Washington Wednesday: The North Korea summit

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 13th of June, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington, and today is Washington Wednesday.

Tuesday morning in Singapore President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un shook hands atop a staircase at an island resort.

AUDIO: Handshake sound

Trump and Kim then met privately for 45 minutes—just the two leaders and their translators. When they emerged from the meeting room, Kim Jong Un told reporters:

KIM: We had a historic meeting and decided to leave the past behind. And we are about to sign a historic document. The world will see a major change. 

That historic document was a joint statement the two leaders signed, in which Kim promised to work toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula in return for security guarantees by the U.S. 

TRUMP: The letter that we’re signing is very comprehensive, and I think both sides are going to be very impressed with the result. A lot of goodwill went into this, a lot of work. 

That statement may have been largely symbolic. It does not detail the exact steps North Korea will take to get rid of its nukes or how the U.S. will be verify the regime’s claims.

Nevertheless, the president said he’s confident that Kim is sincere, and that the denuclearization process will begin quickly. 

TRUMP: We’re very proud of what took place today. I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation from what happened in the past.  We both want to do something. We both are going to do something. And we have developed a very special bond. 

The precise details of how and when sanctions against North Korea would be lifted may not be known for many weeks to come but President Trump is already making what some see as a sizeable concession. He announced the U.S. will halt joint “war game” exercises with South Korea, something North Korea has complained about for years. The president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: 

TRUMP: I said I want to stop that, and I will stop that. And I think it’s very provocate, especially George, since we’re getting along. 

Tuesday’s summit in Singapore was the first time a sitting U.S. president has met with a leader of North Korea. And their face-to-face meeting might not be the only first we see. When a reporter asked if he intends to invite Kim to the White House, the president responded:

TRUMP: Absolutely I will. 

And North Korean state media now reports that Kim has accepted an invitation to visit the U.S.

Joining us now to discuss the historic meeting is Dan Blumenthal. He is Director of Asian Studies and Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Dan, first question here: What, in your view, did the Trump administration accomplish yesterday in Singapore?

DAN BLUMENTHAL, GUEST: Unfortunately, they did not accomplish very much that we know about. The president and the secretary of state did say they were going to move to denuclearization quickly, so perhaps in private they agreed to more than what they’re letting on in public.

Dan, if we look at the risk and reward here, the potential reward, even if it’s a long shot, is to neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat peacefully. Is there a risk in holding these talks?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, I think the maximum pressure campaign was working and worked, including the military threats and the military coercion. I think it scared Kim to the table. I think we’re in danger now of halting that process and the incentive for Kim to come to the table and give up his nuclear weapons has a danger of lessening.

And that calls to mind, I suppose, the Iran nuclear deal, which was something I was going to ask you about. How will these talks be different than what we saw with the Iran negotiations?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, we haven’t agreed to anything yet. There’s no deal. The only thing we said we would do is suspend military exercises. But there’s no deal, there’s no sanctions relief, there’s nothing like what we gave to Iran in terms of the transfer of money and going around the world and saying please help Iran with its economy. So, there’s no deal yet. I wouldn’t put it in the category of Iran, but it’s certainly, and I think this would appeal to the president as well, it certainly has to be much stronger than the Iran deal considering he rightfully pulled out of that deal.

Okay. Now, many critics are noting that this meeting legitimizes Kim. The president has complimented Kim and is rolling out the red carpet for him in many ways. Critics say that’s too much, too soon.

But if we think in terms of a carrot and stick, the stick is obviously the sanctions and threat of military force. That has been effective. But the carrot, in addition to rolling back sanctions, may be that Kim gets a taste of traveling the world and being treated as a legitimized world leader and likes it. President Trump it seems, is coming at this like a salesman, dangling the carrot. And if he is trying to entice Kim to make changes, might that actually be helpful?

BLUMENTHAL: It could be. I think that’s a theory of the case on the Trump administration’s side. On the other hand, he looked awfully nervous and extremely paranoid in Singapore and didn’t want to stay very long. Brought his own toilet, brought his own food, had his bodyguards even wipe down the pen that signed the communique. So, I think the idea of traveling the world has its limits, and he physically can’t unless the Chinese shuttled him around. So, I think it has its limits and being away from North Korea for too long in terms of the internal palace intrigue, if you will, could be very dangerous for him.

Now, President Trump has said he believes that Kim is sincere, that he really wants to denuclearize and he’s ready to get started on that. There’s always the possibility that President Trump is saying certain things publically and maybe he’s not quite as certain of that privately. But what signs or what signals, if any, have we seen from Kim to indicate whether or not he’s sincere?

BLUMENTHAL: We haven’t seen any signs that he’s sincere publically. So, again we can get extremely self-referential on these issues and look at what the Western press says. We have to look incredibly carefully at what he’s saying in Korea to the North Koreans. Because in order for him to say, “I’m giving up all my nuclear weapons,” he has to explain to his people why all the sudden he’s changing course and he believes that he’s safe enough to do so. So that’s where we need to be looking.

Yeah, that is interesting because he has been obviously very bellicose, bragging about nuclear powers and weapons in North Korea, so that would seem an awfully abrupt flip for him to immediately give all of that up.

BLUMENTHAL: Well, that’s right, and he’d also have to tell all the people that he’s enslaved and starved and so forth that it was worth the struggle, because they’re going to see a brighter future. But he’s not doing that. The North Korean propaganda organs over the last few days certainly did mention the summit and was not bellicose, but it hasn’t said anything to the extent that peace is at hand or reform and opening up will lead to a better life for you, my people. So that’s what we have to be looking at and monitoring exceptionally carefully.

What else? Is there anything we should be watching for that will tell us whether these talks are accomplishing real change?

BLUMENTHAL: Yes, I mean, it’s binary in a sense. Once we put together teams that can dismantle and verify that dismantlement and we send them into North Korea, we’ll know whether he’s voluntarily giving up his nuclear weapons or whether he’s looking to stall, looking to provoke, looking to put all of this off in the hopes of sanctions relief.

What happens next, Dan? What happens from here?

BLUMENTHAL: What happens from here is President Trump and Secretary [Mike] Pompeo and National Security Adviser [John] Bolton begin to put together teams that are ready to dismantle his nuclear weapons, come up with a timetable to do so, and start to execute. And if that doesn’t happen, then we’ll know that the summit didn’t get us very much.

And what if it doesn’t get us very much, what happens next?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, unfortunately, that brings us a little closer to conflict because President Trump as we know can change his mind exceptionally quickly if he feels like Kim played him. If Kim’s not serious, then we’ll move back into military coercion and bellicose rhetoric and all the rest of it we had last year.

Okay. How are America’s allies, especially in the region, how are they responding to this? How do they feel about this summit?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, the president of South Korea, I think, is probably very happy. In many ways, he’s been driving the train. This is what he wanted. He wanted a summit, and he wanted an end to the maximum pressure campaign. On the other hand, Prime Minister Abe of Japan is probably exceedingly nervous about where we go from here, and they live right there. They’re threatened by North Korea quite directly. So, he’s going to be looking for a lot of assurances by the U.S. government that we are going to help protect Japan.

Alright. Dan Blumenthal, thank you for your time and your insights. We appreciate it.

BLUMENTHAL: Very happy to do so. Thank you.

(Minoru Iwasaki/Kyodo News via AP) People walk past the display of local newspaper reporting the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, at a subway station in Pyongyang, North Korea Wednesday, June 13, 2018. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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