RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A surprise invitation that could lead to a historic meeting - President Trump has agreed to meet with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. South Korea's national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, made the announcement yesterday in front of the White House.
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CHUNG EUI-YONG: He expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible. President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.
MARTIN: President Trump confirmed the news on Twitter, saying, quote, "great progress being made, but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned - exclamation point." If this summit with Kim Jong Un does happen, it will be the first time a sitting U.S. president meets with any leader of North Korea. For more, we are joined in our studio by Abe Denmark. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under President Barack Obama. Thank you so much for coming in this morning.
ABRAHAM DENMARK: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Are you optimistic about this news? This is a big deal.
DENMARK: It's a very big deal, and I'm very cautiously optimistic. Diplomacy with North Korea is always a good thing. And the fact that we're actually willing to talk with North Korea is very promising. Of course, there's a lot of challenges going forward. It's very unclear what any agreement may look like, and the fact that it's the president doing this engagement is actually very striking.
MARTIN: And I want to talk about what that's going to look like going forward. But do you give the Trump administration some credit for making it happen?
DENMARK: I think they deserve a lot of credit, especially in terms of keeping pressure going. There is economic pressure that started under the Obama administration. But the Trump administration really accelerated it, really deepened it and most importantly got the Chinese to really put pressure economically on North Korea, which many believe is one of the reasons why Kim Jong Un is coming to the negotiating table.
MARTIN: Although, I mean, this is something that the North Koreans have wanted for a long time - right? - to be seen with some parody, to be seen as equals, to get to a table with an American president. Now they've got it seemingly for not much in return. Has the U.S. lost some leverage here?
DENMARK: Well, that's what a lot of people are concerned about. The North Koreans have offered meetings with American presidents many times. This is the first time that an American president has accepted it. And so far, all North Korea has offered to do has been to freeze testing, which they're not supposed to do anyway, and allow for exercises that happen fairly routinely. So it's unclear if there's any - going to be any other preconditions that go on top of that. The president's press secretary's office has indicated that perhaps they want to see more movement, more commitment towards denuclearization before an actual meeting takes place. But there's still a lot that's unclear about how we're going to get there.
MARTIN: So you've worked on North Korea. You understand how difficult they can be to negotiate with. What are the pitfalls here?
DENMARK: There's innumerable pitfalls going forward. We've been down this road with North Korea many times. Most recently in 2005, North Korea committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and its existing nuclear programs. And 13 months after they made that declaration, they conducted their first nuclear test.
MARTIN: So how do you prevent that from happening? I mean, if he sits down with President Trump and makes all these promises, what assurances does the U.S. need to secure?
DENMARK: Well, there's a lot of steps. It's a long way between here and there. Even after a negotiation is completed, if both sides are able to somehow come to an agreement that's going to be very difficult to come to, every step of the way is going to need very intense verification. You may recall President Reagan talked about trust but verify with the Soviet Union. At this point, it's going to be distrust but verify because there's so little confidence on either side that the North Koreans - and the North Koreans have very low confidence of the United States - is going to live up to its agreements.
MARTIN: President Trump is his own negotiator. He makes his own decisions, as even his secretary of state has said in the last day or two, in particular on this issue. Will his temperament help or hurt this process?
DENMARK: Well, it's - as he likes to say, we'll see. The president has made it clear he sees that past attempts have failed. So this is really throwing the doors open, really changing things up and seeing what happens. It's a very risky maneuver. There's a lot of pitfalls, but at this point, any diplomacy is a positive.
MARTIN: Abe Denmark - he is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He also served in the Obama administration. Thank you so much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.
DENMARK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.