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Opinion Even before firing Tillerson, Trump outsourced his North Korea diplomacy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, shakes hands with South Korean chief delegator Chung Eui-yong on March 5. (Korean Central News Agency/Agence France-Presse)

When the news broke that President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a senior administration official told the press, “The president wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea and various ongoing trade negotiations.” In the case of North Korea, let’s be clear about something: Trump had no team even before the Twitter-sacking of Tillerson.

“There’s no ambassador to South Korea. There’s no special envoy,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me last week in Brussels. “We have no one on the peninsula representing us at the highest level.” Victor D. Cha’s expected nomination as ambassador was derailed in January when he disagreed with Trump’s North Korea policy. Last month, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Joseph Yun, abruptly announced his retirement. According to Reuters, a senior South Korean official talking about Yun told the news agency, “He was skeptical and wary of the White House’s hardline approach toward North Korea from the beginning.”

“Kim may get everything he wants and this may be in the end a major embarrassment for the United States.”

The president is lunging headlong into a meeting unlike any he has ever experienced without his own eyes and ears. And by that, I mean American diplomats and personnel steeped in the intricacies and nuances of dealing with North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un. It’s a troubling situation underscored by the fact that the stunning announcement of a meeting with Kim was made not by the State Department or the U.S. national security adviser, but by Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean national security adviser who met with Kim three days earlier. He did so after a spur-of-the-moment meeting with Trump in the Oval Office last Thursday.

South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong announced on March 8 that President Trump has agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Jabin Botsford/Reuters)

Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, put an even finer point on this personnel void during a panel on the Kim threat at the German Marshall Fund’s 2018 Brussels Forum last week in Belgium. Because of the personnel void at state, South Korea is in the driver’s seat. He said:

In a way, we’re in a very kind of nontraditional phase of diplomacy. [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in and the South Korean government are kind of being Trump’s team. They’re kind of being his preparation, working-level talks and those kind of things. Trump is not going to have his secretary of state meet with the North Korean leadership before he meets with them. In a way, when Moon meets with Kim Jong Un in April, he has to, both, do an inter-Korean summit, but he also has to serve as somewhat of a role of what the secretary of state would have done meeting with Kim Jong Un before the president of United States does so. South Korea right now is actually, in some ways, has a lot of power and control over these processes.

This distressing dynamic caused Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at GMF, to speak up. “While I believe deeply in standing closely with our South Korean allies,” said Rosenberger, who once served as the director for China and Korea on the National Security Council, “but having Moon Jae-in, with all due respect to him, be our lead negotiator with Kim Jong Un doesn’t really sound to me, as a former American diplomat, like the way I’d like to see policy and our diplomacy conducted.” Rosenberger is right.

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Before he lifted off the South Lawn of the White House for his trip to California, Trump said, “We’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.” With the improvisational moves on North Korea, the diplomatic void in the region and Trump’s reliance on South Korea, he’s not very close at all.

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