Trump doesn't have enough diplomats to deal with North Korea

August 22, 2017, 11:04am

President Trump may be satisfied thinking he has temporarily tamed North Korea’s emboldened regime through a summer-long tirade of “fire and fury” threats. But the president’s assured attitude doesn’t disguise the fact that he’s navigating the complexities of a nuclear North Korea with one of the weakest State Departments in recent history.

As Washington and Seoul conduct their annual joint military drills in South Korea this week, a growing number of current and former diplomats, officials, and security analysts are voicing concern over the Trump administration’s ability to facilitate a diplomatic solution when there are hundreds of crucial jobs unfilled in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s State Department and across major U.S. government agencies. Not to mention the president’s predilection for tough talk and an increasingly militarized U.S. foreign policy apparatus.

“Brain drain isn’t the word… There are just not enough brains operational at this time.”

The empty chair of the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea — where the U.S. currently has 15 military bases — is perhaps the most glaring of this administration’s vacancies, but it’s just one of many. Trump’s failure to appoint or even nominate candidates has meant that two-thirds of key State Department positions remain unfilled including the second-in-command at the State Department’s nuclear-weapons wing.

“It’s a real problem not to have some of these critical, Senate-confirmed positions, and Senate-confirmed officers in place,” Robert Einhorn, former U.S. Department of State special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control under President Obama, told VICE News. “Brain drain isn’t the word… There are just not enough brains operational at this time.”

Many of these roles were filled by this time in Obama and Bush’s respective administrations.

Einhorn, who played a key role in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, expressed particular concern about the absence of an assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs — a role that’s typically responsible for all U.S. foreign, military, and economic policy toward the vast region encompassing countries like China, Japan, and South Korea.

“Not having an assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs is a real problem when dealing with an issue as difficult as North Korea. It’s not just a question of generating good policy options for the secretary [of state], and for the secretary to take to the president. North Korea is a complicated matter that requires lots of diplomatic engagement,” Einhorn said.

On Tuesday, the top commander for the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, stressed that diplomacy was “the most important starting point,” and evaded answering specifics on a U.S. military strategy.

Even Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently departed chief strategist and one-time National Security Council member, doesn’t think a military solution would be viable to halt the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. Bannon’s dovish comments appeared at odds with the tough talk of the president and, just this weekend Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed that a U.S. military option was still on the table, albeit not the preferred option.

“Ever since Nixon’s first term, we’ve been trying to eliminate the State Department as a Cabinet entity in our government.”

But any diplomatic outreach to de-escalate the chance of conflict is greatly hindered by a weakened State Department. Another former Obama-era official, who spoke to VICE News on background citing sensitivity toward the ongoing North Korean discussions, said that federal workers with scientific and technical expertise on nuclear weapons had serious concerns about the missing bridge between experts and policy decision-makers.

Observers wonder if the glaring lack of appointments is simply a result of political incompetence or if it’s a purposeful reshaping of America’s foreign policy apparatus.

Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell, thinks the Trump administration hasn’t filled these roles because it wants to cut the State Department off at the knees.

“Trump brought him [former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson] in for his management experience. I think that Trump gave him one marching order — to dismantle the State Department as much as possible,” Wilkerson said. Through exaggerated under Trump, Wilkerson said this trend is hardly new.

“Ever since Nixon’s first term, we’ve been trying to eliminate the State Department as a Cabinet entity in our government.”

“The time that North Korea policy has worked in the U.S. government is when there’s one person who knows something who has access to senior officials”

The shrinking of the State Department and the apparent reluctance to push for Senate confirmation of key diplomatic positions also squares with Trump’s stated aversion to big government. Responding to critics of its downsizing and vacancies, the State Department insisted that Tillerson’s reorganization is an “employee-led process with no preconceived outcomes,” focused only on better achieving “our mission.”

Despite the State Department’s insistence that it’s accomplishing plenty, the Cabinet office is undeniably short-staffed under a Trump administration that continues to provide its general-heavy National Security Council with robust resources. Wilkerson argues that the growing size and stature of the NSC reflects a shift in the locus of U.S. foreign policy power. The president met again with his NSC earlier this month to discuss North Korea, and again this past weekend. Trump’s preference for taking advice from his “generals” is well documented.

Joel Wit, a former senior adviser to Ambassador Robert L. Galluci (the chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis), said that Americans shouldn’t be completely concerned. “Ambassadors are no longer that central to foreign policy, unless they have a close relationship with folks at the top of government, or the president,” Wit said.

Wit stressed that some of the special envoy roles that the Trump administration has yet to fill may be beneficial to conducting DPKR talks, however. When it comes to North Korea, Wit said, there’s a danger you can have “a mishmash of bureaucracy” impeding any real diplomatic progress.

“The time that North Korea policy has worked in the U.S. government is when there’s one person who knows something who has access to senior officials, and he or she can educate them,” Wit, a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS, said. “To say there’s no undersecretary of state, there’s no head of National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), it’s meaningless when it comes to North Korea. The people who count are at the top.”

The person reportedly leading the way on the issue is Joseph Yun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea policy, and former ambassador to Malaysia. Yun led a small team focused on conducting backchannel conversations in the last several months with North Korea’s senior diplomat Choe Son Hui, in an effort to continue to engage diplomatically.

Yun’s attempts to achieve a diplomatic end to the current spat face a daily challenge, according to Einhorn, who thinks that Trump’s belligerent statements are “likely to reinforce North Korean paranoia” and the view that they need to keep their boisterous posture to scare off a pre-emptive U.S. military strike.

“The president puts these people in a very difficult position because they could try to present themselves speaking with self-confidence [in negotiations], but they have to have in the back of their mind that they might be undermined in tomorrow morning’s tweets,” Einhorn said.