North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has released three U.S. citizens detained for years in his horrific prison camps, surrendering to another of President Trump’s demands in advance of a planned historic summit between the two leaders whose countries have long been adversaries.
A series of concessions by Mr. Kim, from agreeing to a goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula to freeing the three Americans, has not calmed fears among Mr. Trump’s critics that he will “wing it” in the talks and potentially empower the communist regime in Pyongyang.
Behind the scenes at the White House, however, the president has marshaled an agile team to hone a fast-paced negotiating strategy and back him up in the nuclear talks, which could be held as soon as this month or by the end of June.
The president’s combative style and the maneuvering by his team from the National Security Council and State Department have reaped early wins, but they are still far from getting Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.
“We’re in the beginning stages of the work, and the outcome is certainly yet unknown,” Mr. Pompeo, a former CIA chief, said when sworn in Wednesday as secretary of state. “But one thing is certain: This administration will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Our eyes are wide open. It’s time to solve this once and for all. A bad deal is not an option.”
The small group running North Korea preparations, overseen by Mr. Pompeo and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, got a stamp of approval from Joseph R. DeTrani, a former U.S. intelligence official who served as a special envoy to multilateral talks with North Korea in 2009.
“The team is there. I think the administration is well-prepared,” he told The Washington Times.
He identified Mr. Pompeo as “key to assisting Trump succeed.”
An announcement of the time and place of the summit is expected within days. Top candidates for the location are Singapore and the “Peace House” in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
The release of the three Americans — businessman Kim Dong-chul and Pyongyang University workers Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim — followed increased pressure from Mr. Trump and his team as they finalize arrangements for the talks.
“We are in there, and we are working very hard on that,” Mr. Trump said last month about efforts to secure their release.
Mr. Bolton has pressed for the release of the detainees, and Mr. Pompeo reportedly raised the issue during secret face-to-face talks with North Korea’s leaders, including Mr. Kim, last month in Pyongyang.
The three U.S. citizens were released from a labor camp this week and were convalescing in a hotel outside Pyongyang, according to reports from North Korea’s state-run news media.
They remain in the grasp of Mr. Kim’s regime, which says they are now in a “tourist” program. But their situation improved dramatically, and they were expected to be returned home soon.
“We believe that Mr. Trump can take them back on the day of the U.S.-North Korean summit, or he can send an envoy to take them back to the U.S. before the summit,” said Choi Sung-ryong, an activist pursuing the release of North Korea’s political prisoners.
The president’s team has argued for faster action than proposed by U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, which would accept commitment from Mr. Kim to deliver complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization by 2020, when Mr. Trump faces re-election.
Mr. Bolton has argued that the administration should follow the “Libyan model” with North Korea, a reference to the situation when then-Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi agreed in 2003 to quickly abandon his nation’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council and other guarantees.
One former official close to the administration said that under the “Libyan model” approach, Mr. Trump won’t need a large team for long, drawn-out negotiations with North Korea. Rather, he will need a technical team that can be ready to go into North Korea quickly to verify that the nuclear program is being shut down and that weapons are being turned over.
The difference this time compared with failed negotiations with North Korea in 2009 is that Mr. Trump — with Mr. Bolton at his back — is likely to demand immediate action from Mr. Kim, said a former U.S. official directly involved in past negotiations with North Korea.
Skeptics fear that the North Koreans will seize on the president’s unpredictable negotiating style and personality as a weakness, the source said, but the mindset of negotiators working under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama was “just be patient.”
“The logic was, if we can just get the North Koreans to the 5-yard line in a negotiation, then we can pull them over the finish line,” the source said. “Well, look where that strategy got us the last time around. Nowhere, and that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in today.”
Mr. Bolton began building the team when he brought on as his deputy Mira Ricardel, a former defense adviser to the Trump campaign who served in the Pentagon under Mr. Bush.
Other key players are NSC Director for Asian Affairs Matthew Pottinger and NSC Director for Korea Allison Hooker.
Mr. Pottinger is a former journalist and U.S. Marine who joined the administration roughly a year ago. Ms. Hooker is respected on both sides of the political aisle for her expertise on North Korea.
A former State Department analyst on East Asia, Ms. Hooker is the one Obama administration holdover on the team. In 2014, she accompanied then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to North Korea to secretly negotiate the release of two American detainees.
There has been some hand-wringing in foreign policy circles that John Yun, a former State Department point man on North Korea, departed his post in February. However, sources said the president is confident that his team is strong without Mr. Yun.
There are also strong doubts on the left.
“This is an enormous gamble by a very unprepared president who’s been all over the lot on the subject of North Korea,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat and a House Foreign Affairs Committee member, said on MSNBC. “This president we know doesn’t read, he gets impatient in briefings and he doesn’t have a team in place to deal with Korea.”
Some in the White House are pushing to beef up the team. To that end, the administration is hiring Anthony Ruggiero, a former Treasury Department sanctions specialist and advocate of hard-line pressure against Pyongyang.
Mr. Ruggiero had a backbencher role in past negotiations with Pyongyang, working as a State Department adviser to the U.S. delegation in 2005 talks in Beijing on North Korea’s nuclear program.
On separate but connected fronts, Mr. Pompeo oversaw the establishment last year of a special CIA Korean Mission Center, and the Trump administration recently announced plans to nominate Adm. Harry Harris, the outgoing head of the Pentagon’s Pacific Command, to fill the vacant role of U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
Others have noted a widening circle of former officials and think tank advisers who are liaising on a near-constant basis with the NCS staff over North Korea policy through regular meetings and white papers. Among others, longtime China analyst Michael Pillsbury, who is currently at the Hudson Institute, is seen to be among those outside voices to which the White House listens.