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Expert North Korea Adviser Gives His Take On The U.S.-North Korea Summit


We turn now to Victor Cha. He was the National Security Council director for Asia during the George W. Bush administration. He's now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University. Victor Cha, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

VICTOR CHA: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So President Trump, one of the more memorable lines from his press conference afterward - he said, sometimes you have to walk. And I wonder, when you heard that, what went through your mind.

CHA: Well, the first thing was that that was not the outcome that he was building all the expectations up to be for this summit. Everybody knew that this particular meeting had to have real tangible steps towards denuclearization since the Singapore summit last July was focused largely on statements and no actions that followed it over the next seven to eight months. So the absence of an outcome and Trump's characterization of walking out was clearly not the outcome that was expected. And the question is - you know, why did this happen when the president was so eager to have a meeting with the North Korean leader to actually speed up the process?

KELLY: Well, let's dig into the why did this happen - because there are conflicting accounts starting to emerge from Hanoi. The U.S. came out and said these negotiations broke down because North Korea demanded that all sanctions be lifted in return for only some denuclearization. North Korea has now come out and briefed and said no, we only asked for a partial lifting of sanctions. I mean, my question is - how did we not know what the North Korean position was walking into these talks? This was supposed to be the summit where more groundwork had been done in advance.

CHA: That's a great question. And clearly, not enough groundwork was done in advance. I think the fact that President Trump is so open to almost any policy position if it moves the whole process forward causes the North Koreans to try to move all the negotiations directly up to the level of the president because, at the working level, they feel like they have a more tougher U.S. position. And the stakes are very high because when leaders can't agree, you don't have much diplomatic rope left after that.

KELLY: So let's just lay out the balance sheet - wins, losses for each side. The U.S. walks away from the summit with what? Did the U.S. get anything out of this?

CHA: No, not really. You know, he walked away from it completely empty-handed with a process that the summit was supposed to save and now has put it at least two steps backwards.

KELLY: He says he did secure a commitment to continue the no new testing, no nuclear testing, no missile tests.

CHA: Yes. I know he's really trumpeted that as being a big victory. But our own research on this shows that whenever the United States is talking to the North Koreans, they generally do not do missile or nuclear tests. And that's been the record for the past 25 to 30 years. So he can claim it as a success of his policy, but it's actually just an empirical fact.

KELLY: What about on the North Korean side - what do they walk away from this summit with?

CHA: So I think they're also in a bit of a bind. I mean, I think the North Korean leader also went out on a limb to do another meeting with the president in Hanoi, in Vietnam - on a train for 56 hours or whatever the number was. And it's not clear that they know where they're going to go after this either. If they resume testing, we're going to go back to a very difficult confrontation between the two sides.

KELLY: So where do you think things go from here - we're two summits in between these two leaders - third summit? Or is the best possible outcome at this point that U.S.-North Korean diplomacy drops off the front pages for a while and lower-level negotiations try to inch things forward?

CHA: Well, I think we'll certainly see lower-level negotiations. I don't think we'll see a third summit for quite some time. I think the president probably feels like he was burned by it, and he was always the one who was most enthusiastic about doing this. He was always pushing that process forward. So in terms of where we go from here, there are a few things we have to watch.

The first is whether the United States is going to resume military exercising with the ally South Korea, something that President Trump had suspended after the Singapore summit. Is North Korea going to continue to produce a mass weapons material, which they had been doing since the Singapore summit through Hanoi? And then the question is, you know, whether the United States is going to do anything on sanctions-lifting after this summit, or are they going to increase the sanctioning? There will be voices for increasing sanctions against North Korea.

So you know, we have to watch these things because they will take what is a precarious situation and either put it into a tailspin or leave it sort of at this unsteady status quo for the time being, until the working level can put it on more stable ground.

KELLY: Victor Cha - he was National Security Council director for Asia during the George W. Bush administration. Thanks very much.

CHA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.