The question of who in Washington will take the lead in preparing for proposed talks between North Korea and the US is gaining attention as concerns grow over a lack of seasoned diplomats in Washington familiar with North Korea.
US President Donald Trump accepted an invitation on Friday to meet North Korean leader Kim Jung-un for talks on denuclearization by May in what appears to be a breakthrough after months of insults, threats and hostility between the leaders.
With the Trump administration already deliberating the logistics and location of the meeting, questions are being raised about who will lead the day-to-day, working-level negotiations with North Korea in preparation for the historic summit between Kim and Trump.
Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, warned that the Trump administration lacks experienced diplomats to handle talks on the North’s nuclear disarmament in an interview with a Dutch media outlet.
“If you want to talk to Kim Jong-un about his nuclear weapons you need experienced diplomats. These are people familiar with the dossiers and who know the North Koreans and their language,” she was quoted as saying.
Indeed, the Trump administration seems to lack senior diplomats who are experienced in dealing with North Korea.
Joseph Yun, former US special envoy to North Korea, recently retired from the Foreign Service “for personal reasons.” Victor Cha, who served as US President George W. Bush’s top adviser on North Korean affairs, was considered to be the next US ambassador to South Korea, but was withdrawn from nomination reportedly due to policy differences. No replacements for the posts have been named yet.
Dismissing concerns over the shortage of US officials who have experience dealing with North Korea, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert earlier said that it has “plenty of people who are more than qualified to have these types of conversations.”
Among the names being raised are Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who is the State Department’s most senior official on East Asian affairs, and who is the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific; Marc Knapper, the charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Seoul; and Mark Lambert, the State Department’s director for Korea policy.
Allison Hooker (Yonhap)
There is also Allison Hooker, a former State Department official who is now at the National Security Council and specializes in Korean issues. Hooker accompanied Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s daughter, to the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics last month.
“I think Thornton (if the nomination is approved) and Lambert in the US will take charge of working-level negotiations with North Korean officials, and Knapper in South Korea will assist,” said James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Marc Knapper (Yonhap)
If the US sends special envoys to North Korea, they are the likely candidates, he added.
“The recent development follows Trump’s unilateral decision, which means it is likely that Trump himself will push for talks between the US and North Korea,” Kim said.
Woo Jung-yeop, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, also mentioned Thornton and Lambert as strong candidates for leading working-level talks with North Koreans.
Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, floated the possibility of Sydney Seiler, a former US special envoy for the six-party talks. He currently serves as an analyst in charge of intelligence and reconnaissance on North Korea at US Forces Korea in Seoul.
“He has dealt with North Korea’s nuclear program under the Obama administration and is one of those who understand North Korea well,” he said.
Addressing the concerns, Trump blamed the dearth of experts at the State Department on the Democratic Party in a tweet Monday.
“The Democrats continue to obstruct the confirmation of hundreds of good and talented people who are needed to run our government ... A record in US history. State Department, Ambassadors and many others are being slow walked. Senate must approve NOW,” Trump wrote on Twitter.