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Does The State Department Have Enough Experts To Engage In North Korea Negotiations?


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on a trip to Africa for one of the biggest diplomatic developments of his tenure the moment when President Trump accepted the offer of talks with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. Tillerson says he still believes the time is not right for serious negotiations with Pyongyang, but he insists this would only be a meeting, not negotiations. Whether Tillerson's State Department is ready for this is another question. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Just yesterday, Secretary Tillerson was saying the U.S. and North Korea were a long way from negotiating over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. But today he got an update on what South Korean envoys brought to the White House - that Kim Jong Un is eager to meet President Trump.


REX TILLERSON: What changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way that in all honesty was a - came as a little bit of a surprise to us as well that he was so forward-leaning in his conversations with the delegation from South Korea.

KELEMEN: The next step, Tillerson says, is to agree on a time and place for the meeting. And that, he says, will take some weeks. The State Department's point person on North Korea, Joseph Yun, though, just retired. And the Trump administration has been slow to fill many other diplomatic posts, so experts warn there's a thin bench of skilled negotiators. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert bristles at that notion.


HEATHER NAUERT: The State Department has 75,000 people that work for us around the world. To imply that Ambassador Yun is the only one who's capable of handling North Korea would simply be wrong. We have a deep bench of very experienced people.

KELEMEN: Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Danny Russel says whoever has the job of preparing President Trump for a meeting with his North Korean counterpart will want to brief him on the history of past efforts that include some of the pitfalls, what U.S. allies want and the language that North Koreans use.

DANIEL RUSSEL: When they talk about, quote, unquote, "hostile policy," that's code for their desire to end the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

KELEMEN: There are experts in the U.S. government who could offer such guidance, he says, if the president is willing to listen. Russel, now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, has some experience with this. He helped then former President Bill Clinton prepare for a visit to Pyongyang in 2009. And when Russel was working at the embassy in South Korea in 1994, he briefed former President Jimmy Carter ahead of a North Korean trip.

RUSSEL: That's probably the closest parallel to a Trump-Kim summit because tensions were high, the drums of war were beating, and Jimmy Carter was convinced that only a face-saving face-to-face intervention with North Korea's supreme leader to show respect was going to avert war.

KELEMEN: The difference is Carter was not a sitting president. At the time, Russel says, the U.S. and North Korea agreed to, quote, "hit the pause button." Then negotiators started hammering out a deal meant to halt North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for aid. It was a deal that eventually collapsed. And now North Korea says it has completed its nuclear program, so Russel says North Korea's price for a deal has probably gone up. Still, he'd rather Trump talk to Kim than continue to float the idea of a limited military strike.

RUSSEL: A summit meeting is a whole lot better than a bloody nose.

KELEMEN: It will take skilled diplomats to follow up on any initial talks if this meeting is going to generate real negotiations. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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