RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump plans to meet face to face with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, sometime before May. This invitation was facilitated by South Korean diplomats who had direct talks with Kim this week. Given the volatile relationship between these two leaders, the announcement came as a surprise to many. So what's going to be on the agenda for these talks and how should the Trump administration focus its efforts moving forward? Joining us now is Senator Cory Gardner. He's a Colorado Republican, and he serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. Thanks so much for being with us, Senator.
CORY GARDNER: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You and several of your colleagues in the Senate wrote to the president yesterday, urging caution in these potential negotiations with North Korea, saying, quote, "we must verify before we trust." Why did you find it necessary to make such a statement?
GARDNER: Over the past several decades, we have found ourselves in a situation before with North Korea where North Korea will agree to denuclearize. In 1994, they made agreements that broke off in the early 2000s. In 2005 and 2007, they made agreements that broke off. And so we have been here before where there's promises to freeze, to denuclearize and we find ourselves now with a regime that has 120-plus nuclear warheads at its disposal. So this is one of those things where our goal can only be one thing - complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Anything short of that is unacceptable.
MARTIN: Did you know this was going to happen?
GARDNER: I did not know. Obviously, we all knew that the South Korean delegation was meeting with the president. But the reason why it happened is because our sanctions are starting to work. And I think that is a great credit to the doctrine of maximum pressure. I led legislation that created the first ever mandatory sanctions on the North Korean regime. Our allies around the globe put in a tough sanctions policy that is starting to work. In my conversations with State Department and Defense Department intelligence officials, they will tell you that the sanctions are beginning to pressure the regime. And so this opening, this overture, is created because of our pressure. And so now we have to see it through and see those concrete steps to that denuclearization.
MARTIN: What conditions do you need to see ahead of these talks? I mean, what is - what needs to be outlined in advance before President Trump sits down with Kim Jong Un?
GARDNER: I think we have to know that this is about those concrete steps. So what are those concrete steps? They were outlined in the 2005, 2007 agreements - what they have said and what they have promised before. We need a blueprint for denuclearization. They've already promised that they would do it. It laid it out very clearly back in the mid-2000s. And so let's get assurances that that is what is going to be on the agenda, that that is what they are aiming for. Anything short of that, I don't think this meeting should occur.
MARTIN: How do you - how do you believe them, though? As you indicate, they have made these promises before and then just reneged. So what has to change? What kind of assurances or consequences does the U.S. need to put out there?
GARDNER: I think we need to know - you know, I think you bring up a very good point because when we talk over the past several months about what is a red line, this meeting is creating a red line in many respects - has the chance of doing that because if the president of the United States meets with Kim Jong Un and does not walk away with what should be those concrete steps toward denuclearization, then I don't see how it gets us any closer to the kind of peace on the peninsula that we have been seeking. And so what those steps are going to be - obviously, the freeze is important, but it's got to be more than just a freeze. It has to be a suspension of the nuclear program. And then we have to create an inspection regime and other plans to meet what was laid out and already promised by the regime over a decade ago.
MARTIN: The United States doesn't currently have an ambassador to South Korea, and the State Department senior adviser for North Korea has just stepped down. Is the administration well prepared for this moment?
GARDNER: Well, I think obviously, as I said before, the maximum pressure doctrine has been a sea change from these failed strategic patience of the previous administrations. We do need a South Korean ambassador. We have Susan Thornton now who is - through the - getting through the approval process of the East Asia desk at the Department of State. And so we had her hearing several weeks back. She's been at the State Department for a number of years. But it is now more important than ever that we get this critical position filled.
MARTIN: I want to switch gears and ask you about the other big announcement that came from the White House yesterday - the president making official the tariffs that he has proposed on steel and aluminum. You told Bloomberg News that you believe Congress - and I'm quoting here - "would be forced to act" if the president enacts these tariffs. What did you mean? What is Congress now forced to do?
GARDNER: Well, I think there are several options that would be looked at and - excuse me - including the legislation that has been introduced by Senator Mike Lee whether there's a way to narrow the scope of these tariffs. I think it's important that we understand what these tariffs are going to be. As the president talked in the Cabinet meeting yesterday, he said he reserves the right to move the tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent less or higher depending on the country, that some countries will be exempted and there will be this application process. So what is that narrowly tailored tariff going to be? Is it going to be on truly bad actors? And so let's find that out, and then we can, you know, respond appropriately if that's necessary. But there is legislative action that can be taken, including withdrawing or narrowing the scope of those tariffs, making sure that we comply with constitutional provisions.
MARTIN: Let me back up and just ask a straight question Do you support the tariffs?
GARDNER: I think the tariffs are the wrong direction. I think they're a penalty on the American people. I have expressed that to the White House. But we need to make sure we have fair trade deals. I agree with that. But I'm afraid that this could have collateral damage to the economy that is simply unwarranted (ph).
MARTIN: This is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party for generations, the idea of free trade. The leader of your party, the president of the United States, upending that with these tariffs. What does that mean for the future of the party as it positions itself moving into the midterms?
GARDNER: Well, I think it means that this president was fulfilling a campaign promise that he made when he ran. Nobody should be surprised by this. It doesn't mean that I agree with it. It doesn't mean that many colleagues around the Congress agree with it. The president has made it very clear that he wants fair trade deals. We all want fair trade deals. But what I'm afraid of is the very person he wants to help could be hurt by this same policy.
MARTIN: Senator Cory Gardner is a Republican representing the state of Colorado. He also sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks for taking the time. We appreciate it.
GARDNER: Hey, thank you for having me. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR MCFERRIN'S "DEGREES OF LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.