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Editorial: U.S. must expedite steps for N. Korea talks despite top diplomat change

It was an abrupt personnel shuffle just as Washington begins preparations for the U.S.-North Korea summit. The U.S. government must complete arrangements for smoothly advancing its diplomacy, such as working-level talks with North Korea, while holding the possible impact of the latest personnel change to a minimum.


U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would dismiss Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo. Trump emphasized that the two had a “different mind-set, a different thinking.”


The discord between Trump and Tillerson first surfaced last year, with speculation of his dismissal circulating many times. Trump probably wanted to prevent turmoil from expanding by eliminating a Cabinet member who didn’t get along with him.


There was a striking gap between Trump, who attaches importance to applying military pressure and reinforcing economic sanctions in his policy toward North Korea, and Tillerson, who was searching for a way to hold dialogue with Pyongyang with no conditions attached. Tillerson was said not to have been notified beforehand of the new U.S. policy of accepting a U.S.-North Korea summit.


Tillerson, who came from the business community, failed to display any firm diplomatic philosophy, and wound up being unable to win the confidence of either Trump or career diplomats.

Taking into account that the country’s foreign and national security policies have been moved forward under the White House leadership, with the stature of the State Department in eclipse, the possible impact of a change in the secretary of state can be considered limited.


Brace for any scenario


Pompeo is to take office in April or later, following confirmation by the Senate. Being hawkish and conservative, Pompeo has won Trump’s confidence. He also has the advantage of familiarity with the CIA’s intelligence about North Korea. It is hoped that he will build, together with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other relevant officials, a foreign and national security strategy in sync with Trump.


Still, it is worrisome that there has been no visible process to realize the U.S.-North Korea summit. Following a request from Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Trump has agreed to meet with Kim by May. But there is a mountain of tasks that need to be coordinated beforehand, including a time and place for such talks and the setting out of the agenda.


What sort of concrete measures will Washington demand toward North Korea’s abandoning its nuclear and missile development programs? How will Washington respond if it is asked in return by Pyongyang, for instance, for the withdrawal or retrenchment of the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, or provision of economic assistance? There are risks to the approach of leaving the fate of the summit entirely to the judgment of Trump.


Pompeo must accelerate preparations for prior talks with North Korea, assuming the role of being in charge of the negotiations. It is also important to urge Trump to fill quickly the high-ranking posts that have been left vacant, by appointing an ambassador to Seoul and a special representative for North Korea policy.


Foreign Minister Taro Kono will visit the United States shortly. When holding talks with senior officials of the Trump administration, he needs to compare and adjust strategies with them swiftly.


The possibility has not yet vanished that U.S.-North Korea talks will break down and the situation on the Korean Peninsula will become tense. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is required to be prepared for any sort of contingency.


(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 15, 2018)

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