President Trump accepting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's invitation to meet face to face is unprecedented — no sitting U.S. president has met with the leader of North Korea — and the big announcement was delivered in an unusual way: in the White House driveway, in the dark, by South Korean national security official Chung Eui-yong. It's a surprising turn of events, given that Trump and Kim have spent a year trading personal insults and threats of annihilation, but few people were probably more surprised than officials at the Defense Department and the State Department.
"Several Pentagon officials said shortly before the announcement that they had no knowledge of what the South Koreans planned to announce," The Associated Press reports. "And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, traveling in Africa, just hours before said the U.S. was 'a long ways' from direct talks." It's unclear if "the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations," Tillerson added, and the State Department had said earlier in the day that U.S. diplomats were ready to engage with North Korea in a preliminary round of talks to test Pyongyang's sincerity. Now they have until May to prepare for a summit between Trump and Kim.
It won't be easy to "assemble a team capable of supporting a historic summit of longtime adversaries and determine a viable engagement strategy," The Washington Post notes, especially since the U.S. point person on North Korea, special envoy Joseph Yun, retired in February and hasn't been replaced, there's not even a nominee for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and the nominated assistant secretary of state for East Asia is awaiting Senate confirmation. Plus, "the State Department has hemorrhaged Korean linguists and former negotiators," Douglas Paal, an Asia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells the Post. Pyongyang, meanwhile, "will send people with 30 years of experience. This is a real challenge."