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North And South Korean Leaders Set To Meet For Third Time This Year

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The leaders of North and South Korea will begin three days of meetings tomorrow in Pyongyang. It will be their third summit this year and comes as there are preparations for a potential second meeting between Kim Jong Un and President Trump. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Seoul.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Since President Trump held his historic Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, U.S.-North Korea relations seem to be following the storyline arc of a typical Korean soap opera - elated vows for a denuclearized North Korea followed by hints of betrayal in the form of a U.N. report showing the North was further developing its nuclear weapons program and then Kim's assurance that he'd scrap his nukes before the end of Trump's first term in office.

YONG-HYUN KIM: (Through interpreter) Nothing much has been accomplished.

SCHMITZ: Dongguk University political science professor Yong-hyun Kim says after a summer of drama between the U.S. and North Korea, the best hopes for this week's summit will be to put denuclearization back on track.

KIM Y.: (Through interpreter) It's a situation where both the U.S. and North Korea are fighting over who is going to take the lead. It's time for these leaders to make bold decisions and make the second summit a possibility.

SCHMITZ: That's the same language South Korean President Moon Jae-in is using heading into his third summit with Kim. Chung-in Moon, a special adviser to the president and no relation to him, says Moon's strategy will be to get both the U.S. and the North to agree to a more incremental approach to negotiations.

CHUNG-IN MOON: There have got to be some big, tangible moves from both side. Chairman Kim Jong Un could come up with a front-loading, getting rid of, you know, 10, 20 nuclear bombs. That is a kind of big deal.

SCHMITZ: And in return, says Moon, the U.S. could help gradually ease some of the crippling economic sanctions the U.N. has placed on North Korea. This step-by-step approach, says Moon, is a more realistic alternative to President Trump's blanket demands that the North scraps its nuclear weapons program and opens itself to inspections and verification before any sanctions are lifted.

MOON: But if you follow the sequential steps of freezing, declaration, inspection, verification and dismantling, it could take years and years.

SCHMITZ: And the longer this takes, says Moon, the more chances there are for setbacks. But Yonsei University professor Matthias Maass thinks the North has spent too much effort developing nuclear weapons to now turn around and scrap it all.

MATTHIAS MAASS: So I don't see really a scenario where Kim Jong Un would now say, well, never mind, we give it up.

SCHMITZ: But that doesn't mean Moon Jae-in shouldn't try, says Maass. There are ways to limit the damage Kim can do with his new weapons if the U.S. and South Korea negotiate patiently. But on the streets of Seoul, patience can sometimes be in short supply...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: ...Especially on Saturdays when political rallies routinely engulf downtown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: On one end of town, a parade of seniors carrying a giant American flag are interrupted by a man who runs into the middle of the street, raising both his middle fingers at the American symbol. Police shove him out of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Korean).

SCHMITZ: On the other end, college-age protesters chant, withdraw the U.S. from Korea, and let us unify on our terms. On a side street away from the rallies, 36-year-old engineer Kim Sun-woo says he doesn't trust North Korea or the U.S.

KIM SUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) If the U.S. wants to improve its relations with the North, they should give some concessions whenever the North does the same.

SCHMITZ: And as the two Koreas prepare for their summit in Pyongyang, if one side starts to lose trust in the other, says Kim, there will be no change. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.