As Trump rushes towards a summit with North Korea, US intelligence is in charge

Together again. Who’s there to help them?
Together again. Who’s there to help them?
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Donald Trump’s meeting with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the US president’s private Florida club is supposed to touch on everything from the South China Sea to steel tariffs—but a potential summit between the US and North Korea is taking center stage.

Trump said in Florida today (April 17) that the US and North Korea have already had direct talks at “very high levels.” The US is looking at five different foreign locations to hold a summit, he said, and will be “having discussions with Kim Jong Un very soon,” adding that could be early June, or even before that “assuming things go well.” Soon thereafter, it was revealed the White House had sent CIA director Mike Pompeo to North Korea over Easter to lay the groundwork.

Abe said Japan and the US seek “a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization as well as the abandonment of missile programs” by North Korea and praised Trump for his “courage” in agreeing to meet Kim. Meanwhile, North and South Korea said today they were discussing a formal end to their 68-year long military conflict.

If Trump and Abe are able to meet their goal, it would be a historic win. Still, the ramp-up to a possible meeting between Trump and North Korea’s dictator highlights the shallow US bench of visible experts regarding the Korean peninsula, and even all of East Asia.

Current and former Trump administration aides say that appearances are misleading, however—there’s dozens of North Korea experts in the US government who have been working on a well-thought out plan, they say. They’re just loathe to name them publicly.

Trump’s team at the current summit

There are nine people on the White House’s list of delegates accompanying the president in Florida this week, none with significant Korea experience. Chief of staff John Kelly is there—but he has been stationed in Iraq and Europe, never Asia; Larry Kudlow, Trump’s economic advisor, has spent his career in the US, although he has weighed in on the Korea peninsula before, calling reunification “inevitable” in 2006.

Here is the foreign-policy team for the Abe talks:

William Hagerty, US ambassador to Japan A private-equity executive from Tennessee, Hagerty worked for three years in Tokyo with Boston Consulting Group. Before Trump nominated him to be ambassador, he was director of presidential appointments for the Trump campaign transition team, and was working to bring major league soccer to Nashville. Hagerty has pledged that the “tight connection” between Trump and Abe will keep the two nations close, but it is unclear how much influence he has in the White House. His bio doesn’t mention Korea.

US trade representative Robert Lighthizer The former Skadden, Arps law partner served in the Ronald Reagan administration, and asked the Japanese government to reduce steel imports to the US back in 1984. Former Reagan administration colleague and John Hopkins economics professor Steve H. Hanke calls Lighthizer and Trump advisor Peter Navarro “dyed-in-the-wool protectionists who have never seen a tariff or quota that they didn’t fall in love with.” (Navarro, a long-time China hawk who was appointed the president’s “director of trade and industrial policy,” is not on the Japan delegation team.)

Matthew Pottinger The National Security Council Asia head was a reporter in China for eight years before becoming a Marine captain stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he wrote a report with disgraced security advisor Mike Flynn about fixing military intelligence. He has lived in Asia longer than any other delegate.

John Bolton Trump’s new national security advisor and former undersecretary of state for George W. Bush has been warning about North Korea’s nuclear program for more than a decade. “Only one diplomatic option remains, and it does not involve talking to Pyongyang,” Bolton wrote in 2017. “Instead, President Trump should urge President Xi Jinping that reunifying the Korean Peninsula is in China’s national interest.” A string of National Security Council analysts have left since he was named advisor.

The sidelined State Department

At the State Department, traditionally the US’s chief diplomatic arm, the “special representative for North Korea policy” and “special envoy for the six-party talks” (about denuclearizing North Korea) are among the significant slots remain that vacant after the surprise departure of US’s North Korea point man, Joseph Yun.

There is no ambassador to South Korea, and most Asia positions are filled by Obama holdovers, who can’t count on the confidence of Trump. (The White House purposefully left US diplomats out of earlier discussions about a North Korea summit, an official told Quartz in March, because the diplomats would probably “leak” the information.)

There is one State Department official traveling with Trump right now, deputy secretary of state John Sullivan. A former legal counsel to George W. Bush’s secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, he served on an Iraq business council. His bio doesn’t mention Korea experience.

The intel in the background

The White House said last week it does have plenty of Korean peninsula experts, but wouldn’t name them. “There is, believe it or not, in the US government people who have a lot of experience dealing with North Korea,” a senior official told reporters last week. “All that experience is being marshaled into a tightly guarded but thorough process.”

“There is a large group, it is in the hundreds, of North Korean experts in the intelligence community,” said Mike Pillsbury, a former Trump transition team official who has worked with US administrations for over 40 years. They include officials from agencies like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which handles satellite surveillance, and the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, not to mention the US military experts stationed in the region, he said.

During the transition, he and Pottinger were asked to draft a North Korea strategy, Pillsbury said, which included “reaching out to the intelligence community” to get their support. The news of Pompeo’s visit suggests intelligence is playing more of a lead role, than a supporting one.

Pillsbury said he would be cautious about believing current news reports that North Korea intended to agree to verifiable denuclearization with Trump. In the case of North Korea, “when you are talking to an intermediary, who are you really talking to?” he asked of any current behind-the-scenes talks. “How much authority does anyone have to represent chairman Kim?”

One key problem with a team that doesn’t have a much experience in Asia is the lack of historical knowledge. US presidents since Lyndon Johnson have been responding to North Korean provocations, and Trump’s agreement to meet with Kim with no strings attached left long-time Korea experts aghast.

After all, winning a meeting with the leader of the US by threatening weapons strikes is literally the plot of a North Korean propaganda film.

Update: This story was updated on April 18 with details of CIA director Mike Pompeo’s visit to North Korea.