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After failed summit, what’s next for U.S. policy on North Korea

A little over a week after the second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un ended early and without a deal, North Korea watchers have published satellite imagery indicating that a dismantled rocket launch facility is now being reassembled. What does this development mean for U.S. strategy on denuclearization? Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been eight days since President Trump met with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

    Earlier this week, two organizations that watch North Korea published satellite images of a North Korean launch rocket facility, which had been dismantled over the past several months, now being rebuilt.

    Today, President Trump was asked about whether Kim was breaking a promise to shut down the facility.

  • Donald Trump:

    Our relationship, with North Korea, Kim Jong-un and myself, Chairman Kim, I think it's a very good one. I think it remains good. I would be surprised, in a negative way, if he did anything that wasn't per our understanding, but we will see what happens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And here now is our Nick Schifrin, who was in Hanoi last week reporting on the summit.

    Nick, what are the North Koreans doing at this facility?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, this is a facility that they partially disassembled, and now they are reassembling what they disassembled.

    And that includes rebuilding a testing stand, relaying railroad and reattaching a roof. So the facility is once again operational. But let's put it in some perspective. When you say a facility for testing, it is not a missile launch facility. This has launched satellites into orbit. So this is not necessarily an indication that they're going to launch a rocket with any kind of tip or an ICBM, a missile that can reach the United States.

    But if they did test another satellite, that would be a violation of a Security Council resolution. And the technology that North Korea uses in that satellite test site would be the exact same technology that they use in long-range missiles. So that is why U.S. officials are concerned.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is some concern.

    So, it's our understanding a senior administration official briefed reporters yesterday on a lot of this. What was learned?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We learned basically that the U.S. approach has shifted in a major way before Hanoi. And that really led the president to try and seek a grand bargain that most experts say was doomed to fail.

    So let's understand the shift. I will take you back to January. Steve Biegun, the top U.S. negotiator, gave a big speech at Stanford. He said the U.S. was willing to take a step, North Korea takes a step. It's a staged approach. He also said that the U.S. was willing to talk about not only denuclearization, but the topics that North Korea wanted to talk about, finding a peace regime on the North Korean Peninsula and also improving relations between the countries.

    And they were willing to talk about all those things simultaneously.

  • Steve Biegun:

    We have communicated to our North Korean counterparts that we are prepared to pursue simultaneously and in parallel all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore last summer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, that was January.

    Let me read you a statement by a senior State Department official from yesterday: "Nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach. In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for all the other steps being — all the other steps being taken."

    And so every expert we say — we talk to say, this is a major shift that led the president to ask for a front-loaded grand bargain, all of the North Korean nuclear weapons for all of the sanctions relief.

    And the U.S. went further and demanded a freeze of chemical and biological weapons. That's not something that the U.S. has done before. And, in Hanoi, North Korea said, look, we don't trust the U.S. enough to make this kind of grand bargain.

    The North Koreans put a smaller — relatively smaller deal on the table that experts we talk to say was meant to be a starting point. But the president did not like that, wanted that front-loaded bargain, and walked away, rather than negotiate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, a shift. Why?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We don't know for sure.

    But what — the officials I speak to point to two things. One, John Bolton, the national security adviser, was at the table in Hanoi, has never believed in a staged approach.

    Number two, the president has soured, according to one Senior administration official, on South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been advocating for this staged approach, and instead is listening to Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, who says, don't trust the North Koreans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what's next? What does that mean?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Administration officials say they believe no bridges were burned. They hope that negotiations continue. And they say that they understand the North Korean program, they understand what North Korea wants a little better than they did before Hanoi.

    But the question is, what is the deal that the U.S. wants next? North Korea says it's open to some kind of staged deal. But as long as the U.S. holds out for this grand bargain, North Korea says it's not interested. And so it's not clear where these negotiations go.

    And the analysts we speak to, both pro-engagement and more critical of North Korea, really fear that this moment is leading to the two sides digging in and tensions increasing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in other words, still far apart, as far as we can tell.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As far as we can tell.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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