Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Negotiations Continue For Expected U.S.-North Korea Summit


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emerged from meetings in New York yesterday with a top North Korean official, sounding optimistic about the North's intentions.



MIKE POMPEO: I believe they are contemplating a path forward where they can make a strategic shift, one that their country has not been prepared to make before.

GREENE: OK. One thing Pompeo could not say, however, is whether yesterday's apparent progress means a Singapore summit with the United States is back on. The official that Pompeo met with, Kim Yong Chul, is bringing a letter to Washington today from North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. Joining us now to try and make sense of this week's swirl of negotiations is a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Alexander Vershbow served under President George W. Bush in South Korea. He was deputy secretary-general of NATO during the Obama administration.

Ambassador, welcome back to the program.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: Good to be here, David.

GREENE: I feel like we've been trying to read signals all week now. Are you getting a sense that this summit is going to happen?


VERSHBOW: Well, it certainly looks to me that President Trump and Secretary Pompeo really want the summit to happen. But I'm glad to hear the president acknowledging that it may not be as easy as he thought to get North Korea to make a genuine commitment to denuclearization. And he talked about how maybe we need more than one meeting. We may actually need to postpone this meeting if we want to have a successful summit. Pompeo is working hard. We've got the negotiators working in the DMZ on the details. But it's still not clear there's common ground on denuclearization.

GREENE: You said you're glad that the administration is treading very carefully here. And I know you were known for taking a pretty tough line on North Korea as President Bush's ambassador to South Korea, once calling the North Korean government a criminal regime. I mean, are you beginning to feel like they can be trusted more through this process?

VERSHBOW: Well, trusted is probably the wrong word. But I think there's a possibility that Kim Jong Un may be different from his father and his grandfather. He may be ready to make this strategic shift that Pompeo talked about. But it's not clear to me that he's made that shift yet. You know, they've invested a lot in terms of money and putting up with sanctions to develop a nuclear weapon capability. They now feel they're negotiating from a position of strength. And they may not want to trade this in all at once even with promises of a brighter future, meaning economic aid and a reduction of sanctions that they're hearing from the U.S.

And I think there were some warning signs coming out of the talks yesterday between Kim Jong Un and the Russian foreign minister when he talked about a stage-by-stage approach to denuclearization, which sounds like the same old half measures that we've heard from previous North Korean leaders and which has ended up in failure under the Bush and Obama administrations.

GREENE: So this hand-delivered letter from Kim Jong Un, could that be substantively important in any way? Or is that more of a diplomatic gesture?

VERSHBOW: No, I think it is important. And maybe the content of that letter will shed some more light on whether they're ready to do much more in terms of rapid denuclearization, verification - all the things that we need to be convinced that they're serious this time around. But I think that the real test is in these preliminary diplomatic contacts that are underway. I've been worried that they were going to go in unprepared. President Trump said he doesn't need to prepare for this meeting. Thankfully, he, at least indirectly, has acknowledged that preparation might be a useful precaution.

GREENE: China, obviously, the North's neighbor, major ally, a big player in whatever happens here in this relationship - the United States is now feuding with China over trade. Could that somehow impact this potential summit?

VERSHBOW: Well, certainly fighting a trade war on one front doesn't help secure lots of good cooperation from China on the North Korean issue. So the timing is not brilliant. But, you know, I think the Chinese do want this negotiation to succeed. I think they know that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a troublemaker for them and can get in the way of their relations with the United States as well as with Japan and South Korea. But I think they - you know, they don't want the U.S. to gain greater influence in North Korea than they have. So they're not going to be, you know, easy to deal with on this issue.

GREENE: All right, speaking this morning to former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow. He is joining us on Skype.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much.

VERSHBOW: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.