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No location, no agenda: Trump administration scrambles for North Korea talks

A man in Seoul reads a copy of the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper featuring President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the front page on March 9. (Jean Chung/Bloomberg News)

Even under the best of circumstances, President Trump’s planned summit with North Korea’s leader would be a daunting challenge — a faceoff with the dictator of a pariah state about whom there is little reliable intelligence and whose regime has a history of breaking promises and violating agreements.

But for the Trump administration, that may be the least of its worries. In the rush to prepare Trump for his meeting with Kim Jong Un in May, the White House is overseeing a frantic scramble to resolve even the most fundamental questions on the U.S. side: Where will the summit be? Who will be at the table? What should be on the agenda?

They have about 2½ months to figure it out — a rapid timetable, especially given the tumult roiling the White House. Since shocking the world — and his staff — by agreeing to meet with Kim, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He also decided to dump national security adviser H.R. McMaster when he finds a replacement.

Trump administration officials said it is full-steam ahead, with high-level meetings between U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials taking place in Washington and California on Friday. At the White House, Trump spoke by phone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who will have his own summit with Kim in Panmunjom in April. Trump reiterated his intention to meet with Kim in May, despite suggestions from some analysts that he delay the meeting and take more time to prepare.

In a private event with campaign donors last week, Trump boasted that he was willing to take risks that his predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama were not.

“Nobody would have done what I did,” Trump said, calling their strategies “appeasement.” He noted that critics doubt his ability to negotiate but countered: “Maybe we should send in the people that have been playing games and didn’t know what the hell they’ve been doing for 25 years.”

Foreign policy experts warned that the Trump administration needs to be fully engaged, with the president making the summit his top priority, if the White House has any reasonable expectation of success. But even trying to define what success would look like is difficult, they said, because virtually no one thinks that Kim is willing to give up his nuclear weapons and it is unclear what Trump is willing to put on the table to persuade him.

“A normal administration wouldn’t do this,” said Michael J. Green, who served as senior Asia director at the National Security Council (NSC) in the Bush administration. “The North Koreans have wanted an American president to meet the Kim family since the end of the Cold War to demonstrate to the world their nuclear program got the American president to treat them as an equal. No normal NSC or White House could see how this could be done without damaging the credibility of the president and our alliances.”

President Ronald Reagan held a high-stakes nuclear summit with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, but there is no historical precedent for what Trump is attempting, experts said. Washington has no known channels of direct communication with Pyongyang, so the two sides are essentially starting from scratch, with Seoul acting as the intermediary. Kim has not publicly confirmed the summit with Trump.

Foreign policy experts emphasized that it would be a mistake to look to past summits for clues as to how the Trump team will prepare. Typically, such meetings take many months, even years, to arrange, with lower-level diplomats working out the agenda and the likely outcomes.

For example, when Obama made a historic trip to Cuba to meet Raúl Castro in 2016, his administration already had reestablished diplomatic relations, opened an embassy in Havana and lifted some economic sanctions.

Trump is essentially approaching his summit with Kim in the reverse order.

“I do not see this as the end game,” said Dan Blumenthal, who was a Pentagon official in the Bush administration. “We need to come up with a model of the kind of relationship we’re going to have with North Korea.”

But it’s not clear who in the administration will take the lead in developing such a model.

Analysts interpreted Trump’s decision to fire Tillerson and nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him as a way to remake his senior team ahead of the summit. Pompeo is considered more hawkish on the North and has taken a lead role in delivering the daily presidential intelligence brief to Trump, who eschews dense briefing books.

“He figured out how to communicate with Trump,” said Christopher R. Hill, a former diplomat who headed the U.S. delegation for the Six-Party Talks with the North in the mid-2000s. “You can’t give him stuff because he doesn’t read. You can’t drone on because he won’t listen. You have to figure out how to reach him. Pompeo really is going to put his skills to the test.”

But with Pompeo facing a long confirmation process, it fell to Tillerson’s top deputy, John J. Sullivan, to meet with South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, in Washington on Friday. Meanwhile, McMaster flew to California to meet with South Korean and Japanese counterparts.

A major challenge will be coordinating the many agencies, including the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and the Treasury Department, which have a stake in the summit. The administration will have to debate tough questions, such as what it is willing to accept from the North — a freeze on testing, inspections of nuclear facilities — and what it is willing to offer in return — perhaps sanctions relief or a halt to joint military exercises with South Korea.

In the Six-Party Talks, the North agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions by the United States and other countries, only to violate the agreement by testing a ballistic missile.

“First they have to decide whether to make the summit an action-forcing event or if they are aiming for a grand statement of principles,” said Victor Cha, a Bush administration official who was in line to become Trump’s ambassador to South Korea until the White House dropped him over a policy disagreement. “My guess is the latter. They don’t have time or experience, and they don’t have a negotiating counterpart.”

Despite the personnel chaos around the White House, some analysts praised the administration’s resolve on North Korea. They point to economic sanctions that have pinched the North’s economy and the pressure on other countries to diplomatically isolate the North.

But other analysts cautioned that Trump remains an unpredictable wild card who cannot be counted on to remain on script. In his meeting with donors last week, he boasted that he made up information during trade talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Asked how Trump’s team should prepare, one Asia analyst with ties to the White House said, “It doesn’t matter. You can give Trump do’s and don’ts, and here’s option A, B and C of where we want to be. And he’ll walk into the meeting and come out with something completely different.”

Anne Gearan contributed to this report.