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Tillerson firing complicates calculus surrounding Trump-Kim summit, experts say

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One week after President Donald Trump accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Undelivered by South Korean envoys—and two days after Trump fired his secretary of state—North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho landed in Sweden Thursday for talks with officials there that “will focus on Sweden’s consular responsibilities as a protecting power for the United States, Canada and Australia.”

Sweden’s role representing U.S. interests in Pyongyang has sparked speculation that Ri’s meetings are a precursor to a historic meeting between the two leadersabout Kim’s nuclear weapons program. Tentatively set for May at an undetermined location, the White House has said the discussion with Kim will only occur if North Korea refrains from nuclear and ballistic missile tests and is willing to give up a nuclear program the repressive regime has long considered vital to its survival.

Officials have not confirmed that Ri’s visit is related to planning for the summit, but some diplomatic and nonproliferation experts are not fully convinced the Trump/Kim meeting will happen at all.

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“I think it’s 50/50,” said Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and a professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. “The backdrop for it is getting harder and harder.”

The firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday presented the latest complication in an already-delicate diplomatic scenario. Trump has nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson.

“The reshuffling at State will likely increase the challenges of preparing for Trump’s high-stakes summit with Kim Jong Un,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Whether the meeting ever occurs or not, Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, expressed skepticism about the original timetable. He noted that May—presumably Pompeo’s first full month in office—is already stacked with other diplomatic priorities involving the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. embassy in Israel, and other complex issues.

“Ultimately, I think the North Korean side is more desperate to kind of log-roll the successful Olympics diplomacy,” he said.

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Republicans on Capitol Hill remained optimistic Wednesday about what a summit between Trump and Kim could accomplish.

“Diplomatic efforts are great and I applaud his willingness to reach out. I applaud his willingness to seek a peaceful solution to a standoff or conflict with any country, including North Korea. I look forward to what’s going to happen there,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., acknowledged that it is “tantamount to impossible” for one meeting to resolve a decades-old conflict, but tangible progress could still be made.

“If you can turn the ship of state in North Korea, move them away from nuclear proliferation and into getting rid of their nukes, that would be a great step forward and I hope that’s the result,” he said.

According to Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., swapping out secretaries before planning for the meeting gets rolling makes sense. He credited Tillerson for applying pressure to North Korea and setting the stage for the summit to take place, but he expects the administration will move in a different direction now.

“Now we’re moving into a new chapter of that relationship with President Trump set to meet with Kim Jong Un, so it would only seem appropriate to retool the team to reflect that change in direction and hopefully a better outcome on the Korean peninsula,” he said.

Trump is set to meet Kim Jong Un, but is the State Department ready?

Democrats have doubts about the meeting, regardless of who is in charge in Foggy Bottom.

“Anything that can defuse tension in the Korean peninsula makes sense, but my fear is Mr. Trump thinks he’s his own best adviser on all subjects,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

If Trump does not listen to the advice of experts on the subject, Warner added, the collision of his volatility and Kim’s outrageous behavior could be very dangerous for the world.

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“You put those together without some kind of guardrails, I pray for the best but I worry about potentially the worst,” he said.

North Korea has not publicly confirmed the substance of the offer that South Korea relayed to the White House, leaving some doubt about what Pyongyang has agreed to do in exchange for a meeting.

“There are some rumors that perhaps what was conveyed by the South Koreans was not exactly what the North Koreans had envisioned and they are now assessing the possibilities before them,” said Alexandra Bell, a former State Department official and senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The silence from Pyongyang, she added, could also be because they were unprepared for Trump to accept the offer or are waiting to see how world reaction plays out before commenting. There may also be discussions underway privately that have not leaked to the press.

Trump’s selection of Pompeo elevates an aggressive voice within the administration believed to be more in sync with the president’s thinking than Tillerson.

“Tillerson was a moderating influence on the administration’s foreign policy and his departure may have significant implications for the administration’s approach on key issues,” Kimball said.

While Tillerson has often advocated for diplomacy with Pyongyang over the last year, at times drawing public rebukes from the president for negotiating with “Little Rocket Man,” Pompeo has suggested that regime change is a viable solution.

According to Taleblu, Pompeo’s hardline stance may strengthen coercive diplomacy efforts by ensuring that the pressure on North Korea does not relent during any talks.

“I think Pompeo could very easily have a positive impact by holding the administration’s feet to the fire and making sure no one flips on denuclearization,” he said.

