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U.S.-North Korean Officials Meet, State Department Says


The June summit between the U.S. and North Korea - the one President Trump canceled last week - may actually be back on. The U.S. State Department says a group of American officials traveled to the Korean Demilitarized Zone yesterday to prepare for the possible meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. This was supposed to happen in Singapore. When President Trump called off this summit last week, he blamed, quote, "tremendous anger and open hostility" from the North Koreans. But by Friday, the president had struck a different 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.

MARTIN: So is this going to happen? And what's the larger effect of the toing and froing on U.S. foreign policy? We're joined by NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley now. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Was canceling this summit a negotiating tactic on the part of the president?

HORSLEY: It might've been. You know, the strategy here can be summed up in the phrase we hear so often from the president - we'll see what happens (laughter).

MARTIN: Right.

HORSLEY: It's less an overarching blueprint than a flexible approach to react to events as they come along. One thing that Donald Trump did say in his book on negotiation, "The Art Of The Deal," is you don't ever want to seem too desperate to make a deal. And perhaps he did seem that way, running up to last week when, you know, his supporters were chanting about the Nobel Peace Prize. And the military office at the White House was commissioning these commemorative coins.

So in canceling the summit last - late last week, you know, the president may have sort of recalibrated - made it clear, once again, that Kim Jong Un needs this meeting at least as much as he does. But in that very personal letter he wrote to Kim late last week, the president left the door open for negotiations. And here we are. It now - the summit is looking more and more as if it's back on track.

MARTIN: Yeah, so we'll see. There have been, though, several instances, as of late, where we've seen President Trump either reverse established U.S. policy or even contradicting his own foreign policy pronouncements - the Iran nuclear deal, the whole back and forth on trade and tariffs, the issue with ZTE, this Chinese telecom company. Is there a pattern linking all these issues?

HORSLEY: I think one pattern is that, first, the president comes out with a big America First-style gesture. But then he backs up a little bit and shows a willingness to negotiate. With the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and before that, the withdraw from the Paris climate accord, you know, the president was happy to scrap two of the big accomplishments of the Obama administration but then said he'd be willing to reengage with the international community if he could come up with better terms. Similarly, with some of his trade gestures, the steep tariffs he ordered on steel and aluminum imports - in many cases, he's put those tariffs on hold as he tries to negotiate broader trade deals with our partners.

So far on the Iran deal and the climate accord, the international community has shown little interest in reopening talks. They're moving ahead without the United States. On trade, I think the jury's still out. And with regard to ZTE, that just shows how complicated some of this can be. On the one hand, you have the administration wanting to punish a Chinese company for bad behavior. But you also need China's help in dealing with North Korea.

MARTIN: I mean, it's one thing when the executive makes a decision, right? Like, the head of state will issue a proclamation or whatever. That's all fine and good. But it's actually the staff that has to implement that. So when we think about all of these decisions that President Trump has made and then scaled back and remade again, what does that mean for people of the State Department, the Defense Department, the rest of his cabinet?

HORSLEY: Yeah, Secretary of Defense Mattis was certainly welcoming the renewal of negotiations with North Korea late last week. He said on Friday it's good news when the diplomats are in charge. Of course, the Pentagon had been put on alert when the summit was scrapped in case there was some military action by Pyongyang. And Secretary Mattis, as clear-eyed as anyone, is just - how destructive an actual shooting conflict on the Korean peninsula would be.

Secretary of State Pompeo is generally seen as more of a hardliner. But when it comes to North Korea, he has been a leading player in the diplomatic opening. Pompeo has twice traveled to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong Un, assess just how sincere the North Korean leader is about denuclearizing. And, of course, that second visit was accompanied by the release of three American prisoners, which was widely seen as a goodwill gesture.

MARTIN: I mean, we've heard President Trump supporters say America First doesn't mean America alone. But what have been the effect of these decisions on America's alliances?

HORSLEY: Well, I think it's been challenging. You know, South Korea and Japan were reportedly caught off guard when Trump canceled the summit last week. They will certainly be watching very closely, if the summit does happen, to make sure their equities aren't sold out to table. Trump said during the campaign he thinks being unpredictable is an advantage. Of course, unpredictability has also been a characteristic of Kim Jong Un. So if this summit happens (laughter), the game theorists will have their hands full, trying to predict the outcome.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley for us this morning. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.