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Lessons Of The North Korea 'Leap Day Deal'


President Trump is planning to sit down with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un sometime this spring. President Trump wants to discuss de-nuclearizing North Korea's weapons program. But not long ago, Kim signed on to a deal that would do just that. And the agreement fell apart just weeks after it was signed. NPR's Elise Hu looks back at the lessons from that diplomatic failure.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The setting for this story is Washington and Pyongyang. It's Christmas 2011. Barack Obama was president. Van Jackson was at the Pentagon.

VAN JACKSON: And I was working for the secretary of defense as the country director for Korea policy.

HU: Journalist Jean Lee was flying in and out of Pyongyang a lot.

JEAN LEE: Because I was negotiating the opening of the AP Pyongyang bureau in North Korea.

HU: And Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, was still alive and in charge. The goal for the United States when it came to Pyongyang's then-nascent nuclear program continued an objective from the George W. Bush administration, as Jackson explains.

JACKSON: The goal was CVID - comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization - nothing short of that.

HU: For two years leading up to 2011, the lead U.S. negotiator for the Koreas, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, had been engaging in a backchannel, bilateral negotiation with North Korea. The aim was to get North Korea to rejoin something called the six-party talks, which had broken down.

JACKSON: And to freeze its nuclear activity.

HU: Jean Lee.

LEE: They were working on this deal. What would it be? They said a landmark deal to freeze North Korea's nuclear program, put a moratorium on testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in exchange for a huge amount of food aid and other concessions.

HU: On December 18, 2011, Jean Lee broke the story of the deal. It read - the United States is poised to announce a significant donation of food aid to North Korea. An agreement by North Korea to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program will likely follow. Then, the very next day...

LEE: We got news on December 19 that Kim Jong Il had died. So that deal was happening just in the waning weeks of his life.

HU: His son, Kim Jong Un, takes over. The Americans and the North Koreans move ahead with the agreement anyway and announce it on February 29, 2012, Leap Day.

ANKIT PANDA: But then there's a problem.

HU: That's Ankit Panda. He is an Asia policy watcher and writer for the global affairs publication The Diplomat.

PANDA: Just two weeks after that deal is announced, the North Koreans say that they're going to launch a satellite. And the United States sees that as a violation of the missile-testing moratorium.

HU: The North Koreans say launching the satellite is for peaceful purposes. Van Jackson, who was at the Pentagon, says, no, it wasn't.

JACKSON: The United States made clear that space-launched vehicles, satellite-launched vehicles cannot be considered anything but a missile test.

HU: The new leader, Kim Jong Un, goes ahead with a satellite launch in April, effectively killing the deal.

JACKSON: It was really a test of how much the U.S. was willing to show good faith through leniency. Like, are you going to implement this agreement to the letter of the law? If so, I don't see where a bilateral relationship is going to remove our need for nuclear weapons. So that's the North Korean view.

HU: The U.S. view became that North Koreans negotiated in bad faith and lost their credibility.

JACKSON: This experience soured a lot of people.

HU: It is the last time the U.S. and North Korea struck a bilateral deal of any kind.

Ankit Panda.

PANDA: When we talk about an upcoming summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, I think there's the specter of something like that happening between the two sides again.

HU: All these voices say the Leap Day Deal's failures offer important lessons this time around.

PANDA: I'm really talking about trying to do the Leap Day Deal again but doing it right and doing it in a way that really sweats the technical details.

HU: Jean Lee.

LEE: You need to be on top of your game. And you need to make sure that everything you agreed to is watertight. Understanding how North Koreans operate and having more experience in dealing with them and being able to communicate with them is key, but we haven't had that.

HU: Jackson says it's not just the lack of seasoned Korean negotiators in the Trump administration that complicates matters, it's North Korea itself.

JACKSON: There are more opportunities for failure than there are for success. There's no reason to expect that he's going to continue to uphold and implement any deal that's reached.

HU: The U.S. and North Korea have yet to set a date for a potential summit. We don't know where it will happen or what each side will ask for. But there will be a prelude soon. Kim Jong Un is set to cross the inter-Korean border to meet with South Korea's president on April 27. That could help clarify what happens next. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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