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Trump To Meet With North Korea's Leader Later This Month


In his State of the Union speech this week, President Trump announced a second North Korea summit.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one. Chairman Kim and I will meet again on February 27th and 28th in Vietnam.

GREENE: All right. The date, the place all set of - these two leaders, of course, met for the first time last summer in Singapore. That's where they signed a broad statement that called for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. So what has happened since then, and what could come next out of this meeting in Vietnam? To talk about that, we're turning to Joel Wit. He's a former State Department official who led the first American nuclear inspection in North Korea in 1999. He's in our studios in Washington. Welcome back.

JOEL WIT: Good morning.

GREENE: So I want to turn back to the first summit before we talk about the second. Has anything of substance happened since Singapore?

WIT: Well, you're right. It's sort of like watching grass grow. Not a lot has happened. The two sides have been dancing around each other. There have been some discussions. And I think over the past few months, there actually has been some forward movement, but it's been very quiet and not visible to the public.

GREENE: I mean, if your goal is to have a grass-covered lawn, even if it grows slowly, it's like you can eventually get there. Is there any argument that even some of the dancing has slowly led to something?

WIT: Well, I think there is an argument that indicates that. I've been involved in these negotiations in the past, and it's a very slow process. And so unless you're a trained observer to pick out the signs of what's happening, it appears nothing's happening.

GREENE: What are - you're a trained observer. What are some of the signs you've been picking up?

WIT: Well, for example, last week, the U.S. special representative gave a speech at Stanford that laid out some of the progress that has been made. And one of the significant things that's happened is that evidently, North Korea has agreed to dismantle all of its facilities to produce fissile material that's used to build nuclear bombs. That's something that hadn't been disclosed before.

GREENE: That sounds significant. To what extent can you trust the North Koreans when they pledge something like that?

WIT: Well, of course, that's just the first step. Then you need to sit down and negotiate a detailed agreement. You need measures to verify that they're actually living up to their word. And that's why I said this is like watching grass grow - because it's a slow process.

GREENE: So is this a good moment for another highly publicized summit? Like, I wonder as these talks are going on, you have a U.S. special representative who's trying to get concessions out of the North Koreans. Like, does a publicized summit between the two leaders help or hurt the diplomats who are doing the gritty work?

WIT: Well, you're right. On the one hand, unless there's a good outcome from the summit, a substantial outcome from the summit, it could detract from the process. On the other hand, having President Trump meeting Kim Jong Un to talk about where things stand and where they want to go is a good thing because at least from the North Korean side, it will provide more political momentum to the process moving forward.

GREENE: So as the process moves forward - I mean, if we hear some sort of headline from this summit in Vietnam that President Trump has gotten North Korea to agree to something, is the Trump administration able to confirm that Kim Jong Un is actually following through on what he promises?

WIT: Well, of course, that depends on the subsequent negotiations. But you know, I feel that the Trump administration - and particularly, the people who are working on this issue day after day - really do know what they're doing. And so I have a certain level of confidence in them that they know how to follow through on summit agreements and how to make them work.

GREENE: One thing the president said in the State of the Union - my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one. What does that mean to you as you watch these two leaders and how they've been acting since Singapore?

WIT: Well, of course, I think any relationship between an American president and a North Korean dictator has its limitations, but...

GREENE: Sure - to say the least.

WIT: To say the least. But certainly, his relationship with Kim is better than the first year in office when we were all afraid there was going to be a nuclear war. And I would say his relationship is certainly much better than President Obama's relationship with North Korea because he didn't really have a relationship.

GREENE: All right. Joel Wit is a former State Department official. He has been involved in negotiations with North Korea and actually did the first American nuclear inspection in North Korea in 1999 - talking to us about this latest summit coming up in Vietnam. Thanks so much for coming in.

WIT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.