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North Korea Indicates It's Willing To Talk About Denuclearization


If you believe the statements of North Korea, the country is willing to talk on the same terms that the U.S. is willing to talk. North Korea's leader says he can discuss giving up the country's nuclear arsenal if North Korea's safety could be guaranteed. That sounds like the same terms under which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said for many months that the U.S. would like to have discussions with North Korea. Joining us to talk about this is Joel Wit. He's a former State Department official who has negotiated with North Koreans in the past. He's now at the Johns Hopkins School for International Studies. Good morning.

JOEL WIT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Is this proposal as real as it sounds?

WIT: Well, I think it is real. It's a useful first step forward. But we have to remember that the devil is always in the details. And so when North Korea says it will give up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. guarantees its security, that's going to be a long process. It's not going to happen overnight. And so we need to be prepared for a long drawn-out process of discussion.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the two parts of that. First, what would it mean hypothetically for North Korea to give up its arsenal? I suppose you don't just load all the bombs on a truck and drive them away.

WIT: Well, that's exactly the point. I mean, people have this vision of denuclearization as they say they'll denuclearize, and the next day, a bunch of trucks pull up and take away their nuclear weapons. In fact, it will be a very long process because North Korea already has a lot of nuclear weapons. So it could take years or more. It could take more than a decade. And the other half of the equation, guaranteeing their security, could also take a very long time because we have a very bad relationship with North Korea.

INSKEEP: Well, that, I think, is a fair question. The United States has made it clear it's not interested in regime change. It just wants the nuclear weapons gone. But if you're North Korea, can you really believe that? Because, you know, we really have lots and lots of reasons beyond nuclear weapons not to like the North Korean regime.

WIT: Well, that's exactly the point the North Koreans would make, that they don't believe it, that there's such a history of hostility from the United States. And, of course, we don't like their regime, and we make that clear in many different ways. So it's going to take a long process of improving relations between the two countries. And that, in turn, will take a lot of talk about issues that are very difficult.

INSKEEP: Well, then there's the question of trust. Correct me on the history here. Didn't North Korea agree to dismantle its nuclear program back in the 1990s and they turned out to have lied about the whole thing?

WIT: Well, in the 1990s, when I was in the State Department, they did agree that the ultimate objective would be denuclearization. And that agreement fell apart. But let me point out that when I was in the State Department in 1993, they - we thought they'd have a hundred nuclear weapons by 2000. And, in fact, because of the agreement we signed, they ended up with enough material for less than five nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: Oh. So it slowed them down, even if it didn't stop them, you think.

WIT: It slowed them down enormously. I mean, can you imagine if North Korea had a hundred nuclear weapons 15 years ago? And on top of that, they were on their way to building an ICBM that was slowed down as well.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about why North Korea would make this move. Now, earlier this week, President Trump credited sanctions - stiffer sanctions against North Korea with bringing them to the table. Let's hear some of that.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The sanctions have been very, very strong and very biting. And we don't want that to happen. So I really believe they are sincere. I hope they're sincere. We're going to soon find out.

INSKEEP: Does President Trump deserve some credit here with the apocalyptic rhetoric and the sanctions against North Korea? Have they actually pushed North Korea to talk here?

WIT: Well, you know, I don't know the answer to that. Of course, we profess certainty about certain things. And North Korea is a mystery to us. But we think we know why they're doing certain things. And so it may be that the sanctions have had an effect on them. On the other hand, the North Koreans may have their own reasons for taking this turn now.

INSKEEP: Joel Wit, thanks very much.

WIT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's with the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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