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(News Focus) Tillerson's dismissal spawns speculation on impact on U.S.-North Korea summit

2018/03/14 14:40

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By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- Following U.S. President Donald Trump's dismissal of his top diplomat, speculations are rising here as to what ramifications, if any, the sudden decision could have on the planned summit between the U.S. and North Korea.

On Tuesday night (Seoul time), Trump tweeted that he will replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, head of the Central Intelligence Agency. The move came days after the president accepted an invitation from the North to hold an unprecedented summit by May to discuss denuclearization.

Trump said in a statement that Pompeo "will continue our program of restoring America's standing in the world, strengthening our alliances, confronting our adversaries, and seeking the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

   Tillerson is known for his relatively dovish approach toward North Korea, representing what had appeared to be a minority voice until recently in the administration, as he has sought to resolve the North's nuclear and missile issues through peaceful methods, including talks and dialogue.

His pursuit of dialogue has often put him on a collision course with Trump and other colleagues who have even mentioned military strikes as a possible way of dealing with the North's provocations once and for all.

"It is still hard to figure out exactly what is the reason for the decision to replace Tillerson but it has been well documented that he and the president have not seen eye-to-eye on many diplomatic issues," James Kim, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said.

"One thing is clear, however, that it has increased the overall uncertainty and begged many questions with regard to what will happen to the upcoming summit," he said, mentioning that the decision has added a new aspect to what many have seen as a reconciliatory mood being created by Trump's turn toward talks.

Pompeo, a close aide to the president, is one of the hardliners against the North inside the Trump administration.

His voice could get amplified as some conservatives in Washington are still calling for military action against the North, saying the U.S. could be deceived again into holding talks with Pyongyang, which they believe is trying to ease sanctions and buy time to advance its weapons programs.

In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Pompeo expressed the administration's firm stance on the North's denuclearization and asserted that sanctions and pressure will continue on Pyongyang going forward.

"President Trump isn't doing this (the planned summit) for theater. He is going to solve a problem," he said.

"No mistake about it. While these negotiations are going on, there will be no concessions to make. The activities of this administration to disrupt the North Korean economy to put pressure on North Korea ... those will continue and we will see how the talks and negotiations will proceed," he added.

Tillerson's departure could also spark a major personnel shake-up in the State Department, some experts said, raising the possibility that it could render key posts tasked with leading preparations for the planned summit void or ineffective if the confirmation hearing process drags on.

There are also doubts that, without Tillerson, anyone in the State Department will be able to serve as a counterbalance on excessive pressure from the White House before and after the U.S.-North Korea dialogue process.

"As the new chief comes in and many of the working-level officials at the State Department could be changed, this can be seen as a sign that the White House is to spearhead the talks process with the North on various fronts," said Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank.

This comes amid worries that there could be many vacancies in major North Korea-related posts in the department. The acting top U.S. diplomat in charge of East Asia, Susan Thornton, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.

On top of those concerns, critics are citing a lack of North Korea experts inside the administration as yet another problem.

Recently, Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs on the White House National Security Council under George W. Bush, was dropped from consideration for the post of U.S. ambassador to South Korea reportedly due to differences in policy views on the North. Joseph Yun, top nuclear envoy of the U.S. and supporter of talks with the North, also offered to resign.

Some speculated that the replacement of the top diplomat could help strengthen the "leverage" of Washington ahead of the talks by -- intentionally or not -- sending out signals that there will be no point in meeting without the North's sincere intention to denuclearize and at the same time suggesting that there could be serious consequences such as military action if negotiations fall apart by placing such hardliners front and center.

"Despite a change of mood toward dialogue, (the replacement) seems to make it clear that denuclearization is the only reason for Trump to meet the North Korean leader," Park Jeong-jin, vice director of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said.

"Should things fall apart due to lack of the North's commitment to denuclearization, the U.S. appears to be dangling a veiled threat that military options remain on the table," he added.

South Korea has dismissed any negative ramifications from the replacement decision, saying that coordination between South Korea and the U.S. will remain firm and strong.

"(This) is an abrupt change," Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters early on Wednesday. "(But) we have worked closely and I think we will continue to closely cooperate with the new person in the post as well," she said.

Some experts even expect Pompeo to help engineer bold progress in talks with North Korea.

He is said to have been in a close coordination with South Korea's spy chief during recent inter-Korean contacts, which led to the agreements on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's summits with President Moon Jae-in and Trump. His close ties with Trump could also help facilitate faster decision making, they believe.