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Background And Context For A U.S.-North Korea Summit


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is coming back from North Korea for the second time in five weeks. This time, he is bringing back three American citizens who had been detained there. This relief - release paves the way for an upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. President Trump tweeted about the hostage release this morning, adding date and place set, referring to the summit, although no more details were announced to us. To talk about this moment, we're joined by Jean Lee. She was a veteran foreign journalist, foreign correspondent based in Pyongyang for some time for the Associated Press. She's now at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Welcome back to the program, Jean.

JEAN LEE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So we should say as this summit now seems to be locked in that this is something North Korea has been pushing for for some time, a sit down with an American president, right?

LEE: Indeed. This sitting down with a U.S. president is something that the two previous leaders of North Korea, Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, wanted but passed away not having achieved. Remember, this is a small country. And for North Koreans, the idea that their leader would be able to sit down with the president of one of the world's most powerful countries sends a huge message back to the people.

GREENE: So who has the leverage going into this summit?

LEE: You know, first and foremost, it is great news to the families of these three Americans that they're being released and that they're on their way home. But I am very cautious because to have negotiated this release just before this summit is risky because it is some - it gives Kim Jong Un the opportunity to go into these talks saying look how magnanimous I am. I have offered you this gesture of goodwill, and what are you going to give me in return? So it's absolutely essential that these Americans were released before the American president sits down with the leader of North Korea. That goes without saying. And it's good news. However, there's a risk here in underlining the benefit of allowing Americans to be used as pawns in diplomacy.

GREENE: I was going to say, you're making it sound like this was all sort of part of the plan for North Korea, that they were using these Americans as pawns.

LEE: We should remember that North Korea has been doing this for a long time. There is a long pattern of Americans being detained in North Korea, sometimes without charge - and in the case of two of these Americans, they have not been charged - and being lured - using them as a lure to bring high-level officials to North Korea. And those visits by high-level officials or former presidents is then paraded in North Korean propaganda. And so, you know, as an American who travels there quite regularly, it makes me nervous that we're perhaps underlining to the North Koreans that this tactic works.

GREENE: So if this is Kim Jong Un saying that he is doing something and now it's time for you to do something, President Trump, what is the big ask that North Korea will make if this summit carries on as forward - as we expect?

LEE: Well, the big ask that the North Koreans want is a resolution to the Korean War, a peace treaty. Again, like sitting down with an American president, that is something that his father and his grandfather passed away not having accomplished. And Kim Jong Un wants to have that under his belt. And it's huge. This war has been - has not been settled. The cease-fire was signed 65 years ago this year. And so that is going to be something that he wants to have under his belt.

GREENE: And is that something that President Trump, he would be the one to say, OK, let's agree to that? Would that happen at this summit?

LEE: I think what they could do is issue a declaration saying that they will work toward a peace treaty, but it's a very complicated process to negotiate a peace treaty. So I don't think - I think at most we'll probably see them declare that that's - that's what they're going to work toward. And remember that this peace treaty would have to be signed by the United States. The cease-fire, the armistice, was signed by the United States on behalf of the United Nations on one side and North Korea and China on the other. So this is a discussion that the United States would have to have with North Korea - or I should say North Korea should have to have with the United States.

GREENE: I just want to ask you. We were talking a few minutes ago before we came into the studio that - you were having some personal reflections seeing three Americans released by this government. Why is that?

LEE: It's a huge relief to have the Americans out. However, you know, I left North Korea on my last trip a year ago. And it is always very worrisome and terrifying when you're an American in North Korea knowing that you could be seized under any pretext and accused of espionage or accused of anti-state crimes. That - the penal code in North Korea is extremely broad for those particular articles. And so every time I was there, I was very worried about whether I would be detained and accused of trumped-up charges. As I was leaving North Korea a year ago, I was concerned. And I wrote - in several of these cases recently, Americans have been pulled out of the immigration line or even pulled off the plane. So I was not relieved until the plane actually took off. I was just holding onto this - the handles of my seat and telling my fellow passengers, I'm not getting off this plane. Don't let them take me off.


LEE: And when I landed in Beijing. I got the news that another fellow American had been detained. And so I just thought, you know, it's - I just want to explain how terrifying it can be to be an American citizen and to be a potential pawn for the North Koreans in this game of diplomacy.

GREENE: All right. Steve, I think we're going to hear much more about these three detainees. Jean Lee was the Pyongyang bureau chief for The Associated Press. She's now at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thanks a lot.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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