Rex Tillerson is out as secretary of state. President Trump announced the move this morning. CIA Director Mike Pompeo will move from Langley to State and succeed him. Tillerson’s departure hardly registers as much of a surprise. The former SecState’s relationship with President Trump was riddled with tension, and suspicion on both sides. Tillerson never embraced Trump’s America First doctrine, and his loyalty was never 100 percent there. The condition of the State Department might’ve also played a role in Trump’s decision. State, to put it bluntly, is a wreck. Under Tillerson’s command, US diplomacy was adrift and never fully in sync with the foreign policy positions of the White House.
The timing of the move makes perfect sense. Trump needs an effective SecState to help him craft a strategy for upcoming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Those talks are expected to take place before May, leaving little time for the administration to complete preparations and construct a viable strategy. Tillerson was not a major contributor when it came to North Korea. He contradicted the position of the White House in public on more than one occasion. To add insult to injury, Tillerson apparently did not learn of his dismissal until he read President Trump’s tweet this morning.
Pompeo’s Senate confirmation hearing will be scheduled for sometime in April.
The path leading to a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un more closely resembles a minefield. A myriad of potentially explosive obstacles and variables will have to be navigated around or defused if the potential meeting is to become a reality. All parties involved are moving into uncharted territory. Never before have a US president and North Korean leader met face-to-face. Rarely in the past has a US president met with the leader of an adversarial nation-state during a period of such heightened tension. The 1961 summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna is probably the last time anything like this took place.
One of the driving forces behind the Vienna Summit was Khrushchev’s desire to size up the young American leader early in his presidency and determine what he was about. Something similar is happening right now. President Trump’s approach to North Korea is decidedly different from how his predecessors dealt with Pyongyang and it’s left Kim Jong Un stymied to a large degree. The curved strategy and strongarm tactics he used successfully with President Obama, and that his father used with Bush and Clinton have not worked with the current US president. Trump has been far more confrontational and direct in his dealings with the North Korean leader. Kim’s initial response was to raise the ante even more. This, however, only exacerbated the situation more and placed North Korea at a disadvantage.
For the moment, Trump and the United States has the initiative. North Korea’s extended PR/Propaganda offensive has brought it back into the game, though it will all be for nothing if Kim Jong Un does not meet with President Trump and negotiate in good faith. This is the point when the big picture becomes murky because of those obstacles and variables I spoke of before. Kim can point to one of these factors and use it as a reason to call off the meeting, whether the reason is genuine or not. Anything from the logistics of the meeting, to the roles played by South Korea and Japan have the potential to act as justifications for Kim to cancel the meeting and accuse the United States of deliberately setting up North Korea to look bad.
With luck, as the next week or two go on, the level of North Korea’s sincerity can be determined. If it becomes clear that Kim is simply wasting everyone’s time with the prospects of a US-North Korean meeting, don’t be surprised to see Trump cancel. Ironically enough, this could very well be exactly what Kim wants. Given the byzantine nature of North Korea’s actions and strategies it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Time will tell.
Tonight’s announcement by the South Korean national security adviser that President Trump and Kim Jung Un will meet sometime before May is already being widely hailed as a major step forward in defusing the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. It could end up being exactly that, make no mistake. Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise. We’ve been down this road once before in 1994. The US was coming perilously close to launching a military operation to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program while it was still in the embryonic stage. Pyongyang was feeling the heat, sanctions were impacting North Korea as it dealt with a major famine. Kim Jong Il, who had just taken over the duties of premier following the death of his father Kim Il Sung, indicated he wanted to open the door to negotiations with the United States.
Negotiations were held and brought about the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang gave up its ambitions for a nuclear reactor that could produce weapons grade material in exchange for US assurances it would not attack, as well as light water reactors that were resistant to nuclear proliferation uses. The agreement was troubled from the beginning, and as soon as US attention was diverted to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, the North Koreans bailed on the agreement entirely. A few short years later Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test.
