WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — It was the last thing most people were anticipating when President Donald Trump personally told White House reporters to expect a "major announcement" on North Korea.
On Thursday evening, South Korea's national security director Chung Eui-yong stood before the press to announce that Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May.
After recent intra-Korean talks between Seoul and Pyongyang, Chung said Kim Jong Un committed to denuclearization and pledged to refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. Kim "expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump," Chung said, and the president consented to the meeting.
Former U.S. diplomats explained that there will be a dizzying array of groundwork taking place in the two months leading up to the first-ever meeting between the U.S. and North Korean heads of state. That will include setting the policy agenda, when and where to meet, and of course, the decorum of how the two leaders who have hurled insults and openly threatened to annihilate one another will handle their first face-to-face.
The U.S. negotiator for previous multilateral talks with North Korea put it plainly, "Preparations are everything."
Ambassador Joseph DeTrani was the Special Envoy for the six-party talks from 2003-2006 and is currently a member of the National Committee on North Korea. He was positively surprised by the Thursday evening announcement, even though it contradicted the way the United States has approached the problem for more than 25 years.
"North Koreans, for decades, have asked for a presidential visit to address these issues and we've always said we have got to do the preparatory work and have preliminary agreements before we would even propose that our president meet with yours," DeTrami said. "The president said he will sit down and respond to that invitation. That's a bold decision on the part of President Trump and I give credit to that."
"If he can get Kim Jong Un to commit to comprehensive, verifiable irreversible dismantlement of his nuclear weapons programs, that's major," he said.
Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2018
A former senior adviser to the State Department's top arms control official, Alexandra Bell, said the announcement was "stunning" and a "seeming breakthrough" in North Korea's willingness to talk about denuclearization.
"Honestly, this is the best option we've had in a long time for a diplomatic solution," said Bell, who now works at the D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. She added the precaution that "when things seem to good to be true, it's important to take a measured approach."
WHEELS IN MOTION
The Thursday announcement set the wheels in motion for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was overseas in Africa when the president made his decision.
Trump's made the decision on his own, Tillerson told reporters early Friday morning, but the announcement did not come as a surprise. For months, the United States and North Korea have been in contact through back channels and President Trump has repeatedly stated his willingness to sit down with the North Korean leader under the right conditions.
What was a shocking, was Kim Jong Un's willingness and "strong desire for talks," Tillerson said. "What changed was [Kim Jong Un's] posture, in a fairly dramatic way."
The secretary of state clarified that what is being planned for May is a discussion, not negotiations, which the U.S. government still believes are not appropriate at this time.
The next steps are agreeing on a time and place, which Tillerson said will be settled in the coming weeks, and more important, the agenda.
The most central question the administration has to answer is, what will we talk about?
"Ideally, you would have that all set up before President Trump and Kim are ever in a room together," Bell said. By the time the two leaders sit down, the president should know that agenda "like the back of his hand," she said. That includes "where our red lines are, what are the things we want, and the possible things that we're willing to give."
One of the first things Trump's team is likely to focus on is building a concrete agreement based on North Korea's pledge to freeze of its nuclear and missile tests. North Korea is likely going to want security assurances, which could be asking for a freeze or slower pace of U.S.-South Korean military exercises. They may also request relief from the sanctions imposed under Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign.
Ultimately, the U.S. wants to make progress towards its ultimate goal, the complete, verifiable and permanent dismantlement of North Korea's entire nuclear weapons program. And North Korea will want to make progress towards its goals, regime survival, security assurances and an end to international sanctions.
In past negotiations, there has been room in between for talk of sanctions relief, peace treaties, nuclear site inspections, freezing military activities and securing priorities for other major parties, such as South Korea, China, Japan and Russia — the other members of the six-party talks.
"The president is not going to be in there negotiating these issues," DeTrani stressed. "They have to be negotiated prior to his visit and hopefully the president is given an agenda that would lend itself to some agreement ... so both sides can leave there saying it's a win-win."
In the past, U.S. officials have met with their North Korean counterparts in all corners of the globe from Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang to Geneva, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow and Beijing.
As Tillerson said, the State Department will begin looking at locations that work for the United States. For North Korea, the list may be shorter.
"You'd have to assume there are only a few places that Kim Jong Un would be willing to go," Bell suggested. The most likely location, would probably be in China. Not only because China maintains the closest relationship with North Korea, but also because China is going to want to be involved, in some way, in conversations going forward.
No matter where the two leaders agree to meet, security will be a top priority. Such a high stakes meeting between historic adversaries comes with inherent security risks, and any venue will need to be approved with that in consideration.
However, the president's security is always extensive whenever he travels abroad and Secret Service is fully prepared to handle that aspect of logistics, DeTrani noted, adding the president's security "is an issue, but I don't see it as a problem."
Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump took to Twitter to taunt Kim Jong Un as "rocket man," a now favorite insult. A few months back, Kim released a statement through state media calling President Trump a "dotard" and "mentally deranged."
Sanctions and “other” pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
It's easy to imagine the two leaders hurling insults at one another across the negotiating table, threatening "fire and fury" or a rain of missiles.
"I would hope not," Alexandra Bell said at the prospect of such a meeting.
However, it's difficult to rule anything out. The president has taken an unconventional approach to the North Korean leader in the past and has arrived at a different diplomatic starting point than his predecessors. gotten to a different diplomatic
In recent months, the American public has seen Trump's negotiating style in real-time as the president invited members of Congress to the White House to discuss immigration and gun control. The free-wheeling discussions have often included offers that the president later had to walk back, once the details became clear.
There's no guarantee that the president will stick to the script that he and his State Department hash out over the coming months, but DeTrani says if the agenda is clear, he will have no reason to go off-script.
"The president is a good negotiator, obviously," he said. "I think if what needs to be discussed and agreed upon is pretty clear, I don't know how you would want to freelance outside of the agenda items."
Then, it's only a question of following through and implementing what the two leaders agree upon.
Some have criticized the short prep-time for the high-level meeting citing the fact that key diplomatic positions are still vacant.
The White House has repeatedly lashed out at Senate Democrats for holding up the president's nominee to fill the top arms control and nonproliferation positions at the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control and International Security, positions that are integral to overseeing any agreement on nuclear disarmament.
Yet, the White House still has not sent the Senate a nominee to serve as the Ambassador to South Korea, a point-person for potential talks that come out of the May meeting.
The president had initially planned on nominating Victor Cha, a career diplomat and national security expert with a thick North Korea portfolio. Trump reportedly changed his mind on the nomination after Cha penned an op-ed criticizing the idea of a "bloody nose" or preventive U.S. military strike on North Korea.
"It is important for the Trump administration to fully staff these positions and to find someone to lead on this who is an expert and not an ideologue, who has experience with complicated diplomatic negotiations," Bell emphasized.
On the plus side, she said the State Department still has a staff of capable, qualified civil servants who are ready to facilitate a diplomatic path forward on North Korea. "They just need to be involved in the process."
Even after a rocky transfer from the Obama to the Trump administration, there are still experts across the government with decades of diplomatic and technical experience that can be tapped if Trump's meeting sets that into motion, DeTrani said.
"I don't think we're hurting for a core of professionals who know the issues and do the work in advising the president," the former ambassador explained. "We have great people at State, Treasury, Defense, the White House—I don't think we're at a major deficit."