W. Bush’s Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea.

But Trump has made clear that he wants to lead this process himself — “President Trump made his reputation on making deals,” a senior official said Thursday of why he wants to meet face-to-face with Kim. And even when he has one, Trump rarely sticks to the script.

“He may not actually have a foreign policy apparatus around him that he either trusts or has confidence in,” says Lefkowitz. And “he obviously has supreme confidence, whether it’s misguided or not, in his own negotiating skills.”

The timeline would be short to do all this planning. Republic of Korea National Security Advisor Chung Eui-Yong said last night that the two would meet “by May.” And a senior Administration official said it would happen in “a couple of months” but the “exact timing and place is still to be determined.”

The Trump Administration is considering appointing an outside expert to work as an envoy to North Korea, CNN reports. But for now, according to Axios, the State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea is retiring, there’s no permanent ambassador to Seoul and the assistant secretary for East Asia hasn’t yet been confirmed. In the West Wing, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is rumored to be on his way out.

“They’re going to need to really beef up their team,” says Joel Wit, Senior Fellow at US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

As the Trump Administration hammers down its own position and goals for the meeting, traditionally officials below the President would also be reaching out to officials in North Korea and other countries with a stake in the outcome in advance of the summit. South Korea helped broker the meeting and according to the White House, Trump spoke to both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday about North Korean strategy and the upcoming talk.

Arranging a summit with North Korea marks a particular challenge, because the U.S. doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with the hermit kingdom.

“We’re going to have to start talking to them. That’s the point,” says Wit. “They have to have a process of communication and face-to-face communication, and given the short time frame involved, it’s going to have to be pretty intense.”

One immediate question for the U.S. and North Korea to settle: where the summit will be held. Experts have predicted a neutral country, South Korea, the Demilitarized Zone, or even North Korea, if Kim refuses to leave his country.

But even if the U.S. opens channels of communication with North Korean officials, it’s not clear that anyone besides Kim himself is really empowered to represent the country. “How can you actually have the kind of traditional diplomatic outreach when no one really below him has any real authority in that system?” asks Lefkowitz.

In a different way, Trump himself has few officials who can speak for him, due to his propensity to change his mind and rely on his own thinking above the advice of experts. One day before Trump agreed to meet with Kim, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said conditions weren’t right to meet with North Korea. The change was “a decision the President took himself,” Tillerson explained, according to CNN.

“In a way,” says Lefkowitz, “we have two leaders right now who are much more wrapped up in their own worlds than I think you traditionally have when you’re dealing with diplomacy.”

Which is why Trump hopes sitting down together could be the first step towards a new relationship between the two countries.


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