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Trump And South Korea's President To Hold Talks At The White House

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in is visiting President Trump at the White House today. This was supposed to be a planning session for President Trump's big June summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. But after last week's threats by the North to pull out of that summit, today's talks might have a different emphasis.

Victor Cha was President George W. Bush's top adviser on North Korea. He served on the National Security Council, and he joins us this morning. Welcome back to the program.

VICTOR CHA: Thank you, David.

GREENE: So how important is this meeting today when it comes to keeping the big summit in June on track?

CHA: David, I think it's quite important. As you said, I think President Moon, the South Korean president, maybe a week ago had a different plan - really trying to help President Trump to think through what would be discussed with Kim Jong Un. I think since the announcement by North Korea last week of concerns about whether they would actually have this summit, now he's coming here just to save this meeting and ensure that it happens - so very different context, I think, than he thought he would be coming a couple of weeks ago.

GREENE: Well, take us into the room today as best you can. I mean, President Moon, you know, has been in a room recently with Kim Jong Un. Is this going to be about reassuring President Trump and telling him it's a good idea to go forward? Or what exactly is the conversation going to be like?

CHA: My guess is that the most important thing that the South Korean president could say to President Trump today is that last week's statements by North Korea show that there's a big gap in how the United States defines denuclearization and how North Korea defines denuclearization. And the only possible way to close that gap is for the two leaders to meet because it's not going to be closed by bureaucrats at lower levels. And this is the only way it could happen, so that is the most important reason for the two leaders to meet.

GREENE: Wow. So it's almost like a plea to President Trump that this is a desperate moment and the only way to get this done is if you're sitting there face-to-face. I could see President Trump thinking, like, maybe - you're not exactly convincing me here, President Moon.

CHA: Well, I think that that kind of argument might actually be appealing to the president because many of his advisers around him may be saying - look, the North Koreans aren't serious. They haven't been serious for 30 years. We have a 30-year failed negotiating record to show that. But for someone like President Trump, I think that just makes him believe that he's the only one that could get a deal. He's the only one that can do better than what people for 30 years before him tried to do. So it actually might be an appealing argument to him.

GREENE: And does President Moon know President Trump well enough that he might realize that he's sort of speaking President Trump's language in a way?

CHA: Well, I think that, you know, thanks to North Korea in 2017, when they did 20 ballistic missile tests and one hydrogen bomb test, with each of those incidents, the U.S. president and the South Korean president either met in person or talked on the phone. So thanks to North Korean belligerence in 2017, I think the two presidents have gotten to know each other pretty well.

GREENE: Well, you speak to what seems like an almost irresolvable difference here, that the United States is insisting that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons. The North says that is never going to happen. I mean, if both sides are moving toward these talks with those firm positions in place, is one side bluffing? And is it possible that the United States and President Trump are really being played by the North here?

CHA: Yeah - I mean, I think there's always that concern. And I think, you know, President Trump, in a sense, wasn't doing himself any favors by raising expectations every time the North, you know, promised to not test for the time being or promised to shut down the nuclear test site, as it looks like they will do this week.

But at the same time, you know, I think that, at the core, this is an issue where the question becomes - is North Korea and their nuclear program a problem that can be fundamentally and completely solved? Or is it a problem that has to be managed with diplomacy and subtlety so that we don't end up in a situation where we're talking about armed conflict? And that's the basic discussion I think these two leaders need to have and the president has to think about when he thinks about going to Singapore on June 12.

GREENE: How are you taking all this in personally? This is an issue you have been working on for a very long time and invested so much energy and attention. It's a six-decade-long standoff. I mean, do you see a real potential for a transformative moment here?

CHA: Well, I do think that there is truth to the argument that if we're ever going to get a deal with North Korea, the only person that you could talk to is the leader of the country since he's the only one that makes decisions in North Korea of any consequence. And for that discussion to happen, he has to meet with the top person in the United States. So as unconventional as this sounds, this may be the only way to actually break through the three decades of inability to make any sort of satisfactory deal. So it's worth giving it a shot.

GREENE: All right, Victor Cha - now senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Thanks as always.

CHA: OK. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.