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U.S.-North Korea Summit Is One For The History Books


History happened here today as President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader greeted each other in front of flags from both of their countries. The two men then met for several hours before emerging to sign an agreement that included a commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. President Trump touted the agreement at a news conference this morning.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today is the beginning of an arduous process. Our eyes are wide open. But peace is always worth the effort, especially in this case. They should have been done years ago. They should have been resolved a long time ago.

MARTIN: NPR's Elise Hu is normally based in Seoul, South Korea. She is here with me in Singapore covering the summit and joins me now. Hi, Elise.


MARTIN: So a big headline out of this agreement today signed between the American president and the leader of North Korea is that the United States, President Trump seemed to intimate, that the United States has agreed to stop joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. What's the significance of that?

HU: Well, first of all, we should point out that that is not actually in the text of the agreement itself. It's something that President Trump then announced separately outside of the agreement. But in the agreement, there is a line about how the U.S. is willing to provide security guarantees to North Korea so that it wouldn't feel threatened. And North Korea traditionally has argued that it feels that these security exercises are a threat, or, these military exercises are a threat. They happen annually every year, have for decades, in March and in August. There are some planned for August, and President Trump is saying, I'm willing to stop the war games. However, there is a lot of confusion because South Korea seems caught by surprise. South Korea is saying that we need to take a closer look to figure out what the intention of President Trump's words were.

MARTIN: So were they not informed that he was going to say this?

HU: South Korea is not saying whether it got a heads-up or not. So that indicates that it may not have gotten a heads-up on it and, meanwhile, the U.S. itself. So the U.S. Forces Korea says that it has received no updated guidance on the execution or cessation of training exercises.

MARTIN: This is the U.S. military in South Korea.

HU: That's right. And so it appears that the president is reversing something that the Pentagon has been maintaining for all these years, which is that these exercises are purely defensive and not provocative and shouldn't be seen as a provocation. But instead, the president has bought into the North Korean line that these defensive exercises are now considered provocations.

MARTIN: So the enforcement of this agreement may depend on whether or not Congress approves this deal. For one perspective on this, I spoke earlier to Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of the state of Maryland, who seemed to agree with the president that much of the real diplomatic work begins now.

BEN CARDIN: Well, this is the beginning of a process. We certainly want it to work. Diplomacy is the way we need to proceed. We need to make sure that the Korean Peninsula is denuclearized. That's the objective. That's what the president has said. We've seen Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, make these commitments in the past and has not lived up to it. So it's now going to be the specifics. We have very few specifics from the summit meeting. How do we get from where North Korea is today to the Korean Peninsula not having nuclear weapons but also North Korea not having the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a short period of time that could happen without detection? So the details are going to be the key.

MARTIN: What specifically do you want to hear in terms of, in particular, verification - making sure that this agreement that North Korea has signed onto, that if they make subsequent commitments to get rid of nuclear material, that they are indeed doing it?

CARDIN: Well, it starts with a complete declaration of their nuclear program and their missile program, the ability for inspectors to see exactly what they have, to have a total freeze of their program on both nuclear and missiles, to start the the removal of the nuclear materials and a commitment as it relates to what they'll do in the future. And inspections. It has to be verified. And in the context of this, let us remember, there are many other issues in regards to North Korea before we can have a normal relationship, including their human rights violations and other behavior. So it starts with the nuclear issues, but we do not want to ignore the others.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about that. You have been vocal about wanting President Trump to address North Korea's record on human rights. President Trump says he did, that he brought it up with Kim Jong Un today during this summit. Is that a positive sign, in your opinion?

CARDIN: Well, I'm glad the president acknowledged it, but let's see the specifics. Let's see the actions. Let's see how the agreement, if there is an agreement, deals with these other issues, and to make it clear that before we can have a normal relationship with North Korea, they need to address not just their nuclear programs but other issues.

