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Former Diplomat Joel Wit On U.S.-North Korea Talks


Let's just say it right out front. We are paying lots of attention - arguably, too much attention - to the exact preliminary details of a possible summit meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea. But somewhere in those details lies the question of whether a meeting happens and, more important, whether it resolves a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The latest news is that one of North Korea's top officials is traveling to New York City. He's a longtime Korean intelligence official with past involvement in many violent acts, and now he's heading to the U.S.

Let's discuss this with Joel Wit. He's a former U.S. diplomat who's been involved in negotiations with North Korea over the years. He's now at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

Welcome back to the program, sir.

JOEL WIT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: So who is this official Kim Yong Chol?

WIT: Well, Kim Yong Chol, as you said, is a very important official in the North Korean government. He started out in the military police. And he was a bodyguard to Kim Jong Il, who is the current leader's father - or was his father - and moved up the ranks and, in 2009, essentially became head of the North Korean CIA and during his tenure, of course, has been responsible for violent acts against South Korea but has also had a long history of experience in private negotiations with South Koreans and Americans as well during the Obama administration.

INSKEEP: Oh, really? What sorts of things has he discussed with Americans in the past?

WIT: Well, as you may have heard recently from a lot of the press reports, there's been a secret intelligence channel between the United States and North Korea that dates back to the Obama administration. And so during the years of that administration, there were periodic contacts between senior CIA officials and Kim Yong Chol to see if it was possible to start denuclearization talks. And on top of that, in 2014, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, visited Pyongyang to get an American detainee out. And he met with Kim Yong Chol.

INSKEEP: So this helps to explain why it would have been that Mike Pompeo, then the CIA director, would ultimately have been the person who went to meet Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, to see what the next step was. And now this intelligence official is returning the favor, so to speak.

WIT: Oh, absolutely. You know, there hasn't been much in the way of diplomacy - open diplomacy between North Korea and the United States for some time. But there has been this secret intelligence channel, and I think that was key in getting this whole summit process off the ground.

INSKEEP: So we're trying to read a black box here, but do the best that you can. As you look at the moves by North Korea, do you think they are serious about getting rid of their nuclear weapons? Or if you're a North Korean intelligence official, are you just happy to be talking and to facilitate some talk?

WIT: Well, there are two points here. First of all, I think the visit of Kim Yong Chol to the United States is very significant. And the issue becomes - is he just going to stay in New York and meet with Secretary of State Pompeo? Or will he come to Washington and possibly meet with President Trump? And a meeting like that happened in 2000 between President Clinton and the No. 2 official in North Korea.

Secondly, there's a lot of momentum here. And of course, as you said, the key issue is denuclearization. And I suspect, at the end of the day, that there will be a compromise between immediate overnight denuclearization and North Korea's vision of denuclearization, which is, you know, a long-term objective.

INSKEEP: Although that's a long-term objective the North Koreans have signed on to before and it turned out they didn't really mean it. Do you think that they would credibly sign on to that as a long-term objective in a way that the United States could believe it?

WIT: Well, you know, I can't predict that. You're right. In the past, we've had these kinds of talks. We've had agreements that haven't worked. We had an agreement in 1994 that was well on its way to working before collapsing. So I think what the Americans are going to be looking for in these discussions with North Koreans are concrete signs that they're serious. And that's part of the explanation for why the United States wants the North Koreans to take steps very soon in the process that show they're serious, like shipping out one or two nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: And just in 10 or 15 seconds - Kim Yong Chol, in your view, it sounds like, is senior enough, important enough that it would make sense for him to come visit President Trump to take that extra step.

WIT: It would make sense. And what may be interesting is he may be carrying a letter from Kim Jong Un that, in part, addresses this denuclearization issue.

INSKEEP: Joel Wit, pleasure talking with you again. Thanks very much.

WIT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a North Korea expert and senior fellow with the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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