Amid much fanfare, the White House announced Thursday that President Donald Trump had agreed to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to deescalate the spiraling tensions between the two countries, and work to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
The proposal stunned analysts, particularly considering how the two had traded insults over the last year — with Trump famously referring to Kim as “Little Rocket Man.” Conservatives were jubilant at the announcement, which was seen as a major victory. “This is perhaps the biggest foreign policy win that we have seen,” said former White House official and Fox News contributor Sebastian Gorka. “And it’s less than a year and a half into his administration.”
But on Friday, reporters starting asking the pesky questions of just when and under what circumstances Trump would meet with Kim, and White House officials adopted a distinctly more guarded tone. In the daily press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that North Korea would have to verify that it is denuclearizing before the meeting takes place — which seems to contradict the Trump administration’s initial statement that Trump had already accepted the summit and would meet Kim “as soon as possible.”
“Let’s be clear the United States has made zero concessions,” Sanders said. “This meeting won’t take place without concrete actions that match the promises that have been made by North Korea.”
But then the White House appeared to flip again, with an official reportedly telling the Wall Street Journal that “the invitation has been extended and accepted and that stands.”
Behind the scenes, an even more haphazard situation is emerging. According to the New York Times, Trump was not scheduled to meet South Korean envoy Chung Eui-yong on Thursday, but requested it when he heard Chung was in the White House on unrelated business. Trump summoned Chung and asked him about his recent meeting with Kim on Monday. When Chung told Trump that Kim wanted to meet, Trump immediately said yes and instructed him to go brief the press corps, which he dutifully did that night.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also downplayed the supposedly “historic” meeting. “We’re a long way from negotiations. We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about,” Tillerson said, when news of the meeting was leaked but not formally announced. He added that he didn’t know whether “the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.”
This would seem to suggest two possible scenarios: either the secretary of state is being kept in the dark about a historic diplomatic summit, or he’s trying to provide some wiggle room should the meeting not take place.
In the midst of all this, it’s important to remember that the Trump administration has been hopelessly lagging on adding diplomatic infrastructure on the Korean peninsula. The State Department’s foremost expert on North Korea, Joseph Yuan, left his post in February and has not yet been replaced. The Trump administration has also yet to nominate an ambassador for South Korea, despite the continued work with the country on the North Korea crisis.