US has a daunting to-do list to get ready for NKorea summit

A man watches a TV screen showing file footage of U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. North Korea's breaking off a high-level meeting with South Korea and threatening to scrap next month's historic summit with President Trump over allied military drills is seen as a move by Kim to gain leverage and establish that he's entering the crucial nuclear negotiations from a position of strength. Washington and Seoul, which have no intentions to overpay for whatever Kim brings to the table, say international sanctions forced Kim into talks after a flurry of weapons tests. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
South Korean marine force members look toward North's side through binoculars at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju near the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. North Korea on Wednesday canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea and threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over military exercises between Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang has long claimed are invasion rehearsals. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
People watch a TV screen showing file footage of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. North Korea on Wednesday threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Donald Trump, saying it has no interest in a "one-sided" affair meant to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons. The signs read: " Trying to test Trump." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
In this May 16, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un may have been a surprise decision. But as he prepares to sit down with the North Korean leader next month, his team hopes to leave nothing to chance. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
FILE - In this April 9, 2018, file photo, National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington. After announcing early Wednesday that it was pulling out of high-level talks with Seoul because of a new round of U.S.-South Korea military exercises, the North took aim at Bolton and said it might have to reconsider whether to proceed with the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because it doubts how seriously Washington actually wants peaceful dialogue. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON — Who sits where? What's on the agenda? Will they eat together? What's the security plan?

President Donald Trump and his team have a daunting to-do list to work through as they prepare for next month's expected summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump's plan to meet with Kim may have come as a surprise decision, but his team hopes to leave nothing to chance when they come together in Singapore. They're gaming out policy plans, negotiating tactics, even menu items.

With two unpredictable leaders, it's hard to anticipate every possibility. But White House aides are expecting hard-ball negotiating tactics — already in evidence this week as the North Koreans cast fresh doubt on the sit-down.

The president said Thursday that preparations were underway: "Our people are literally dealing with them right now in terms of making arrangements for the meeting."

The two sides, he said, "are continuing to negotiate in terms of location, the location as to where to meet, how to meet, rooms, everything else. They've been negotiating like nothing happened."

Leader summits on this level are a massive undertaking. Much like icebergs, only a small fraction of the work is visible above the waterline. And when the meeting involves the heads of two technically still-warring states, the list of logistical concerns expands, including sensitive items like the number and deployment of security officers. Officials on both sides are still determining the format for the meeting or meetings, whether Trump and Kim will share a meal, and the extent of any one-on-one interactions.

All of that comes as the U.S. formulates its strategies for the talks, including what the U.S. is prepared to give up and how precisely to define "denuclearization" on the Korean Peninsula — Trump's stated goal.

"I would say there are hundreds if not thousands of hours put into summit preparations," said Patrick McEachern, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former State Department official.

Scott Mulhauser, a former chief of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said that in the leadup to summit meetings, staffs try to anticipate the various negotiating positions their counterparts might take, adding that "if you're not gaming that out, you're not preparing adequately."

Trump is relying heavily on his top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, in preparing for the summit. Pompeo has met with Kim twice in Pyongyang, once as secretary of state and once as CIA chief, and has spent more time with the reclusive leader than any other American official. The amount of face time Pompeo has had with Kim rivals even that of most Asian leaders, apart from the Chinese.

Pompeo assembled a working group to handle negotiations with North Korea led by a retired senior CIA official with deep experience in the region. That team, based at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, remains the center of the administration's North Korea expertise.

Planning for the summit started quickly after Trump announced on Twitter his plans to meet with Kim, but kicked into higher gear after John Bolton became Trump's national security adviser last month. In addition to Pompeo's two trips to Pyongyang, U.S. officials have also been coordinating with the North Koreans through what's known as the "New York channel" — North Korean diplomats posted to their country's mission to the United Nations.

A key question is the format for the meeting if the two countries are able to proceed to full-fledged nuclear negotiations, U.S. officials have said. That includes decisions about whether to keep the talks limited to the U.S. and North Korea or whether to bring other governments into the process, such as South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. Also key is what the U.S. will negotiate away.

"One thing that is unclear to us is what the U.S. is willing to negotiate in exchange for North Korea's promises on denuclearization," said Jean Lee, director of the North Korea program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang. "The North Koreans are going to be armed and very ready to negotiate. The Trump administration needs to be ready as well."

One initial hurdle that Pompeo managed to clear during his second visit to Pyongyang was the venue for the summit. North Korea was adamant that Kim not be put in any kind of situation where his security could be at risk, U.S. officials said. North Korean officials pushed very hard for the meeting to be in Pyongyang, so Kim would not have to leave the country and they could have 100 percent control over access and communications, according to the officials.

When North Korea objected to Trump's preferred choice of the demilitarized zone on the border between North and South Korea, the U.S. countered with Singapore. Some White House officials also opposed the DMZ choice, believing the optics on Korean rapprochement would distract from the focus on denuclearization.

U.S. officials said they believed one reason the North Koreans agreed to Singapore was that Kim had just returned from a successful trip to China the day before Pompeo arrived for his second visit. Many analysts, including U.S. officials, believe that Kim's flight to the Chinese port of Dalian — the first trip abroad by aircraft by a North Korean leader in decades — was likely a test of the country's ability to safely transport Kim by air. Kim's previous trips to China had all been by train, as was the custom of his father.

The North formally signed off on Singapore while Pompeo was in Pyongyang. Even before Trump announced the summit site by tweet a day after Pompeo's return, White House officials who traveled with Pompeo to Pyongyang were already on the ground in Singapore to begin working out summit logistics.

Very few people have had much direct contact with the North Koreans, so there are few people for the Trump administration to check with for guidance.

Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and U.N. ambassador who has negotiated with the North Koreans, had one suggestion. He said that in the meeting setting, the North Koreans will be very formal, so building a rapport between the two will be vital.

His main advice: "Try to find some private time between President Trump and Kim Jong Un."

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