South Korea’s national security chief Chung Eui-yong briefs President Donald Trump in the Oval Office about his visit to North Korea on Thursday. Yonhap / Reuters
Most importantly, the president seemed to surprise his own staff and possibly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is traveling in Africa. Earlier in the day, the State Department spokeswoman said that the U.S. was not scheduling talks about talks.
Tillerson was also dismissive, saying the U.S. was ”
a long ways from negotiations ” with North Korea and that talks would not be scheduled “at this point.”
A State Department official insisted later that the country’s top diplomat had not been blind-sided but was just being, “a very careful speaker.”
Perhaps Tillerson was being understandably cautious, having been
derided in a Trump tweet in the fall to not waste his time on diplomacy with the North.
Vice President Mike Pence also seemed to be pursuing a harder line at the Olympics, when he opted to not stand for the arrival of the joint North and South Korean delegation, a sign of disrespect seen around the world. Kim’s sister, sitting just behind him in the stadium,
in turn snubbed Pence by cancelling a scheduled meeting with him at the last moment.
Finally, there is the vacuum of veteran diplomats to undertake the painstaking work of preparing for such difficult talks.
Iran nuclear agreement negotiated in 2015 under Obama took years, and was led on both sides by nuclear scientists, along with veteran diplomats.
This administration’s top Korean expert, Ambassador Joseph Yun, resigned recently, reportedly in frustration at being kept out of key policy meetings. There is no U.S. ambassador in South Korea after 14 months. There is no confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Asia. The department has been hollowed out.
So we are left with two bold but untested leaders armed with nuclear weapons who have taunted and threatened each other for more than a year suddenly agreeing to a high-stakes summit.