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President Donald Trump accepted an invitation to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was away on a five-day tour of African nations. Josh Lederman of the Associated Press tells Hari Sreenivasan that Tillerson was “relatively removed” from the White House’s approach to North Korea this week. He joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.
When President Trump accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Thursday his top diplomat was on the other side of the world. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in the middle of a five country tour in Africa and already charged trip to boost relations after President Trump reportedly used a slur to refer to African nations at a meeting with U.S. lawmakers in January. Josh Lederman of the Associated Press has been traveling with Secretary Tillerson and joins me now via Skype from Nairobi, Kenya. So today, interestingly enough Senator Tillerson is actually not out meeting people, not doing all this stuff because he got sick. Explain.
The State Department said that he was under the weather after basically being up for two days straight dealing the night before with the North Korea announcement that came out of the White House. The secretary was on the phone with the president in the middle of the night and Ethiopia is where we were at the time and as a result he's really been pushing it to the max and they say he needed a day to get back up to speed.
Now the secretary has said that this meeting is just a meeting. It's not a negotiation. Is there a distinction?
The distinction that U.S. officials seem to be drawing is that you have talks initially where you essentially build some rapport, some trust, see if you can even agree on basic terms and have enough common ground to move forward together. And then you proceed to the next step – negotiations where you're actually saying, all right what are you willing to do, what are we willing to do. What kind of mechanisms would you even have to put in place to verify that both sides are complying. And can we actually reach an agreement on paper.
Now how engaged has Secretary Tillerson been on this issue also considering that no there are lots of things that happened before a meeting, lots of sort of lower level people go out and meet and in some cases those positions are not yet filled in the State Department?
That's right. There's no U.S. ambassador to South Korea. The U.S. special envoy for North Korea talks, Joseph Yoon retired in the last few weeks and there are many other key agencies that would seem to be very relevant to this. But Tillerson was very involved in trying to put so many sanctions on North Korea that they would be economically compelled to come to the table. But as far as the decision to have talks or not have talks it has often seemed at odds with the president pushing, for talks when the president wasn't and vice versa. And over the past few days it seemed that he's been relatively removed from the situation.
And part of Tillerson's mission on this tour is to make nice with African leaders who might still be holding a grudge about President Trumps alleged comments?
That's right. We've been asking about this at every stop that we've been in Africa so far and the U.S. officials really continue to say this isn't a huge issue that African countries are ready to move on. But you can feel that tension in the air. The civil society groups, human rights groups and others in Africa certainly not willing to just let that slide and it seems to be the undertone for the whole trip.
Has the continent become more important to the United States partly because of the increased amount of investments that China is making?
China's investments and rivalry with the United States, so to speak, on the continent is a huge issue. But look, Africa is increasingly relevant to the United States for practical reasons. The population here is booming, expected to be much, much larger in the coming decades. The economies here are growing very, very fast and the counter-terrorism threat has really started to shift from parts of the Middle East to Africa especially as the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria nears a defeat.
All right Josh Lederman of the Associated Press joining us via Skype from Nairobi thanks so much.
Thanks a lot.
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