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How the North Korea talks got off track

President Trump has put an end, for now at least, to a planned summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un. Where did things go wrong? Nick Schifrin gets analysis from Christopher Hill, former chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, and Jenny Town of 38 North.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, we examine the last few weeks of diplomacy with North Korea and the decision by President Trump to call off the summit with Kim Jong-un.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin is back for that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, thank you very much.

    I'm joined by Christopher Hill. He served as the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration and as U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

    And Jenny Town, the managing editor and producer of 38 North, an online policy journal on North Korea.

    And welcome to you both. Thank you very much.

    Jenny Town, let me begin with you. In your opinion, why do you think this fell apart?

  • Jenny Town:

    Well, I think the real challenge started when John Bolton did make the comments starting to talk about the Libya model. And, of course, we all know how Libya turned out.

    And so, if you are North Korea receiving those messages, you know, you've gotten the sense that the U.S. wants this process to be very quick. They want it to be, you know, the security guarantees on paper. And, you know, without changing the actual nature of our political relationship.

    And so, if you're North Korea, you're looking at this as sort of a veiled threat, and then the president following up afterwards by saying, oh, well, if you don't make a deal, you will end up like Libya. And there's oftentimes, you know, the North Koreans have said before, they're not going to negotiate with a gun to their head. And so, there is really the behavior that they've shown in the past couple of days and past couple of weeks is really predictable, given the way that they have been treated.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Hill, is this about the Libya model and the administration's use of it? Or is there also a substantive disagreement about the nature of denuclearization?

  • Christopher Hill:

    I think there's a substantive disagreement. I'm not sure the North Koreans were really ready to give up their nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons programs, especially as the Trump administration has been saying in recent weeks, we're not giving anything up, we're not going to be like those guys before, no sanctions relief, we're not going to do this until they've really given up all their programs. I think that probably worried them, and I think the Trump administration got a little worried, especially when some of the North Koreans took to the airwaves, such as Kim Kye Gwan, to say that somehow you certainly don't expect us to give up our nuclear weapons for just economic assistance, which actually is what they are expecting them to do.

    So, I think both sides got very nervous. I must say, I hope the Trump administration takes this as an opportunity to review its diplomatic trade craft, review public messaging as they go toward a very difficult summit and, frankly, I think there's a little room for improvement there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jenny Town, you were shaking your head during that. Do you believe North Korea is serious about the negotiation process?

  • Jenny Town:

    I think they're serious about the negotiation process and getting to the denuclearization. But I think what the North Koreans approach this is a much different thinking. You know, the U.S. only cares about North Korea's nuclear weapons program and they sort of project what they think the North Koreans want and have sort of discounted what the North Koreans actually say they want.

    And the problem is when the North Koreans are approaching this, you know, they are looking at more of a holistic view of what that relationship actually means. And so, it's not enough just to try and buy them of, but security guarantees mean nothing when you have no trust between your countries.

    And so, you know, having something on paper, even if it's signed, we've all seen agreements fall apart from administration to administration as, you know, far back as the agreed framework as to now as recent as the Iran deal and John Bolton was there for both instances.

    And so, I think, you know, this is one of those cases where, sure, you can — you might not believe, but if you don't try, first of all, you will never know. But certainly, North Korea is in a position right now where they were serious about negotiations. They were doing unilateral actions to try and create the momentum for it. But, at the same time again, they're not going to do it unilaterally or they're not going to do with a gun to their head.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Hill, in that sense, they're not going to do it unilaterally, they're not going to do it with a gun to their head. I mean, are U.S. expectations — were U.S. expectations going into the summit perhaps too high?

  • Christopher Hill:

    I think they're perhaps too high in a sense that somehow in one-off summit, you could get the North Koreans to essentially say we're giving up all our weapons and we're giving them up now.

    Now, that said, I mean, the North Koreans do ask for broader concepts, which is why when I was doing this, we put together a peace treaty, we put together cross recognition of states, we talked about a lot of different things in that great, and it seems that when the North Koreans ask for these kind of broad things, and then you move heaven and earth in Washington to get everyone to agree and you bring it back to the North Koreans and say, voila, look what we've done, and then they seem to be disinterested in it.

    So, I'm afraid this does come down to the question of denuclearization and whether they are prepared to do that. I told them in numerous occasions that with denuclearization, everything is possible. I didn't go as far as President Trump has gone in that regard, but I said, with it, everything is possible, but if you don't denuclearize, frankly, nothing is possible.

    And I think the stakes are — I think it's pretty stark and I think the North Koreans really do have some thinking to do because they need to decide whether having nuclear weapons offers them a better future and I don't think it does. And I think we ought to keep at it.

    And I do not agree with those who say we need to accept somehow a nuclear North Korea, kind of live with it and contain it or something. I think we continue to need to do what the president has been saying, which is denuclearization.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jenny Town, this is a peninsula. We're talking about North Korea. We're also talking about South Korea, the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

    Is there any threat to that alliance today?

  • Jenny Town:

    Well, I mean, this is a really bad way to have announced it. The way that Donald Trump did this was really the worst way possible and the worst timing possible especially with Moon Jae-in just leaving Washington thinking everything was on track. So, I think it goes to some of the antagonism that the South Koreans have felt under this administration, resurfacing once again and manifesting once again in a very important issue and one that Moon has put so much personal capital in as well. So, it's really bad for them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Ambassador Hill, quickly in the time we have left, what's next? The U.S. says the ball is in North Korea's court. What's the likely response and what are we expected to see next?

  • Christopher Hill:

    Well, it was quite a remarkable letter that the president evidently put together there. I do hope the parts in it which deal with continuing the dialogue are real. I think it's very important for the Trump administration to have a team of people, it doesn't have to be the secretary of state, it can be the assistant secretary, could be an office director, but they need to be able to keep sounding out the North Koreans on what might be possible.

    Look, if North Korea can come to the understanding that we can accept a lot from them but we cannot accept nuclear state, then I think things can be done, I think the president has tried in his own way to suggest that he's willing to live with North Korea and live with them very well if they give up their nuclear weapons. So, I hope we can continue that and put away this sort of my nuclear arsenal is bigger than your nuclear arsenal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Hill, thank you very much. We'll have to leave it there.

    Ambassador Christopher Hill and Jenny Town, thank you very much.

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