US diplomacy in disarray as Trump-Kim summit looms
A news screen in Tokyo flashes a report of President Donald Trump's agreement to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong. (AFP/File / Toshifumi KITAMURA)

As Donald Trump prepares to make a historic gamble by meeting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the US diplomatic corps is in disarray after the president's brutal sacking of his secretary of state.

Rex Tillerson's departure adds to the long list of senior job vacancies at the top of the State Department, and Washington is preparing for the summit without several key diplomats in place.

Trump, of course, may not mind this at all.

His view on how to deal with the threat of North Korea's nuclear arsenal is much more in tune with that of his nominee to replace Tillerson, CIA director Mike Pompeo, than with US diplomats.

Tillerson's plan followed a classic strategy. Build relationships and trust with early contacts; establish parameters for negotiation; draft a deal between senior officials; hold a leaders' summit.

"I have a lot of confidence in my ability to create the conditions for successful negotiations between two very disparate parties," Tillerson told reporters on his last plane trip as secretary.

Trump -- who bluntly informed Tillerson in a tweet last year that he was "wasting his time" operating back channels to Pyongyang -- had a different view, and one apparently shared by Pompeo.

They believe the US must show Kim that the US is ready to use crippling sanctions and even military force if he refuses to give up his nuclear arms, then get him to the table and thrash out a deal.

In January, Pompeo appeared at the conservative AEI think tank in Washington and laid out this plan to convince Kim -- who may be misreading diplomatic signals -- that Washington is serious.

- Ambitious strategy -

"We're taking the real world actions that we think will make unmistakable to Kim Jong Un that we are intent on denuclearization," said Pompeo, who meets frequently with Trump as CIA chief.

"We're counting on the fact that he'll see it. We're confident that he will. And then we will continue to have discussions about how to achieve that denuclearization."

So Trump may now have the beginnings of a team that better reflects his plan, but there is no hiding that America is embarking on an ambitious strategy with a shallow bench of talent.

Tillerson was not in the Oval Office last week when Trump abruptly decided to accept Kim's invitation, passed to him second-hand by a South Korean delegation, to denuclearization talks.

Instead, while Tillerson toured African capitals, he was represented by Deputy Secretary John Sullivan.

But, with Tillerson gone, Sullivan will not be able to devote all of his time to the North Korean dossier; he is acting secretary of state until Pompeo can be confirmed by the Senate, not before April.

- Empty desks -

The number three diplomat in the department, Undersecretary Tom Shannon, has announced his retirement and is only remaining in place until a replacement is named.

The lead diplomat for East Asia and the Pacific, acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton, is awaiting a date for a Senate vote to confirm that she can keep the job permanently.

The former US special representative for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, retired two weeks ago and has yet to be replaced.

In all 91 senior positions at the State Department remain unfilled after more than a year of the Trump administration, including that of ambassador to key ally South Korea.

Trump acknowledged this as an issue Wednesday when he tweeted to blame opposition lawmakers for blocking his picks.

"Hundreds of good people, including very important Ambassadors and Judges, are being blocked and/or slow walked by the Democrats in the Senate," he wrote.

"Many important positions in Government are unfilled because of this obstruction. Worst in US history!"

But, at the State Department at least, it seems difficult to blame the Senate for holding up appointments. For 58 of the posts, including the Seoul ambassadorship, there are no nominees.