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Trump-Kim Meeting Is A Step Toward Denuclearization, Wit Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news now - for the third time, President Trump has met and shaken hands with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. This meeting happened in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. And with a few extra steps, President Trump became the first American president - while in office - to enter North Korea.

He said that stepping across that line was a great honor, that a lot of progress had been made - these are the president's words - a lot of friendships have been made and this has been, in particular, a great friendship. That's what the president said.

So let's look at those words - honor, progress, friendship - all of which require qualification. The honor the president described was meeting his friend, who remains the autocratic leader of one of the world's least free countries. The progress is unclear, although the U.S. and North Korea agreed to resume nuclear talks that fell apart months ago.

Joe Wit is our next guest here to help analyze this. He worked on arms control and nonproliferation issues at the State Department and now runs 38 North, a website analyzing developments in North Korea.

Mr. Wit, welcome back to the program.

JOEL WIT: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Was this meeting progress, as the president said?

WIT: Well, I think it was progress. And it was progress because, for months now, people like me have been saying, you're not going to get a denuclearization deal unless you have talks between negotiators. The president and Kim Jong Un can't negotiate a denuclearization deal. So in that sense, I think it is a step forward.

INSKEEP: Oh - because they met and agreed to assign other people within their respective governments to resume meetings and get this done.

WIT: Yeah. And that's exactly how it has to be. President Trump and Kim Jong Un can't sit in a meeting room for days or weeks negotiating the details of a denuclearization agreement. It has to be the job of negotiators.

INSKEEP: So the last time they met, it fell apart. And I believe the president - President Trump actually left the summit early. I think I hear you saying it was actually necessary for them to get together again and get this thing restarted.

WIT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the last time - the Hanoi summit was a failure. There's no doubt about it. But it was also a success because the negotiators did meet during the summit. They did clear away a lot of the underbrush in terms of an agreement you need to reach. And they did focus attention on the issues where more talks need to be held. So this is a necessary next step.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to think through what the U.S. ask is - or proposal is to North Korea. Originally, the U.S. idea was - North Korea, you must give up all nuclear weapons - give up everything. And only once all of that is done, we will end economic sanctions and also give you all kinds of economic aid, and you're going to be very, very rich. That was the U.S. proposal. I see you smiling a little bit as I say that. Have those terms changed?

WIT: Well, it's very hard to tell exactly what the U.S. position is these days. But what I can say is that the U.S. negotiator, Steve Biegun, has hinted publicly that the U.S. has flexibility in how it's going to approach these talks. And that's a good sign.

INSKEEP: Flexibility meaning - what? - that they might lift some sanctions before the North Koreans are all done with denuclearization?

WIT: Well, it's flexibility in doing that and also flexibility in not insisting that North Korea gives everything up before we do anything. So the alternative here is a phase-by-phase approach, where both sides take steps to reach the final objective. So for example, in the first phase, North Korea would take steps on the nuclear side of things. United States would take some steps - like lifting sanctions, like establishing diplomatic relations, like starting talks for a peace treaty. So it needs to be that way, or else it's not going to work.

INSKEEP: Although we do have to ask if that approach would work - because isn't that something like the approach that past administrations have tried and, ultimately, the North Koreans didn't keep going down the road the U.S. wanted them to?

WIT: Well, that's absolutely true. And I - you know, we can't sit here and discuss 30 years of history. But a phase-by-phase approach has the advantage of - as you go through each phase, you can check whether the other side is doing what it's supposed to do. So in theory, that's actually a better approach because you can take a reality check at each step of the way and decide whether to proceed or not.

INSKEEP: Is a phase-by-phase process worthwhile, even if you never get to the end, because it is a process and it becomes like those Cold War arms control agreements with the U.S. and the Soviet Union? At least they're talking and doing things rather than blowing each other up.

WIT: Well, that's absolutely true. But it also depends on how you structure each phase. So let me give you an example. There's been a lot of talk about dismantling one of North Korea's big nuclear facilities, the Yongbyon nuclear facility. So if you started to do that in the first phase and actually permanently disabled the buildings that produce fissile material for bombs to the point where the North Koreans can't restart them, even if that phase ends, you're ahead of the game.

INSKEEP: Oh. They might have to go build something else, but they would have to go to the effort of building it. OK.

WIT: That's exactly it.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another thing. The president, in this and other negotiations, has indicated that time is on his side. He's in no hurry, got the sanctions on - no big deal - suggests that he has all the leverage. Is North Korea gaining anything by the delay, by the lack of a deal as time goes on?

WIT: I'm sort of smiling because I've been doing this for 25 years, and I've heard this over and over again, each side claiming time is on their side. And the fact is that it's purely a negotiating ploy. And the fact also is that time is not on our side. And I say that because even though this has been a worthwhile process, it's almost certain that North Korea continues to produce nuclear bombs. And that's very dangerous.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wit, thanks for your insights.

WIT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Joel Wit, now at the Henry L. Stimson Center (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.