WASHINGTON (Circa) — It has been almost one month since President Donald Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sometime in May. In recent weeks, the president has been relatively quiet about the historic summit.
The White House has not yet released an official date for the Trump-Kim summit. There is no location set for the meeting and while Trump and members of his administration meet with regional partners and allies, there hasn't been any public indication of direct preparatory talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
Still, the signs from the White House and State Department indicate Donald Trump still intends to meet Kim Jong Un sometime in the not-too-distant future. Administration officials and Trump himself have held a number of meetings with U.S. allies to discuss the upcoming summit and North Korea's commitment to denuclearization.
Outside official Washington, there is skepticism about whether the meeting will actually take place. After the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, questions have also surfaced about whether the administration is prepared for the historic talk.
"A lot of people still say it isn't happening for a number of reasons," said Gordon Chang, an expert in North Korea and China and foreign policy commentator. He is more optimistic because Trump has shown his willingness to use American power to pressure adversaries and allies alike, including the threat of tariffs against China and South Korea.
"The United States has a lot of high cards here," Chang continued. "Assuming the meeting does happen, we just need to be fully prepared. And we need to be prepared to walk away."
Firing key administration personnel so close to the meeting is cause for concern and could be a sign that not everyone on the Trump team is on the same page, said Mintaro Oba, political strategist and former Korea Desk official at the State Department.
"I think it increases the risk that the NSC [National Security Council] isn't going to be coordinated within itself," Oba said. "That might be a reason why the administration has been so quiet on the summit in the first place is that key officials are not agreeing on what the objective for the summit is.
At the State Department, much of the responsibility for the North Korea portfolio has been given to Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who is still waiting for the Senate to vote on her confirmation to lead the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Similarly, after Tillerson was fired, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan took over the duties of leading the department. Sullivan will remain the acting secretary until the Senate confirms Mike Pompeo, who currently serves as CIA director. Republicans on Capitol Hill are pushing to hold Pompeo's confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week.
H.R. McMaster's replacement at the National Security Council, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton will assume his post Monday.
"I'm sure that not only the North Koreans but also the Chinese are a little bit unnerved by Ambassador Bolton becoming national security adviser," Chang said. "So I don't think April 9 is going to be a good day for them."
Bolton recently voiced his support for a preemptive war against North Korea. In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Bolton argued that a preemptive strike against North Korea is legally justified and "perfectly legitimate."
The idea of a preemptive or bloody-nose strike on North Korea is fraught with consequences, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis has pointed out in the past. "Nonetheless," Chang explained, "to have someone in the administration who believes [in the merits of a preemptive strike] is a good thing, in terms of creating the incentive for Pyongyang to come to the table."
The other incentive for the Kim regime is the possibility that denuclearization talks could produce some relief from crushing U.S. and U.N. sanctions, part of the Trump administration's so-called "maximum pressure" campaign. According to reports, North Korea could potentially run out of hard currency reserves by October as a result of the economic sanctions.
The White House and State Department have made it clear that there will be no letup in the maximum pressure until North Korea denuclearizes.
Still, a number of experts inside and outside of Washington have suggested that the Trump-Kim meeting will never take place. Arms control advocates at the Ploughshares Fund recently argued that "given Trump’s impulsive nature, Bolton’s history on this issue, and the hawkishness of Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, it will be nothing short of a miracle for the meeting to happen at all."
The last time Trump addressed the upcoming meeting was in a March 28 tweet. At the time he was optimistic that after years of failed talks under previous administrations, "Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Looking forward to our meeting!"
For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility. Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2018
The tweet went out only hours after Chinese state media confirmed that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un held their first face-to-face meeting in Beijing. At that meeting, Xi reportedly secured a pledge from Kim to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Kim also reportedly told Xi that he wanted to restart the so-called "six-party talks" with China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States, to discuss the regime's nuclear program and missile tests.
Former CIA director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticized the president for sending out a tweet, apparently in lieu of the strenuous legwork and coordinating with allies. In an op-edearlier this week, he wrote that "to be successful, it will take time, serious preparation, careful planning and extensive consultation with our allies. Tweeting will not do it!"
Pointing to the turnover of key administration personnel ahead of the planned May meeting, Panetta argued, "Instability plus lack of time make it almost impossible to lay the necessary groundwork for one of the most important foreign policy summits in the history of this administration."
Despite the criticism from the former intelligence chief, the Trump administration has good reason to be making its preparations behind closed doors, Oba said, but the recent silence from the administration has a downside. "I do have a big concern that the White House isn't doing anything to manage the public expectations about this Trump-Kim summit."
As Panetta suggested, there is an expectation that this is "one of the most important foreign policy summits," when it is really only a first step. "It's an opportunity to start a longer process," Oba explained, saying the White House should do more to make that crystal clear and dispel unrealistic public expectations.
The other critical preparation is working closely with regional partners and allies.
According to the State Department, the work with partners and allies has been taking place during the weeks since Trump first agreed to the meeting. That has included high-level diplomatic meetings and phone conversations between President Trump and the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea.
Later this month, President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet at Mar-a-Lago where they will continue the discussion on the "maximum pressure" campaign against North Korea in advance of the meeting between Trump and Kim.
A State Department spokesperson reaffirmed that while the administration remains committed to its work with allies, "we will not repeat the mistakes of the past."
President Trump could still decide to walk away from the upcoming talks with Kim Jong Un, but there is a chance it could have a reverberating effect on South Korea.
South Korea has been involved in an aggressive engagement campaign with the North which started in the weeks before the2018 Winter Olympics. Over the course of months, Seoul brought Pyongyang to the table, initially for talks to address regional security matters, gradually moving to the broader issues of denuclearization.
On Thursday, officials from South and North Korea held preparatory meetings ahead of a historic inter-Korean summit later this month. On April 27, Moon Jae-In and Kim Jong Un will meet in what will be the third summit between the leaders of North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
As those meetings go forward, Trump's support for South Korea is critical. "One of the most important things we want to do is make sure we're on the same page and remain on the same page as South Korea," Chang said, explaining that Trump, by merely agreeing to the talks brokered by President Moon, will help demonstrate that.