RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump confirmed on Twitter today that he will meet North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. He announced the summit will take place on June 12 in Singapore. Earlier, the president welcomed the three American detainees who have been released by North Korea as the return safely to American soil.
MARTIN: The three men flew back to the U.S. with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had been visiting Pyongyang to set the stage for this summit. The president said, quote, “this is only the beginning” of what he hopes to achieve with North Korea.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My proudest achievement will be - this is a part of it - but will be when we denuclearize that entire peninsula.
MARTIN: So is the release of these prisoners the first step to making that happen? We're going to explore that question with Victor Cha. He was director of Asia affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Thanks so much for being back on the show, Mr. Cha.
VICTOR CHA: My pleasure.
MARTIN: So the release of these prisoners - obviously, it's wonderful news for them and their families. What does it mean in terms of the upcoming summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un?
CHA: Well, I think - you know, diplomacy is all about momentum, and this is an important step because it is a confidence-building measure. But still, we are far from the goal that President Trump has set out for himself, which is, you know, the complete denuclearization of North Korea. So this is an important step. Again, in terms of diplomacy, it's all about moving forward, and this takes us one step forward, but we're still a long way from the finish line.
MARTIN: You've negotiated with the North Koreans before. Have they done this before - granted a big concession like this that gets everyone feeling optimistic about talks that ultimately then stalemate again?
CHA: Well, of course they have taken and released hostages before. In fact, there are about 20 that they've done this with. It's been under different circumstances, for sure. In this case, clearly, it is an effort by the North Koreans to try to gain the - I don't know what they want exactly, but to gain the trust, to gain the confidence of the U.S. leader. But thus far, we're still headed down a similar path in that the North Koreans have talked about denuclearization in terms that are not dissimilar from the way they've talked about it in the past, which is, they essentially want to rent a freeze of their program and don't want to give up all of it. We have to remember that they have been working on this program for 50 years, so the notion that they are ready all of a sudden to just give it up - it's hard for many people to accept, although the president seems awfully confident about it.
MARTIN: What concessions do you think the Trump administration is willing to make at this moment? When you say this is all about momentum, and diplomacy only works if you can keep following up one action with another, what's the next move?
CHA: So I think that's a great question, Rachel, because a lot of the focus and the discussion has been on what the North Koreans are willing to give up, and there has not been a lot of discussion about what we were willing to give up in return. I mean, the pat answer is - well, it's energy assistance, it's economic assistance, but it sounds as though President Trump is moving more in the direction of bigger things, bigger carrots, if you will, including normalization of political relations, a peace treaty, and there even been reports in the newspaper last week that he's considering removing ground troops - U.S. ground troops from the Korean Peninsula. Those are awfully big carrots for something in return that's very uncertain. And that is, you know, total denuclearization by the North Koreans against a 25-year history when they've not been willing to do that.
MARTIN: So it sounds like you're saying that that would be risky to make those kinds of concessions because - what? - you just don't believe that in the end, the North Korean regime would keep their end of the deal.
CHA: Well, I think, you know, objectively speaking, no one's against peace on the Korean Peninsula. I think we all want that. And if we can bring U.S. troops home, that would be great. The real question is what you get in return. And if you give too much and get very little, you know, that's, by definition, not a good deal, and it's certainly something that the president doesn't want to walk into because it has all sorts of ripple effects for our allies in the region. Japan, the Europeans and others will worry that they would be the next countries that might be sold down the river for a deal that may look good initially but not be good in the long term.
MARTIN: What does Kim Jong Un get by just being on the stage, in the moment, in the camera shot at this summit with President Trump?
CHA: It's very important for him. The North Koreans have been preparing this - for this meeting for 45 years. The notion of sitting with the world power, shaking hands, face to face with the United States president in their minds as a nuclear weapon state is really the ultimate objective of all this. I mean, just the handshake and the photo-op for the North Koreans will be a big win for them, whereas for us, for the United States, that's just the beginning. We obviously want much more than that - to give up their weapons.
MARTIN: We should mention you were dropped from consideration to be the U.S. ambassador to South Korea because of your opposition to this idea of a pre-emptive U.S. strike in North Korea. Do you think at this point that is still a possibility?
CHA: I think the president would say that every option still remains on the table, particularly if this summit fails. By definition, when a summit fails, you run out of diplomacy, diplomatic options. And so I still worry about things like that, as well.
MARTIN: Victor Cha was director of Asia affairs at the NSC for President George W. Bush. Thanks for your time, sir.
CHA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.