MARTIN: You were one of only four Democratic senators who voted against the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015. If this deal with North Korea, if this does get a vote in Congress, what do you think the agreement needs in order to secure your vote this time around?

CARDIN: Well, it needs to be clear that it's not just the removal of the nuclear weapons but the inability of North Korea to be able to start a nuclear program. And it must also make it clear in the framework that before we give relief to North Korea, before there's sanctions relief, there must be demonstratable progress made in a clear path towards the end of its nuclear program.

MARTIN: Do you think that's actually possible? I mean, when you talk about - I mean, putting an end to North Korea's nuclear program and making sure it's irreversible, I mean, what does that mean for the scientists who are already there who already have this information, this knowledge, this capacity?

CARDIN: Well, a couple of things that we can do. First of all, you have to track their entire nuclear program from beginning to end. Secondly, you need to have intrusive inspections. Third, there has to be a limit as to what type of nuclear materials they're allowed to have. Fourth, you have to deal with their delivery system, the missile programs. All that needs to be under control and under supervision and inspection. And if you do that, that's where you are. I mean, obviously they have the technical information to put this back together again, but we need to make sure that if they try to do that, we'll be able to determine that and take action. So, yes, this is possible.

MARTIN: So this is possible? So I hear you saying you believe this summit was a good thing? It is good, and it is positive that it transpired. You want more details, but the fact that it has occurred at all is a positive step.

CARDIN: I think it's a good thing. But recognize that Kim Jong Un has already accomplished one of his objectives, and that is international legitimacy by meeting with the president of the United States. We've got to make sure that we get in exchange for that real progress towards ending their nuclear program.

MARTIN: Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland. Thanks so much for your time this morning, Senator, we appreciate it.

CARDIN: It's good to be with you. Thanks.

MARTIN: NPR's Elise Hu is still with me here in Singapore. Elise, we heard Senator Cardin there say he believes Kim Jong Un has won no matter what here because he was seen on the stage with the president of the United States. What does this mean for the leader of North Korea, in particular, back home?

HU: Back home, we are expecting the images of not only the time in Singapore - so his little walkabout and sightseeing tour of Singapore to continue to be broadcast that's already been shown without delay, really - but a lot of the sort of pomp and circumstance around this meeting with Trump to be widely publicized. I mean, this is the legitimacy, the domestic legitimacy that Kim Jong Un and the Kim regime has long sought.

MARTIN: And globally, how does it change his position?

HU: Well, it's really part of a pivot, right, to statesmanship. It started on January 1, when he extended an olive branch to South Korea saying that it wanted to participate in the Olympics. And so we've seen in the past two months, two months alone, Kim Jong Un receive the foreign minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov in Pyongyang, meet with - he went to China twice now to meet with Xi Jinping, the president of China, met with Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, twice at the inter-Korean border and now this huge meeting with the leader of the richest and most powerful nation in the planet. And so this is really huge for Kim Jong Un.

MARTIN: What does it mean - part of this agreement said that these two leaders are committed to what they described as new relations between the U.S. and North Korea. What are we talking about? Does that mean embassies in Pyongyang and Washington, D.C.?

HU: What we expect it to mean is a friendlier, a paradigm shift from the hostility to a more sort of normalized relationship. And there's a diplomatic definition to normalization, of course, and that would start with a liaison office in Pyongyang.

MARTIN: We're not there yet.

HU: No. No, no. We're not there yet. That has been attempted before, in the '90s, and then got stopped in its tracks. But that is something that has been batted about as a possibility if the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea does continue to improve.

MARTIN: So it sounds like this is more aspirational. What happens next? What are the next steps in all this? If we describe this as the pomp and circumstance and now the work begins, where is the work happening?

HU: There is a flurry of regional diplomacy ahead. Secretary Pompeo is headed to Seoul, and he's going to meet with his counterparts in South Korea and Japan.

MARTIN: NPR's Elise Hu for us. Thanks so much, Elise.

HU: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF WINDSOR AIRLIFT'S "COLD OCTOBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.