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Former U.S. Diplomat To North Korea Reacts To Cancellation Of Summit


For more on the cancellation of this Trump-Kim summit we're joined by Joseph DeTrani. He's a former State Department special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. Ambassador DeTrani, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


CORNISH: So what is your reaction to what happened today as somebody who has been in this position of trying to negotiate with North Korea? They're not exactly a reliable partner.

DETRANI: Well, this is very unfortunate. I think the president said it's a sad moment for all people.

CORNISH: But is it an unexpected one?

DETRANI: Well, it is unexpected. We went so far and so close. We're talking about a few weeks before an unprecedented summit, if you will, between the president - the first time a sitting president is meeting with the head of state in North Korea. So - and apparently Kim Jong Un knew what was on the table here. I mean, he had two meetings with our secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. He knew what the issues were.

He obviously agreed to comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement in return for a number of deliverables to include certainly security assurances and ultimately a normal relationship with the United States. This is what North Korea has been seeking. And Kim Jong Un was on the cusp of having that. Why he would walk away, permitting his vice foreign minister to come out with such a provocative statement, is really the question that has to be asked.

My personal view - I think those close to him told him, if we commit to comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement - they were getting nervous. I think they were telling Kim Jong Un, you have to work harder at getting the Americans to accept us as a nuclear weapon state, at least permitting us if not temporarily, maybe in the longer term retaining some nuclear weapons capabilities.

CORNISH: So it's this fear of really, truly having to denuclearize altogether. But I want to raise another issue, which is people kept bringing up this idea of the comments out of the Trump administration, this idea of bringing up Libya as a model for a country that already fears the United States and a regime that fears being toppled.

DETRANI: So those are fair points. But the president made it very clear this is the North Korean model. It's not the Libyan model. And North Korea is certainly not Libya. North Korea with nuclear weapons - the relationship is so different. I think North Korea understood that. I don't think that - I don't think that was a major concern. I think the major concern was they indeed need the security assurances that we have said we'll provide to them to include a peace treaty to end the Korean War and ultimately normal relations. I think those were the deliverables that Kim Jong Un in my personal view personally sought and felt he had. Therefore, he made a strategic decision. For some reason, at the last moment he was walking back that decision. And that's...

CORNISH: And you're talking about reports from the State Department, Mike Pompeo saying that communications had gone dark from North Korea? 'Cause right now the American people are hearing that President Trump is the one saying the summit is off.

DETRANI: Well, on the - I totally agree with that. I think what we're seeing here is a provocative statement from a vice foreign minister. Certainly Kim Jong Un approved of this statement, which is talking about the possibility of nuclear conflict with the United States - very, very, very nasty comments about the vice president. But indeed, as Secretary of State Pompeo said today, we've reached out and said we want preparatory talks in Singapore for this meeting coming up on the 12th of June, and they did not respond. Now, how could that be?

CORNISH: Now we hear the president saying that - in his letter, you know, that essentially if and when Kim Jong Un chooses to come back to the table, he's sort of put things in their court.

DETRANI: Things are in their court because those deliverables...

CORNISH: Is that wise? I mean, we're not really dealing - many times we hear State Department officials talking about, this is an unstable regime or an unstable leader.

DETRANI: I don't see this as being an unstable regime. I think Kim Jong Un is in control. I think he's proven that. I think he's a very rational actor. And I think he had made a strategic decision to work towards normalizing relations with the United States to help to improve the economy of North Korea, to do something he said he would do for the Korean people - 25 million of them - who are living in a - in literally desperate situation.

CORNISH: Just a few seconds left, but what would you like to see happen next? What are you going to be watching for?

DETRANI: I think we need the dialogue to continue. I mean, we need to look to resuming that momentum so that eventually we do get that summit between the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and Kim Jong Un. But I think a number of preparatory meetings will be necessary so there is clarity on what North Korea's intentions are. We know what our willingness to provide is.

CORNISH: That's Ambassador Joseph DeTrani. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DETRANI: Thank you so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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