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Does denuclearization mean the same thing to North and South Korea?

The meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas along the heavily fortified border marked a day of diplomacy after months of war talk. Judy Woodruff talks to former State Department official Frank Jannuzi and Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the significance of the meeting and how it sets up the summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now back to our top story, the summit between the leaders of North and South Korea.

    For more, we turn to Frank Jannuzi. He is a former State Department analyst who supported the U.S. delegation for talks with North Korea during the Clinton administration. Victor Cha is the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served on the George W. Bush National Security Council, and was considered by the Trump White House to be ambassador to South Korea, but that post remains unfilled.

    Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

    Victor Cha, to you first.

    So, the leaders of the two Koreas came together. Was this historic? How is this different from what’s happened before?

  • Victor Cha:

    So, thanks, Judy.

    Well, first of all, this is the third meeting of leaders between North and South Korea. The first two took place in 2000 and 2007.

    In terms of atmospherics and optics, this was by far the best of them, in part because the meeting took place in South Korea. It’s the first time the South Koreans hosted, which allowed them to control the message.

    I was in Korea earlier this week. And it was just amazing. On the news, the first five news blocks were details about the summit. So the overall messaging was very good about peace on the Korean Peninsula.

    In terms of substance, it wasn’t as strong as past agreements, not just the summits, but the five joint documents that exist between North and South Korea going back to 1972. So overall optics was very good, but in substance maybe not as good.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Frank Jannuzi, how do you read this meeting?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, I agree with Victor that the style was greater than the substance, but, in this case, I actually think that by playing small ball — Victor is the expert on sports diplomacy — but by playing small ball, the South Koreans are aiming for a more achievable and sustainable result than the grandiose visions of previous summit documents.

    This agreement does include some concrete specifics about the West Sea, about liaison office, about people-to-people ties, and it also meets the Trump administration’s bottom line with respect to complete denuclearization in exchange for peace.

    So I think the less ambitious agenda may actually be more achievable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that, Victor Cha? Even if the language in the document is not as complete or full as it has been in the past, if it’s more achievable, is that not more desirable?

  • Victor Cha:

    Well, certainly, I would agree that you have to be practical about these sorts of things, and you have to find the common space between the two sides.

    In this case, I still think there are lots of questions about what denuclearization means for North and South Korea and whether it means the same thing. There is a lot of concern that the language being used between the two Koreas in terms of denuclearization is not similar to language that North Korea had signed up to in 2005 and in 1992, where they were very clear about abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, or in 1992, when they said they wouldn’t have uranium enrichment facilities or reprocessing facilities in the country.

    The reason that this is a problem is that the next summit coming up is that between President Trump and the North Korean leader, and if there is ambiguity about whether the U.S. and South Korea on the one hand and North Korea on the other have different definitions of unification — different definitions of denuclearization, that is going to have an impact on the summit.

    And the last thing anybody wants is for the summit between the U.S. and North Korea to fail, because, if the summit fails, you have no more diplomacy left.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Frank Jannuzi, that sounds like it could be a problem.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, of course, it will be a problem if the two sides cannot agree on what denuclearization means.

    But I’m more optimistic with respect to what happens if this summit between President Kim and President Trump doesn’t reach any final conclusion. I don’t think we’re back to hostilities. I think we’re back to more diplomatic efforts.

    There really is no alternative approach but to do the hard diplomatic work to nail down what the North is prepared to give up, on what kind of sequence of events, what kind of phasing.

    And I think that, for President Trump, we shouldn’t expect him to be ham, out all the details. This is going to be high-level diplomacy in which he looks the North Korean leader in the eye and he says, look, I want to end the Korean War. And Kim Jong-un needs to respond to President Trump, look him in the eye and say, I want to live on a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, let’s make it happen.

    But then it’s going to be up to the diplomats and the special specialists to do an awful lot of hard work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Victor Cha, what about that? And, after all, President Trump did say today when he was answering questions from reporters, he said, look, I’m going to got into this meeting. We’re going to try make something happen, but if they’re not willing to make the deal that we want, we’re going to walk away.

  • Victor Cha:

    Right.

    And that is why it’s generally better to do these sorts of negotiations before you have a summit. I participated for three years as part of the U.S. negotiating team that got the last denuclear agreements with North Korea. And what you want, as Frank said, are for grunts like me and Frank to roll up our sleeves and do these negotiations for a long period of time with a summit promise at the end as sort of the action-forcing event that will take this over the goal line.

    We’re doing it very differently this time, when President Trump agreed, surprising everybody, agreed that he would meet with Kim Jong-un before there really has been any substantive pre-negotiation or negotiation taking place.

    So, as a result of this inter-Korean summit, more emphasis, more expectations have been placed on the summit between Trump and Kim, because the key issue, that is the key to a peace treaty, that is the key to normalization of relations, denuclearization, this key issue still has not been clarified to any real extent as a result of the inter-Korean summit.

    And so one is hopeful that that’s what will happen in the Trump-Kim summit, but, of course, we can’t be sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Frank Jannuzi, why do you believe the North Korean leader has come to this point right now?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Three things have changed, Judy.

    One is that we have a South Korean leader from the progressive side who has four more years in office and who is committed to improving North-South relations. The second change is that Kim Jong-un himself has consolidated power.

    There were many of us, including, I think, Victor, who thought that might not be achievable, but he’s done it. He has consolidated his position and he’s perfected a limited nuclear deterrent.

    And the third thing that is new is Donald Trump. And Donald Trump understands that there is only one decision-maker in North Korea with the power to change that country’s direction. It is Kim Jong-un.

    And by going directly to the top, he has circumvented the grunts like Victor and me, but I think he may have also struck upon the only formula of diplomacy that might work to try to change North Korea’s trajectory.

    So the circumstances are different, an we can hopefully expect a better outcome than the previous two summits.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Victor Cha, how much credit will President Trump deserve if something positive comes out of this?

  • Victor Cha:

    Well, I think if something positive comes out of it, if the North Korean leader really has made a strategic decision to give up all of his nuclear weapons, I think he would deserve a lot of credit, as would the North Korean leader, as would the South Korean leader.

    The problem, I think, is, is that many people still believe North Korea wants to have its cake and eat it too. That is, it wants a peace treaty, it wants normalization, it wants economic aid, humanitarian assistance, but it wants to keep some semblance of their nuclear program.

    And that is a deal I think that this president is not going to accept.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, gentlemen, we are going to leave it there.

    Victor Cha, thank you very much. Frank Jannuzi. Gentlemen, thank you both.

  • Victor Cha:

    Thank you.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Thank you.

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