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Ahead Of The U.S.-North Korea Summit, Who's In The Driver's Seat?


The new U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, wasted no time after being confirmed by the Senate. He's already abroad in the Middle East. And he's got to plan a possible meeting between President Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. Now, here are a few things we know about that meeting. It came after President Trump threatened military action and put enormous pressure on North Korea. Some, including South Korea's president this morning, have suggested that Trump might deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. But North Korea has also long sought a face-to-face meeting with a U.S. president, so they might be getting exactly what they want. Suzanne DiMaggio is a senior fellow at the New America think tank. She also facilitated the Trump administration's first unofficial discussions with North Korea last year. And she joins us on the program this morning.

Thanks for coming back.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: Hi, David. Nice to hear you.

GREENE: Well, it's nice to hear you, too. So who is in the driver's seat here, the U.S. or North Korea?

DIMAGGIO: Well, I think for some time now the North Koreans have been in the driver's seat. We see Mr. Kim setting both the pace and the agenda for these talks - and, of course, the South Koreans as well led by Mr. Moon. So I think this is a moment that the Trump administration needs to play some catch-up. And with the summit coming up in the next several weeks, this is a chance to do it.

GREENE: That is certainly not the picture that President Trump is painting in the lead-up to this meeting. I mean, he's getting a lot of credit - not just for his supporters, but the leader of South Korea says that he might deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. I mean, what do you make of that?

DIMAGGIO: Well, President Moon of South Korea is a very shrewd politician, and he understands that he can get a lot out of Mr. Trump through flattery, as a lot of leaders have figured out. But the fact of the matter is that I think the sanctions and Mr. Trump's maximum-pressure policy has played a role. But I think what's played a greater role is the North Koreans' advancement in their nuclear missile program. What's important to them is, the way they see it, they're coming to the table AT equal footing with the U.S. because now they see themselves as a nuclear power. I think that's made all the difference.

GREENE: So is this the Trump administration deciding that the North has hit a moment in its nuclear program where it's become truly dangerous, and this meeting is sort of a last-ditch effort to try and get peace before things get even more dangerous?

DIMAGGIO: I think that's right. I mean, keep in mind, 2017 was a momentous year for Kim Jong Un. He tested a nuclear device that was many times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And then he launched some ICBMs - intercontinental ballistic missiles - that if YOU stretched out the trajectory for the first time ever, they could hit any city in the continental United States. So I think this is what turned maybe an issue we could've lived with into a crisis.

GREENE: So to avoid a crisis - or an even greater crisis, if you say that we're already at a crisis - what does President Trump and his administration - what do they need to do in the lead-up to a possible face to face?

DIMAGGIO: Well, in a lot of ways, they've already given up a big reward to Mr. Kim by having this summit without any deliverables in advance. But that being said, what the Trump administration has done - and I think they should get credit for - is that they have turned to diplomacy to solve this issue, which is a good thing. You know, keep in mind, just months ago, we seemed to be on the brink of a potential war with North Korea. So right now, I think the Trump administration really needs to get its ducks in a row and prepare for this meeting. Before we even get to the table, we should have a lot of things worked out.

GREENE: What ducks need to get into a row? I mean, we hear John Bolton, the national security adviser, saying that, you know, the meeting's not going to happen if the North doesn't agree to giving up its nuclear program at some point. Is that possible? And how does the United States make sure that that's on the table, going into this?

DIMAGGIO: Well, before Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim even get into the room together, one of the most urgent things is to clarify the definition of denuclearization.


DIMAGGIO: Traditionally, both...

GREENE: So there are different definitions of that.

DIMAGGIO: There are. So for the United States, it's complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. That's a pretty clear definition. For the North Koreans, it's changed over time. At one point, it was also to include the removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula - also, a break in our defense treaties with both Seoul and Tokyo. So we need to find out, how does North Korea view denuclearization today?

GREENE: And could the U.S. live with anything close to the definitions North Koreans go with?

DIMAGGIO: Well, that's what negotiations are all about. Clearly, what I mentioned as the definition for the U.S. could be an opening bid. There could be some sliding on that. But I think as any good negotiator, you go in with the maximalist position and see what you can get.

GREENE: You've sat down with North Korean negotiators. I mean, President Trump goes into this meeting. Maybe Kim Jong Un is going to agree to something, not agree. But can the North Koreans truly be trusted?

DIMAGGIO: Well, if you look at the past, I think there's been a lot of failures. And most people see it as failures on the part of the North Koreans. But on a closer read, actually, both sides have failed to live up to their agreements. One of the things that worries me is, we have this Iran deal now that the Trump administration looks like it's going to be breaking. I think that sends a terrible message just when we're about to begin this major negotiation with North Koreans that they can't rely - that the U.S. can't be trusted to fulfill a commitment that it's already made.

GREENE: Suzanne DiMaggio is a senior fellow with the think tank New America. We really appreciate you coming on the program. Thanks so much.

DIMAGGIO: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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