WASHINGTON (Circa) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading into a new round of talks with his North Korean counterparts, but back at the State Department, there are some key spots that remain unfilled.
Just days before Pompeo left, acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton announced she will be retiring, thus removing herself from nomination to take the post permanently. Additionally, the department has yet to replace Joseph Yun, the former Special Representative for North Korea policy, who left government service earlier this year.
But the State Department's loss of Thornton and Yun, two veteran diplomats with decades of expertise in Asia, might not be as bad as it seems, according to Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, a non-profit that specializes in non-proliferation.
"I mean sure, you always want to be fully staffed, and in many cases, the more staff and the better staff you have, the better," said Collina. "But there's really good staff in the State Department that are career people, that have been working this a long time."
In addition to the existing talent pool at State, the Trump administration has been able to secure a few key appointments. Retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris was sworn in as South Korean ambassador over the weekend, filling a role that was left vacant for well over a year. Randall Schriver was confirmed as assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Department of Defense in December.
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"The main problem is that the President seems to be overselling what he's achieving with North Korea, and they are having a hard time actually getting to the nuts and bolts of the negotiations," said Collina. "In other words getting a time frame for de-nuclearization and figuring out what that means and the steps to get there."
Achieving those next steps may be difficult for Pompeo in light of reports that the intelligence community believes North Korea is attempting to conceal its nuclear program. Additionally, analysis of satellite imagery by the Middlebury Institute for International Studies shows that the Kim regime made a new addition to one of its key ballistic missile facilities, most of which was done in May, just before Kim Jong-un met with President Trump in Singapore.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert remained confident about Pompeo's ability, despite the revelations.
"A lot of people were in panic. A lot of people around the world were very concerned about what would happen between the United States and North Korea and the fact that our secretary is now getting ready to go on have his fourth meeting with the North Koreans in less than three months I think is a testament to just how far we've come," said Nauert during a press conference.
Collina noted Pompeo's position on the front lines of the negotiations may actually be a positive, despite the holes back at State. His seniority and relationship with Trump mesh well with his willingness to engage in diplomacy with the Kim regime, contrary to some other Trump advisors, Collina noted.
Trump and Kim may engage in a second summit in New York sometime in the future, according to a report by Axios. What Pompeo brings back from his meetings could weigh heavily on whether that happens.