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Even before Trump nominated him for secretary, Pompeo stressed that Kim must allow U.S./South Korea military exercises to proceed and remain open to denuclearization for the meeting to take place.

“Make no mistake about it,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “While these negotiations are going on, there will be no concessions made.”

However, Cavanaugh suggested the meeting itself would be a gift to Pyongyang.

“The leading concession the North Koreans have sought from the U.S. for 20 years is to have this meeting…. The U.S. has just given that away,” he said.

Like the president, Pompeo has been a very vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal reached by the Obama administration. Trump is set to decide whether to recertify the agreement or scrap it in mid-May, and experts say doing so when Iran is widely seen as complying with the deal could undermine negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program.

“If Trump really wants to secure a deal with Kim Jong Un or use his May summit meeting to launch negotiations on the terms and timelines for North Korean denuclearization,” Kimball said, “it would be foolhardy to decide that same month to unilaterally discard the Iran nuclear deal, which Iran is complying with and which is effectively blocking Iran’s pathways to the bomb.”

Combined with Pompeo’s skepticism of diplomacy with North Korea, Cavanaugh cautioned that killing a diplomatic compact with Iran would send the wrong message to Pyongyang.

“We’re already showing we’re walking away from the last agreement on nuclear programs in a country we have issues with,” he said.

Also casting some doubt on the likelihood of a meeting is North Korea’s past reluctance to meet the kind of demands the White House has made as preconditions.

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“These are real achievements. These are conditions that the North Korean regime has never submitted to in exchange for conversations,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday.”

Taleblu warned that the regime has dangled hints of progress before only to renege later.

“They are far more crafty and far more adept in survival than many in the US think they are,” he said.

There is also a risk that the meeting will allow Kim to claim legitimacy and equal footing with the U.S. or that one side’s terms will ultimately prove unacceptable to the other.

“The million-dollar question is: do they have the same definition of denuclearization the U.S. does?” Taleblu said. In the past, they have not.

Before Pompeo can take the reins of summit planning, he has to be confirmed by the Senate, and that process could prove rocky. Since his 2017 confirmation to head the CIA, Republicans have lost one Senate seat and two GOP senators have been sporadically sidelined by illness.

On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., announced he plans to oppose Pompeo’s nomination, citing his aggressive stance on Iran. Paul has climbed down from confrontations with the Trump administration in the past, but if he holds firm on this position, Pompeo will need Democratic votes to make it through the Senate. Though 14 Democrats supported his nomination as CIA director, some are already wavering on backing him again.

With Tillerson’s departure set for March 31 and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker planning Pompeo’s confirmation hearing for some time in April, the State Department may not have a confirmed secretary for at least part of the month.

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This is in addition to lacking an ambassador to South Korea or an assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea and one of the department’s top experts on the region, recently resigned.

“The State Department’s lineup of professionals has been gutted,” Cavanaugh said.

If confirmed as secretary of state, Pompeo, a West Point graduate and former Army officer who worked in the business world before running for the House in 2010, would bring minimal diplomatic experience to the job. According to Bell, Tillerson struggled in part due to similar inexperience.

“Given the stakes, the dismissal of Secretary Tillerson comes at as most inopportune time,” Bell said. “Some of the time and effort of State Department officials would be spending on preparations for a Trump-Kim summit will now be diverted towards the confirmation of CIA Director Mike Pompeo.”

Other rumored Trump administration personnel changes could also impact the fragile U.S./North Korea relationship. Several news outlets have reported that Trump is considering replacing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.

Bolton is a controversial figure who has advocated a preemptive military strikeagainst North Korea and recently told Fox News he does not believe talking will stop Kim from continuing nuclear weapons development.

If Trump and Kim do meet, experts are unsure what outcome to expect. At best, it might do little more than establish a framework for future conversations and solidify North Korea’s compliance with calls to halt its nuclear program while negotiations proceed.

“No single meeting – no matter who the players are – will solve this crisis,” Bell said. “If a meeting occurs, it should be seen as the beginning of lengthy and complicated process.”

Instead, Cavanaugh fears the Trump administration is racing headlong into a faceoff at the highest level without a game plan, and it may be difficult to revert to normal diplomacy if a summit between leaders fails to resolve the crisis.

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“This is like having a blind strategy, if there is a strategy…” he said. “I think the strategy is, ‘We’ll meet. I’m good at dealing.’”

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