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Can U.S. and North Korea bridge fundamental disagreements?

America's top diplomat and North Korea's top envoy began Thursday with a historic handshake. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said their talks were positive but sometimes difficult and that their teams made quick headway in setting the right conditions for a summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. Nick Schifrin and Yamiche Alcindor talk with Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States and North Korea continued to meet at high levels today, trying to bridge their differences and to pave the way for a summit between President Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a Manhattan high-rise, the U.S.' top diplomat and North Korea's top envoy began the day with a historic handshake.

  • Reporter:

    Would anyone from North Korea like to say anything about today's meeting?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean senior aide Kim Yong-chol took no questions before two-and-a-half-hours of meetings, two hours shorter than expected.

    Pompeo said their teams made quick headway, setting the right conditions for a summit.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    The conditions are putting President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un in a place where we think there could be real progress made by the two of them meeting. It does no good if we're in a place where we don't think there's real opportunity to place them together. We have made real progress toward that in the last 72 hours.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The main condition? Trying to convince North Korea to reverse decades of policy of considering nuclear weapons the best way to keep the country safe.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    I believe they are contemplating a path forward, where they could make a strategic shift, one that their country has not been prepared to make before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pompeo and Kim started their talks last night with a working dinner of filet mignon and sunset toasts. Kim Yong-chol is considered Chairman Kim Jong-un's right-hand man. He was also the country's notorious spy chief, blamed for a 2010 attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors and the 2014 cyber-attack on Sony Pictures.

    He's on a U.S. sanctions list, and needed special permission to visit the U.S. Today, Pompeo said their talks were positive, but not without challenges.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    I have had some difficult conversations with them as well. They have given it right back to me too. There are decades into this challenge. And so one ought not to be either surprised, or frightened, or deterred by moments where it looks like there are challenges.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beyond New York, two other U.S. teams are trying to resurrect the summit. In the demilitarized zone, veteran U.S. diplomat Sung Kim is leading a team meeting North Korean officials. And in Singapore, a team led by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin is working on logistics, trying to make sure they're ready if the summit is back on track for June 12.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And late today, North Korea state TV announced that Kim Jong-un will meet with Russia's President Putin, but no date is set.

    And Nick Schifrin joins us now, along with our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    So, Nick, to you first.

    We heard Secretary Pompeo said there's been progress. Do we know what kind of progress?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We don't know for sure, but a senior State Department official says that the U.S. needs to understand what North Korea is willing to do or at least to pledge at this summit, and that that needs to be something that North Korea has never done before.

    And that means a step toward denuclearization. What does that mean? Could be shutting down a nuclear facility. They have done that before. Number two, bring in inspectors to shut down centrifuges. We have never seen that before. And, number three, what the U.S. is really hoping, shipping out some kind of nuclear material. We certainly have never seen that before.

    That's what the U.S. is asking for. What is North Korea asking for? Intelligence analysts have always said North Korea's priority is regime survival and they have thought that nuclear weapons gave them that survival. So the U.S. has to replace that, replace nuclear weapons with a kind of fundamentally different political relationship.

    That means ending the Korean War, a peace treaty. That means some kind of shift in tone. We have no hostile intent toward you, perhaps even normalization. It means mutual respect. One analyst says take North Korea off the terrorist sponsor list.

    And it also means perhaps some lifting of sanctions. But, Judy, we have to remember, the two sides can't even agree or haven't been agreeing on the very definition of denuclearization or peace, so there's still a lot of gaps.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, talking, talking, but still some fundamental disagreements.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, especially on denuclearization.

    The U.S. has long said, we want instant, immediate denuclearization. North Korea says, well, we will do it in steps, and for every step we do, you have to take another step.

    But we saw a little hint today that maybe the gap could be bridged. And that's when President Trump was talking this morning. He said, well, maybe we don't have to only have one summit with Kim Jong-un, maybe two summits or even three summits.

    And that is evidence that the administration is considering that maybe this doesn't have to happen all at once and that they're lowering some expectations for the summit. And that is hugely significant because that does mean that this gap might be bridged. The question now, of course, is whether you can get to the point where the two sides are happy enough to proceed with the summit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Really interesting, because originally they were saying or suggesting it had to be all at once or very — happening at the same time.

    So, Yamiche, why did the president — with the conversations going on now, why did the president cancel the summit a few days ago and then now everybody is proceeding as if nothing has changed?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, that's one of the key questions I have been asking people in the White House.

    The number one answer I have been getting is that this is the president that wrote "The Art of the Deal," this is someone who really understands negotiations, and his tactics and the way that he looks at the world is that he has to be on the offense.

    So, in this case, you saw him — because the U.S. was getting very frustrated with the fact the North Koreans weren't responding to us, he decided to write this letter saying, OK, well, we don't really need this and you guys are the ones. We have our hostages back. We have what we want. We're the ones with the big nuclear weapons, so when you come to the table, maybe we will see, but we don't need you.

    And, as a result, you saw this letter. Now the White House will stop short of saying that this is actually going to happen. I have asked the question so many times to people, saying, OK, so we're back on for June 12? They won't say yes, but the president essentially is saying, yes, now that they're back on the table, and I'm the one setting the rules, and I'm the one in control, that I feel better about what is going — how we — going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is a sense of eagerness about making — having this happen?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Totally different story, the surprise announcement today the president is pardoning the conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza.

    And then the White House has let it be known the president is letting it be known that he is considering commuting the sentence of the former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is serving prison time right now, and also pardoning Martha Stewart.

    Do we know what's behind this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, if you ask the president, these pardons are about his sense of justice and the fact that he thinks these people were treated unfairly.

    There's this idea that he also has political and celebrity ties. It's not really surprising that a president who obviously got his start on "The Apprentice" and a lot of people know him from his reality TV days, that he has these kind of celebrity connections.

    So, on the political said, Ted Cruz was pushing for D'Souza to get pardoned. So, there's a political side to that one.

    But Blagojevich, it's really about the fact that — well, at least some people think it's about the fact that he was on "The Celebrity Apprentice." So, the president is familiar with him.

    When it comes to Martha Stewart, part of my research today was watching a literal video of Martha Stewart showing Melania Trump and the president how to make meatloaf. So, they go back. And they were joking about the invitation that she got to his wedding and the fact that she couldn't go because she was in prison. There is something there.

    Then, when it comes to the prosecutors that are involved, this is where I think it gets really interesting. So, Preet Bharara, who was a United States attorney in New York who President Trump fired, he was the one who actually prosecuted D'Souza.

    And D'Souza tweeted today that karma is really kind of coming back to him because he thought that this prosecutor was trying to make his career on this case.

    James Comey was the one who prosecuted Martha Stewart. So, there's also a Comey connection there. Then Patrick Fitzgerald, who is a very good friend of James Comey, was the one who prosecuted Rod Blagojevich. And he's also the same person who prosecuted Scooter Libby.

    The reaction is that Democrats are saying that the president is really out of line when it comes to these pardons, because he's basically saying I can do partisan pardons, and everyone should be aware because of the Russia probe.

    But Rod Blagojevich's wife, who has been really pressing to have her husband released by the president, said she's really encouraged by the president's words.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Makes everyone wonder if there are signals that are being sent by all of this.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche Alcindor, Nick Schifrin, thank you both.

    A lot going on today.

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