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Trump To Meet North Korea's Leader At Summit In Vietnam

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Listen to President Trump as he prepares for a summit with North Korea's leader this week, and you can hear a different approach. The last time he met Kim Jong Un, the U.S. set ambitious goals. And the president left that summit claiming without evidence that they had been met. This time, President Trump speaks of more modest expectations, nudging North Korea toward giving up nuclear weapons. Here's NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: President Trump says he wants North Korea to give up its nuclear program, but he says it doesn't have to happen fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think a lot can come from it, at least I hope so - the denuclearization, ultimately. I'm in no particular rush.

RASCOE: That was Trump at a White House event last week. Gone are the days when the administration floated aggressive timetables for dismantling the regime's nuclear capabilities. Last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even talked about a goal of denuclearization by the end of Trump's first term. But Trump put that talk to bed. He told reporters he wasn't going to be pressured into setting a hard deadline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We're not playing the time game. If it takes two years, three years or five months, it doesn't matter. There's no nuclear testing, and there's no testing of rockets.

RASCOE: Trump has stuck with that mantra ahead of this week's meeting with Kim Jong Un. Despite that, administration officials insist the president has told negotiators to push for concrete action from North Korea. Jessica Lee is senior director of the Council of Korean Americans. She says there may be some benefit to lowering expectations.

JESSICA LEE: Both the United States and North Korea have to be a little bit less ambitious and more realistic when it comes to outcomes knowing that the eventual goal of eliminating nuclear weapons in North Korea is going to be something that takes years, if not decades.

RASCOE: Lee says establishing a dialogue is critical after years of virtually no real diplomatic ties between the U.S. and North Korea.

LEE: It's absolutely prudent to develop channels of communication and to talk rather than pursue other means of resolving our differences.

RASCOE: In other words, talking is better than military conflict. Fred Fleitz is the former chief of staff for National Security Adviser John Bolton. He says part of Trump's decision to not focus on speed, at least publicly, may be about building trust.

FRED FLEITZ: He's not trying to treat North Korea or Kim as an enemy and see if he can find a way to promote cooperation to get the negotiations moving.

RASCOE: But Trump has also been sensitive about criticism of progress with North Korea. That might be one of the reasons why he hasn't set any firm deadlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: A lot of the media would like to say, oh, well, you know, what's going on; speed, speed, speed - in no rush whatsoever.

RASCOE: By not setting deadlines, he doesn't have to worry about backlash if he misses them. Still, is there a danger to talks going on too long? While talks hold off an immediate threat of war, they also allow North Korea to continue to develop its arsenal. Frank Aum of the U.S. Institute of Peace says that status quo is not sustainable.

FRANK AUM: I don't think the U.S. would agree to have normalized relations and accept North Korea back into the fold as a responsible member of the international community until North Korea denuclearizes.

RASCOE: The White House acknowledges that, at some point, North Korea has to decide whether to take that step even if President Trump isn't in a rush. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, the White House.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE'S "AS WE FIGHT (WILLIE PENROSE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.