Tillerson firing won’t affect U.S.-North Korea talks, says influential senator

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, arrives for a closed Senate Intelligence Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, arrives for a closed Senate Intelligence Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Upcoming talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un over ending the reclusive nation’s nuclear program won’t be affected by this week’s sudden firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, says Sen. James Risch, who’s in line to become Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman next year.

That’s because Trump will be leading the negotiations for the United States — not Tillerson nor Mike Pompeo, nominated Tuesday as his successor at State or even senior Korean experts within the U.S. diplomatic corps.

"President Trump is going to drive this…he has told me that personally," said Risch, R-Idaho, who last month was part of the U.S. delegation to the closing Winter Olympics ceremony in South Korea.

During the Winter Games, Risch had expressed doubts that North and South Korea marching under a unified flag and fielding a North-South women’s ice hockey team could lead to substantive talks on whether Kim would abandon his nuclear ambitions.

But while Risch and other members of the Ivanka Trump-led delegation were in PyeongChang Olympic Stadium for the Feb. 25 closing ceremony, their cell phones buzzed with an urgent message.

"The South was saying the North wants to talk," he said. "We were very surprised."

Risch today remains skeptical of Kim and his intentions, though he expects the talks to be held.

South Korea's National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong said President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un will meet by May this year. Seoul has already publicized that North Korea offered talks with the United States on denuclearizati

"Our side is not in any way looking to get out of this meeting," he said. "The president is anxious to take this meeting, I’ve talked to him about it personally. Again, this whole thing is in the hands of Kim Jong Un."

The senator was pleased that the unpredictable North Korean leader is using the post-Winter Games moment as an "off ramp" from the saber-rattling, militaristic road he was traveling with his missile tests and rhetorical confrontations with Trump.

"I and many others laid out for him what the consequences were if continued down the road he was going down and urged that he choose Door Number Two," Risch said. "He has now chosen Door Number Two. Let’s see if he’ll walk through after turning the knob on the door."

Risch, now in his second Senate term, understands the foreign policy world’s concerns. “If you polled the diplomatic community, they would probably be 90 percent or more, ‘This is not the way to do this.’ What I would say to them is ‘Well, the way you guys have done it over the past 60 years hasn’t worked, how about if we try something else?’" the senator said in a lengthy interview with McClatchy.

Trump will listen to his advisers but the decision on whether or not to make a deal with Kim will be his.

"Look, North Korea is not like the United States — the man sitting at the table representing North Korea can make a promise and can make anything happen he wants to make happen," Risch said. "In that regard it’s different and President Trump wants to negotiate with him and see if they can’t reach an agreement."

Trump abruptly fired Tillerson Tuesday, a sacking attributed to poor personal chemistry and disagreements over several foreign policy issues, including the nuclear deal with Iran, the Paris climate accord and Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. elections .

The ouster came nearly a week after Trump accepted an invitation to meet Kim at the end of May at a yet-to-be determined location.

Risch also discussed other aspects of the U.S.-Korean relationship as his colleagues expressed concern about the timing of Tillerson’s exit and the pending summit.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said "I wish there was a good time to make changes in the State Department. There’s never a peaceful time in the world to say we’re not in turmoil somewhere at this point."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who also serves on the intelligence panel, had another concern: “We don’t have an ambassador to South Korea right now."

South Korea is one of 44 countries currently without a U.S. ambassador. Several foreign policy experts have said that the State Department has suffered a brain drain with the exodus of senior foreign policy staffers during the Trump administration.

"He (Trump) is thinly staffed," said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. "Does he want staff? Will he use people? Will he listen?

"One danger of such talks is that they just break down, they don’t go anywhere," Neumann added. "Another danger is because nuclear issues could be very technical and there’s a long history that you get a bad agreement because you think you’re signing up for one set of guarantees and you get something different. That’s the kind of thing where a president really needs to make sure he has people with him and around him.”

While there’s no U.S. ambassador in Seoul, Risch said there is a strong charges d’affaires ad interim in Marc Knapper, who joined the senator as an Olympic delegation member.

"He’s good, he’s been there a long time, he speaks fluent Korean and he knows the issues backwards and forwards," Risch said. "He knows all the people on the other side. He’s got good relationships with people on the other side.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

North Korea has agreed to send athletes to the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, but the Olympics have long been a window into geopolitics between the two sides.

Related stories from McClatchy DC