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Trump And North Korea


Since taking office, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have engaged in their fair share of brinkmanship. The U.S. president called the North Korean leader little rocket man. And Kim referred to Trump as a mentally deranged dotard. The two have also threatened to destroy each other. What a difference a few months make. This week, President Trump said the two sides could sit down and talk in May. Joining us now to talk about this potentially historic meeting is Daniel Russell, a former diplomat who negotiated with the North Koreans for President Obama. Good morning, sir.

DANIEL RUSSELL: Good morning, Don.

GONYEA: So President Trump has had a pretty unorthodox approach to diplomacy. Still, the world was shocked when he announced he would meet with the North Korean leader. Should we be celebrating, or what?

RUSSELL: Well I'd keep the champagne corked for the moment, but let's put it in the refrigerator. Everybody hopes that a summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un might produce a breakthrough that could lead to negotiations and ultimately culminate in denuclearization. But I think it's an extreme long shot. We haven't even heard from the North Koreans themselves. We're getting this second hand from the South Koreans. And even if you accept at face value that Kim Jong Un has used the word denuclearization, he's made it very clear in his own words, including the famous big button speech on New Year's Day, that he has absolutely no intention of denuclearizing. He may be willing to de-escalate in exchange for major concessions, though.

GONYEA: Yeah. The Trump administration, along with some members of Congress, say they hope to achieve that total denuclearization of the North Korean - of the Korean peninsula. But the U.S., of course, still maintains a huge military presence on the peninsula. And I guess to state the obvious, the U.S. has an awful lot of nukes of its own. Is it reasonable to expect the North Koreans to give up their weapons, which they say are there to protect themselves?

RUSSELL: Well, North Korea can use the deterrent of the artillery and the rockets it has near Seoul, South Korea, capable of destroying that metropolis and killing hundreds of thousands of South Koreans and Americans. So the notion that North Korea actually needs intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads to defend or protect itself is not very credible. The United States has been in the business of preventing war on the Korean peninsula for over six decades, and that should remain our top priority.

GONYEA: And if they don't agree to a denuclearization, are there some acceptable alternatives that might come up?

RUSSELL: Well, the challenge I think the Trump administration faces by beginning the process with a leader-level summit, which is the absolute apex of diplomacy - it's sort of the biggest tool in the tool kit - is that if that doesn't work, what will? So there's - you know, there's an element of risk. And there's perhaps an element of ready, fire, aim to the willingness of the administration to start with a summit. But the bigger issue - or if you take a step back, what you see is that the overall strategy of sustaining pressure and removing alternatives from Kim Jong Un's list of options is the one path that might compel North Korea to begin the process of rolling back and ultimately relinquishing its nuclear weapons.

GONYEA: Just one last thing. You've sat down with the North Koreans. How do these things usually go?

RUSSELL: The North Koreans are very, very tough bargainers. They're tough negotiators. It is a long haggle. There's very little likelihood that one meeting is going to lead to a breakthrough. The closest analogy in terms of summits is probably Jimmy Carter's trip to meet with Kim Il Sung. But that that began a long, arduous process of negotiation. And I think that the Trump administration will find that the cost of what North Korea is demanding - the difficulty in trying to move North Korea, now that it actually has nuclear weapons, has gone way up.

GONYEA: All right. We're going to have to end it there. That's Daniel Russell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and a senior fellow at the Asia Society. Thanks for joining us.

RUSSELL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.