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If The U.S.-North Korea Summit Holds, What's On The Table?


Some U.S. officials have crossed into North Korea, one of the steps in preparing for a possible presidential summit. This, after the United States spoke harshly of North Korea, North Korea responded, President Trump canceled the summit, North Korea's tone changed and so did the president's tone.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think there's a lot of goodwill. I think people want to see if we can get the meeting and get something done.

INSKEEP: Now, before all of this activity, one U.S. official called the possibility of a summit between President Trump and President Kim Jong Un of North Korea a coin toss. The same official now says it's better than a coin toss, although another official told many reporters it will be hard to be ready by June 12. Whatever happens, whenever it happens, the bigger question is what's really on the table. Suzanne DiMaggio is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who also helped to broker informal talks between the Trump administration and North Korea last year. She's on the line. Good morning.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Has all the maneuvering of the last couple of days, last several days, revealed anything to you about either side?

DIMAGGIO: Well, I think it's revealed more about our side than anyone. If you look at how President Trump went about this cancellation is he did it without any effort to notify or consult President Moon of South Korea and his government. And keep in mind that Seoul is one of our closest allies. So they felt blindsided.

INSKEEP: Well, you know, you're reminding me of a tweet by our Seoul correspondent Elise Hu who wrote the other day, if I am South Korea and Japan right now, I would be very concerned about the same lack of heads-up before, I don't know, say, a military option?

DIMAGGIO: That's absolutely right. And keep in mind that Moon already has some unease about President Trump. He has pushed this process of dialogue forward with such urgency, and I think in part it's due to concern that President Trump would move forward with a military strike against North Korea without consulting Seoul.

INSKEEP: And yet when the president canceled last week, Moon Jae-in moved almost immediately, instantly. There was a cabinet meeting in the middle of the night. And, of course, a sudden visit, North Korea - a sudden summit with North Korea's president. He didn't back off at all.

DIMAGGIO: Yes. He has a lot invested in the deal, as do the people on the Korean Peninsula. So he had to move quickly.

INSKEEP: But let me just ask you. Because let's say there is a meeting, whether it's June 12 or not. Who knows. But let's say there's a meeting. Suppose there is. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter the other day, stay focused. It's about the outcome. Which does raise a question. What, really, is the outcome here?

DIMAGGIO: Well, first of all, I read that tweet as a direct message to President Trump. It seemed like he had an audience of one.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I hadn't thought of it that way, but, OK.

DIMAGGIO: I think the direct outcome is can we ultimately get to an agreement with the North Koreans where denuclearization is that outcome? The process, the timing, the scope and pacing have yet to be finalized, but I think that's when we bring in the real diplomats and professionals to do that.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking of a conversation that we had with a U.S. official the other day, and we put the question to the U.S. official, in your communications with North Korea, U.S. communications with North Korea, have North Korean officials said they're willing to have this summit be about denuclearization? Have they directly said that? And the answer was, no, we just assume that they know what it is we want. Having had some dealings in this yourself in the past, do you believe the North Koreans, in their minds, really have denuclearization on the table?

DIMAGGIO: I think at the end of the day, they know that's what the end goal must be in order to move this process forward. And in my informal talks with them, they have always said denuclearization is conditioned on whether or not we drop our so-called hostile policies. So that includes getting to a peace treaty, normalizing relations, providing security insurances, dropping the sanctions. That's a process that's going to take some time. It could take years.

INSKEEP: But answer this critique that people will have. They will presume that Kim Jong Un is never going to give up his nuclear weapons because nuclear weapons are what make him somebody in the world and get him, I don't know, meetings with the president of the United States. He wouldn't be meeting with Donald Trump without nuclear weapons.

DIMAGGIO: True. And I don't think they would be coming to the table unless they felt confident that they could come as a nuclear power. That's definitely part of this. But I do think this is something that has to be tested. What is the other option? It's because it's going to be hard, we go to the table and say, look, let's drop this denuclearization bit and just get to de-escalation and finding a way to learn to live with you as a nuclear power. I don't think we're there yet. I think we need to pursue every opening.

INSKEEP: You don't think we're there yet, meaning you don't think that - are you saying that that's ultimately what this is going to be, is about just living with North Korea?

DIMAGGIO: It very well could be, but we don't know that yet. And I think we have to come to the table fully prepared to cajole, convince and persuade them that denuclearization is in their interest.

INSKEEP: Just about 30 seconds left here, Ms. DiMaggio, but I want to ask. China is off to the side here. Ultimately, perhaps, China's a bigger threat to the United States, a bigger rival to the United States, than North Korea would ever be. Is China gaining anything at all in this chaos?

DIMAGGIO: Well, there's no question that the relationship with North Korea has advanced, but we need China if we're going to make a deal with North Korea. After all, they're going to be the ones that are going to help provide the security assurances that Kim Jong Un is seeking.

INSKEEP: OK. Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow with the New America Foundation. Thanks very much.

DIMAGGIO: Pleasure to be with you, Steve. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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