- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Trump administration officials insist they’re moving ahead with preparations for a “summit” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by the end of May, even though no time, date or agenda has been announced and the reclusive Mr. Kim hasn’t left his country since ascending to power more than six years ago.

There is also unease, according to some U.S. officials, that the Kim regime still hasn’t made a public statement on its reported offer to discuss abandoning its nuclear arsenal and halt all weapons tests while such discussions play out — an offer South Korean officials conveyed more than two weeks ago.

Washington watched closely for any reaction from Pyongyang to the announcement Tuesday that joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, which traditionally trigger angry threats from the Kim regime, will resume on April 1 after being delayed during the Winter Paralympics in South Korea.

While the Pentagon said the exercises will be on “a similar scale” as past years, a South Korean Defense Ministry official told the Associated Press aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and supersonic B-1B bombers — assets Washington has used in past drills — will not take part this year. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a strong proponent of detente and direct talks on the tense peninsula, is slated to meet with Mr. Kim by late April. If that meeting happens, national security insiders say a follow-on summit between Mr. Trump and the North Korean leader could occur in May.

But the U.S. side’s preparation for the high-stakes face-to-face encounter has been complicated by last week firing of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and a number of vacancies in key policy positions regarding East Asia.



State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said last week that preparations “will all be spearheaded by the White House,” with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton and the State Department Korea desk chief Mark Lambert playing supporting roles.

“We have massive staff which is good at handling the logistics, providing any policy support that the White House should need, providing staff members, providing guidance, translation services — all the things that you would expect that would come into planning a summit meeting,” Ms. Nauert said.

But the challenges — diplomatic and logistical — facing Mr. Trump shouldn’t be understated, said Kurt M. Campbell, a top State Department adviser on East Asia in the Obama administration.

“Since Kim Jong Un has been appointed to his various positions in North Korea, I do not believe he has left the country. I doubt very much that he will on this occasion,” Mr. Campbell told a briefing organized by the Center for American Policy Monday. “You could do something in Pyongyang, but I think that the amount of logistics associated with that is just unbelievable. And I just don’t think that the North Koreans are going to be comfortable with that.”

“When the president of the United States travels, it’s no small thing,” he said. “We’re talking literally about thousands of people that would have to go over a period of time, get ready, lay down cables, all the stuff. I don’t think the North Koreans are going to be that comfortable with those dimensions.”

Having China host the summit also seems untenable, Mr. Campbell said, because Beijing may be uneasy about supporting a Trump-Kim meeting before Mr. Kim has even had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Kim-Trump meeting could take place along the border between North and South Korea, perhaps at a facility established in the past for South Koreans tourists visiting the North.

There is also talk of Sweden, which represents U.S. interests in Pyongyang, where there is no U.S. embassy. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho traveled to Sweden last week to exchange “views on the bilateral relations and issues of mutual concern” with his counterpart Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom.

Carlo Munoz contributed to this article.

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