U.S. has a daunt­ing to-do list to get ready for North Korea sum­mit


WASHINGTON — Who sits where? What’s on the agenda? Will they eat to­gether? What’s the se­cu­rity plan?

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his team have a daunt­ing to-do list to work through as they pre­pare for next month’s ex­pected sum­mit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump’s plan to meet with Kim may have come as a sur­prise de­ci­sion, but his team hopes to leave noth­ing to chance when they come to­gether in Singapore. They’re gam­ing out pol­icy plans, ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tics, even menu items.

With two un­pre­dictable lead­ers, it’s hard to an­tic­i­pate ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity. But White House aides are ex­pect­ing hard-ball ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tics — al­ready in ev­i­dence this week as the North Kore­ans cast fresh doubt on the sit­down.

The pres­i­dent said Thurs­day that prepa­ra­tions were un­der­way: “Our peo­ple are lit­er­ally deal­ing with them right now in terms of mak­ing ar­range­ments for the meet­ing.”

The two sides, he said, “are con­tin­u­ing to ne­go­ti­ate in terms of lo­ca­tion, the lo­ca­tion as to where to meet, how to meet, rooms, every­thing else. They’ve been ne­go­ti­at­ing like noth­ing hap­pened.”

Leader sum­mits on this level are a mas­sive un­der­tak­ing. Much like ice­bergs, only a small frac­tion of the work is vis­i­ble above the wa­ter­line. And when the meet­ing in­volves the heads of two tech­ni­cally still-war­ring states, the list of lo­gis­ti­cal con­cerns ex­pands, in­clud­ing sen­si­tive items like the num­ber and de­ploy­ment of se­cu­rity of­fi­cers. Of­fi­cials on both sides are still de­ter­min­ing the for­mat for the meet­ing or meet­ings, whether Trump and Kim will share a meal, and the ex­tent of any one-on-one in­ter­ac­tions.

All of that comes as the U.S. for­mu­lates its strate­gies for the talks, in­clud­ing what the U.S. is pre­pared to give up and how pre­cisely to de­fine “de­nu­cle­ariza­tion” on the Korean Penin­sula — Trump’s stated goal.

“I would say there are hundreds if not thou­sands of hours put into sum­mit prepa­ra­tions,” said Patrick McEach­ern, a pub­lic pol­icy fel­low at the Woodrow Wil­son Cen­ter and a for­mer State Depart­ment of­fi­cial.

Scott Mul­hauser, a for­mer chief of staff at the U.S. Em­bassy in Bei­jing, said that in the leadup to sum­mit meet­ings, staffs try to an­tic­i­pate the var­i­ous ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tions their coun­ter­parts might take, adding that “if you’re not gam­ing that out, you’re not pre­par­ing ad­e­quately.”

Trump is re­ly­ing heav­ily on his top diplo­mat, Mike Pom­peo, in pre­par­ing for the sum­mit. Pom­peo has met with Kim twice in Py­ongyang, once as sec­re­tary of state and once as CIA chief, and has spent more time with the reclu­sive leader than any other Amer­i­can of­fi­cial. The amount of face time Pom­peo has had with Kim ri­vals even that of most Asian lead­ers, apart from the Chi­nese.

Pom­peo as­sem­bled a work­ing group to han­dle ne­go­ti­a­tions with North Korea led by a re­tired se­nior CIA of­fi­cial with deep ex­pe­ri­ence in the re­gion. That team, based at CIA head­quar­ters in Lan­g­ley, Va., re­mains the cen­ter of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s North Korea ex­per­tise.

Plan­ning for the sum­mit started quickly af­ter Trump an­nounced on Twit­ter his plans to meet with Kim, but kicked into higher gear af­ter John Bolton be­came Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser last month. In ad­di­tion to Pom­peo’s two trips to Py­ongyang, U.S. of­fi­cials have also been co­or­di­nat­ing with the North Kore­ans through what’s known as the “New York chan­nel” — North Korean diplo­mats posted to their coun­try’s mission to the United Na­tions.

A key ques­tion is the for­mat for the meet­ing if the two coun­tries are able to pro­ceed to full-fledged nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions, U.S. of­fi­cials have said. That in­cludes de­ci­sions about whether to keep the talks lim­ited to the U.S. and North Korea or whether to bring other govern­ments into the process, such as South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. Also key is what the U.S. will ne­go­ti­ate away.

“One thing that is un­clear to us is what the U.S. is will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate in ex­change for North Korea’s prom­ises on de­nu­cle­ariza­tion,” said Jean Lee, di­rec­tor of the North Korea pro­gram at the Woodrow Wil­son Cen­ter and a for­mer As­so­ci­ated Press bureau chief in Py­ongyang. “The North Kore­ans are go­ing to be armed and very ready to ne­go­ti­ate. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to be ready as well.”

One ini­tial hur­dle that Pom­peo man­aged to clear dur­ing his sec­ond visit to Py­ongyang was the venue for the sum­mit. North Korea was adamant that Kim not be put in any kind of sit­u­a­tion where his se­cu­rity could be at risk, U.S. of­fi­cials said. North Korean of­fi­cials pushed very hard for the meet­ing to be in Py­ongyang, so Kim would not have to leave the coun­try and they could have 100 per­cent con­trol over ac­cess and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cials.

When North Korea ob­jected to Trump’s pre­ferred choice of the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone on the bor­der be­tween North and South Korea, the U.S. coun­tered with Singapore. Some White House of­fi­cials also op­posed the DMZ choice, be­liev­ing the op­tics on Korean rap­proche­ment would dis­tract from the fo­cus on de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.

U.S. of­fi­cials said they be­lieved one rea­son the North Kore­ans agreed to Singapore was that Kim had just re­turned from a suc­cess­ful trip to China the day be­fore Pom­peo ar­rived for his sec­ond visit. Many an­a­lysts, in­clud­ing U.S. of­fi­cials, be­lieve that Kim’s flight to the Chi­nese port of Dalian — the first trip abroad by air­craft by a North Korean leader in decades — was likely a test of the coun­try’s abil­ity to safely trans­port Kim by air. Kim’s pre­vi­ous trips to China had all been by train, as was the cus­tom of his fa­ther.

The North for­mally signed off on Singapore while Pom­peo was in Py­ongyang. Even be­fore Trump an­nounced the sum­mit site by tweet a day af­ter Pom­peo’s re­turn, White House of­fi­cials who trav­eled with Pom­peo to Py­ongyang were al­ready on the ground in Singapore to be­gin work­ing out sum­mit lo­gis­tics.

Very few peo­ple have had much di­rect con­tact with the North Kore­ans, so there are few peo­ple for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to check with for guid­ance.

Bill Richard­son, the for­mer New Mex­ico gov­er­nor and U.N. am­bas­sador who has ne­go­ti­ated with the North Kore­ans, had one suggestion. He said that in the meet­ing set­ting, the North Kore­ans will be very for­mal, so build­ing a rap­port be­tween the two will be vi­tal.

His main ad­vice: “Try to find some pri­vate time be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump and Kim Jong Un.”

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