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Skeptics Voice Doubt About North Korea's Nuclear Announcement


On the surface, the news from North Korea could hardly be better. Kim Jong Un's regime said it will halt ballistic missile testing and close a nuclear weapons test site. This comes amid planning for a summit with President Trump. Yet, some analysts voiced skepticism, and President Trump himself briefly acknowledged the news before switching to a stream of tweets attacking the news media on an unrelated topic. So what's going on here? Wendy Sherman is on the line, a former undersecretary of state under President Obama and a policy coordinator on North Korea for President Clinton. Welcome back to the program.

WENDY SHERMAN: Good to be with you, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: How significant is the North Korean announcement?

SHERMAN: Well, you know, it's fine news, but it's pretty much old news. Kim Jong Un hasn't been testing his missiles or his nuclear weapons. He can obviously start testing. And at any point, if he does indeed truly close down the test site that he's discussed, that would be a good thing. But you would want that test site to be destroyed. And quite frankly, it probably has already served all of the purpose it can serve because if you do too many tests in a mountain, the mountain starts to collapse. This one, we think, was starting to collapse. And the Chinese, which were not far from this particular test site, weren't very excited about radiation that might be coming into China. So I'm not sure he was announcing much of anything. But certainly, his not testing is a good thing.

INSKEEP: This sounds like you might be agreeing with the approach of the administration, which according to The Wall Street Journal, officials - who talked to The Wall Street Journal - they're indicating that they're not inclined to give North Korea a lot of sanctions relief for this announcement. What they want is denuclearization, something permanent and irreversible.

SHERMAN: Yes. I think they're right in that regard, though they need to understand that denuclearization for Kim Jong Un is not what I think President Trump means by denuclearization. That term comes from a 1992 North-South joint agreement that occurred after President George Bush, 41, removed U.S. nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. He thought if he did that, then perhaps North Korea would not go down the road of getting nuclear weapons. They did the following year sign this joint declaration and talk about denuclearization. But it meant the entire security architecture of Northeast Asia, not just whether North Korea would have nuclear weapons or not. And the president, I think, means really destroying and getting rid of all of the nuclear weapons and not having any delivery system to deliver a nuclear weapon.

INSKEEP: Let me make sure that I understand what the difference of that definition is. You're saying that the United States is thinking about North Korea giving up all nuclear weapons. But are the North Koreans thinking about something bigger, like the United States retreating from the region or whatever?

SHERMAN: Indeed. I think they're thinking about a North-South reunification. They, of course, would see it under their purview. They see the U.S. - even if we have troops there that we're not exercising, they do have some anxiety about China. They like to keep playing everybody off against each other. But at the end of the day, they want to make sure that any security architecture ensures that their regime will survive. And if they don't have nuclear weapons, they're pretty scared that they won't survive.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Sherman, while I have you, I want to ask you about Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who is President Trump's nominee to serve as secretary of state. He faces a committee vote today, which it looks like he'll lose. But there may still be a chance for him to go on to the full Senate and be barely confirmed, perhaps. Should Pompeo be confirmed even if you differ with him on some very key issues?

SHERMAN: Now, there's been a tradition, Steve, that presidents get to get the national security team that they want. But this is a little different situation. A year into the presidency - a lot of concern about where the president is heading, not clarity or transparency about what's going on. And certainly on the issue of great concern to the United States and to the Congress, what the administration will do to push back on Russia, they don't see Mr. Pompeo as really having led that charge. So they have a lot of concerns about this. And I think we'll wait to see what happens here.

We do need a State Department that's revived. I was glad to hear Mr. Pompeo say that would be a big priority because, quite frankly, Secretary Tillerson completely devalued diplomacy, degraded the State Department. And there are many positions that aren't filled, including the ambassador to South Korea.

INSKEEP: Just very briefly, do you see a way to fix the Iran nuclear deal, which Pompeo, like President Trump, is a critic of and which you negotiated?

SHERMAN: Well, I think that the message that President Macron will bring to President Trump this week...

INSKEEP: The French president, right.

SHERMAN: The French president, who very much supports the joint conference of plan of action, is that we'll work together on regional issues to push back Iran out of the Middle East. We'll worry with you and work to push back on ballistic missiles. But the deal is a deal, and we can't change the terms of that deal. It's important that Iran not have nuclear weapons. And so far, nobody's heard about what the Plan B is if the president leaves the deal.

INSKEEP: Former Ambassador Wendy Sherman, thanks very much.

SHERMAN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And by the way, Iran's foreign minister tweeted today there is no Plan B. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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