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What's Changed Between U.S. And North Korea Since First Summit


If all goes to plan, one week from today, President Trump will be in Hanoi, Vietnam, preparing to sit down for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. So far, this one is coming together with decidedly less drama than the first time these two met. You may recall just days before last year's summit in Singapore, Trump called it off. And then, suddenly, it was back on.

This time, Trump's tone is less heated and on the substance and the central U.S. demand that North Korea give up nuclear weapons. The president has been tempering expectations.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As long as there's no testing, I'm in no rush. If there's testing, that's another deal. But there has been no testing.

KELLY: So where does that leave expectations for this summit? In our studio to discuss is Frank Aum. He was senior adviser for North Korea at the Defense Department during the Obama administration. Welcome.

FRANK AUM: Good to be here.

KELLY: So start with what we just heard from the president. First, just a quick fact check - he's right. There's been no testing since the Singapore summit, correct?

AUM: Yes, that's correct.

KELLY: OK. And when you hear him say he's in no rush, what should we read into that?

AUM: Well, I'm speculating here, but I think he is trying to create the impression that he is not desperate for denuclearization - that he can walk away from a deal if it's not good for the U.S. I don't think that was the best way to phrase it because it sends the wrong message that the U.S. government is OK with a nuclear North Korea as long as it doesn't conduct provocations.

KELLY: I was going to ask, isn't he desperate for North Korea to denuclearize? I mean, that has been the U.S. position for many years now when negotiating with North Korea - was the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.

AUM: Well, I think President Trump certainly is looking for a foreign policy victory. And it's interesting that you've seen a radical shift in his policy towards North Korea over the last six months. And I think that's probably, actually, a helpful indication of what's to come at Hanoi.

KELLY: Explain that. What's the radical shift you see?

AUM: So previous administrations and the Trump administration, at least earlier on, had always said that they demanded denuclearization from North Korea first, before they would be willing to discuss peace and normalization.

But in the remarks from Stephen Biegun, who's the special representative for North Korea - he made remarks at Stanford a few weeks ago. And he said that the U.S. is committed to pursuing denuclearization, but also peace talks in parallel. And that would be a marked shift from the policy that we've pursued in the past.

KELLY: So if I'm hearing you right, it sounds as though, in your view, the U.S. is walking into this summit with a radically different starting point than it did last year at the Singapore summit.

AUM: Absolutely. Before the Singapore summit, President Trump described it by saying that it would be a get-to-know-you meeting, plus. So that sounded very superficial, just establishing a relationship with Kim Jong Un. So I had very - actually had very low expectations out of Singapore.

We're now eight months later. I think a lot of the ideas have had a chance to marinate a little bit more. You're hearing more reports about potential concessions from both sides. That gives us a little more optimism going into Hanoi.

KELLY: With that as backdrop, what does the U.S. want from this summit in Vietnam next week? What would count as a U.S. win?

AUM: Tangible outcome - so we need to see something that demonstrates that North Korea is denuclearizing. One, I think, right off the bat is to reaffirm their dismantlement of their nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and the missile test site at Tongchang-ri. Also, the permanent dismantlement of their main nuclear facility - that would be a big step.

To go even further, a commitment to freeze or cap their production of fissile material and ballistic missiles - that would be a significant win for us as well.

KELLY: What does North Korea want?

AUM: Right now, their main interest is to get some sanctions relief. I don't think we need to give up all of the sanctions immediately or dismantle it, but I think it would be helpful to get some initial steps.

Also, they would very much appreciate a declaration confirming that the Korean War is officially over. That would be something that Kim Jong Un could take to his domestic public to convince them that there's a new environment on the peninsula.

KELLY: So bottom line - you said you were skeptical about the Singapore summit. Where are you a week or so out from Vietnam?

AUM: Well, I think it's a fool's choice to be too optimistic about progress, especially in the context of North Korea. But I don't think we need to swing for the fences here. I think a single is good enough, as long as we keep the rally going for diplomatic momentum. I think that would be a success.

KELLY: Frank Aum, former senior Pentagon adviser. He's now with the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thank you.

AUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.