Kim Jong Un is trying something similar now. Pressure is building and the regime is starting to feel the pinch from sanctions. The odds are not in favor of Trump and Kim meeting face to face, let alone in favor of them reaching an agreement that ends the crisis once and for all. In all probability the North Koreans will conjure up a superficial excuse to use as justification for canceling the talks at the last minute. And in all likelihood they will lay the blame square on the United States.
In short, don’t be fooled by Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive, or apparent sincerity. He’s buying time, nothing more. The White House knows this is probably true, as does the Pentagon. Contrary to the beliefs of many people tonight, the US-North Korean standoff might be entering its most dangerous phase, instead of reaching a point where tensions begin to diminish for real.
North Korea has laid out an offer it hopes cannot be refused by Seoul and Washington. During two days of talks in Pyongyang with envoys from South Korea, the North said it was willing to begin negotiations with the United States aimed at denuclearization, and would impose a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests during those talks. In a statement released by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, it was said that North Korea made it clear that it would have no reason to keep its nuclear weapons if the military threat to the country was eliminated and its security guaranteed. It is obvious that the North regards the United States as the primary military threat to its security, and survival.
Pyongyang also claims to want to make progress on the unification front, though on this subject their sincerity is even more questionable. Unification in the North is defined as reuniting the Korean peninsula under the rule of Kim’s regime. It means something quite different south of the DMZ, naturally. Both nations are moving forward with talks aimed at a late-April summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon. It would be the first Inter-Korean summit meeting in eleven years. On the subject of the annual US-South Korean military exercises to be held in April, Kim Jong Un claimed to understand why they needed to be held, though if the situation between the two Koreas stabilizes, he expects the size of the exercises to be adjusted.
The South Koreans were caught off guard by the flexibility of the North’s positions, Kim’s willingness to negotiate, and even give up his nuclear weapons under the right circumstances. Nevertheless, Seoul appears to be delighted with what the talks in Pyongyang have produced, both in substance and potential. Washington’s reaction will presumably be more guarded and pessimistic. North Korea’s newfound candor is out of character. Until concrete proof is presented to the White House, the Trump administration will remain hopeful, but regard Pyongyang’s words and promises as nothing more than Kim Jong Un selling a bill of goods.
Angela Merkel has her coalition. The Social Democrats voted in favor of forming a new government along with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union conservatives. Merkel will stay in the chancellery in Berlin, and political stability is set to return to Germany, at least for the moment. Forming a coalition after months of deadlock is assuredly a victory for her, though the scope and magnitude of it is up for debate. During the next few months, Merkel needs to tread carefully. One errant slip can turn it into a Pyrrhic victory and then the coalition becomes an albatross around her neck.
Make no mistake about it, Merkel has her work cut out for her. In spite of the grandiose proclamations of a ‘Grand Coalition,’ the government that has been put together more accurately resembles a diminished coalition at best. Germany was rattled by the political paralysis that followed the September elections, leaving many to wonder if the nation will ever be the same again. Support for the coalition is dropping, according to polls. At the same time, the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is building momentum. AfD is also setting itself up to be the main opposition party in parliament, raising the prospect of a clash with the new government somewhere down the line.
Merkel has promised to place more focus on domestic issues, though this might be a matter of too little, too late. Immigration is what brought Merkel and Germany to this point. The clumsy way she went about opening of Germany’s borders to the migrants is what caused German voters to turn on their chancellor. Merkel finds herself having to make amends, and possibly even give some of the new government’s positions and policies a slight tilt to the right. Last week she openly admitted that there are no-go zones in Germany after vehemently denying their existence for years. There are reports that Germany could even be seeking a reset in its relations with the United States. It’s a well-known truth that Merkel’s relationship with President Trump has been cool to say the very least.
The fact that she is making these moves now, and that Germany finds itself in this position shows the clout that right wing political parties, and populist movements now hold in Germany.