President Donald Trump’s firing of his top diplomat raises the stakes even further for his proposed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In the months before his ouster, Rex Tillerson bumped heads with the president over whether to talk to North Korea — and wasn’t consulted before Trump agreed to meet Kim. Mike Pompeo, the hawkish CIA chief nominated to replace him as secretary of state, has defended Trump’s snap decision on the talks.
The stakes are incredibly high for any Trump-Kim meeting, which would be the first for a sitting U.S. president. The meeting may go well, and set the stage for further talks. Or the leaders may clash and revert to threats to annihilate each other’s country.
While Tillerson already appeared on the outer before his firing, Pompeo could amplify Trump’s desire to rely on his own instincts, and that’s a concern for North Korea watchers. Along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, Tillerson served as a voice for moderation as Trump repeatedly warned of military action to stop Kim’s nuclear weapons development.
A meeting with Kim would be a complex negotiation in which “you need to know the last step before you take the first one,” said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at Harvard Kennedy School. “Those years of on-and-off negotiations were like climbing peaks and then sliding down the other side,” Park said. “The announced Trump-Kim meeting in May is a very high peak. If it fails, we crash.”
Trump accepted the invitation based on a briefing from South Korean officials without seeing anything in writing. In one of his last official remarks, Tillerson said that North Korea hadn’t even been in touch with the U.S. to sort out the details.
If a meeting materializes, the risk of miscalculation is high. North Korea has yet to confirm that it’s willing to give up its nuclear weapons. That was a crucial point conveyed to Trump by South Korean envoys who recently met with Kim.
“Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze,” Trump tweeted on March 9.
Adding to the uncertainty is the lack of experienced North Korea hands in Trump’s circle. Before Tillerson’s ouster, Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, announced he was stepping down. The State Department doesn’t have a permanent ambassador in Seoul, or a confirmed assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Victor Cha, once a candidate for ambassador to South Korea, said the risk of war would grow if Trump ends up disappointed over what Kim is willing to offer. North Korea sees atomic weapons as essential to deter a U.S. invasion, and has sought to be treated as a nuclear power.
“Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy,” Cha, deputy head of the U.S. delegation at multi country talks on North Korea from 2004 to 2007, wrote on March 11.
South Korea on Monday had a muted response to Tillerson’s firing, saying it has multiple channels of communication with the U.S., while Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha still plans a trip to the U.S. this week that initially included a meeting with Tillerson.
South Korean officials who asked not to be identified said they assessed Pompeo’s promotion more as a move by Trump to put in someone he trusts, rather than a shift to a harder line on North Korea.
Still, concerns in South Korea are growing.
“Unlike the South Korean government’s blueprint for the U.S.-North Korea dialogue, it could be that Trump is regarding this talk as the last diplomatic attempt before carrying out a military action,” Park Jee-kwang, a research associate at the Sejong Institute, said in a report Wednesday. “South Korea is in a desperate position to find out what Tillerson’s departure implies and come up with appropriate measures.”
Pompeo is a former member of Congress who joined the CIA last year. At a security forum last July, Pompeo said North Korea is at the front of Trump’s mind.
“It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today,” Pompeo said. “From the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two.”
Kim is scheduled to first have a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who opposes any military action against the regime. With Tillerson out, Moon may have fewer people within Trump’s administration who agree with his position.
“Tillerson along with Mattis provided a natural break to Trump by providing alternative perspectives on the world,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “There is certainly the risk that there are more hawkish elements in the White House.”