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Is new North and South Korea deal a significant step toward denuclearization?

A new joint agreement signed by leaders of North and South Korea marked their most significant progress toward peace to date. Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in pledged a "new era," with Kim agreeing to dismantle his main missile testing site, as well as his main nuclear weapons complex -- with conditions. Yamiche Alcindor talks with Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation and Jenny Town of 38 North.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are new signs today of a potential path to peace on the Korean Peninsula.

    The leaders of both the North and South agreed to what they say are concrete steps toward denuclearization.

    Yamiche Alcindor reports.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Applause, handshakes and smiles, that marked the signing of a joint agreement between the two leaders and their most significant progress to date.

    After days of celebrations and carefully choreographed events, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in pledged a new era for the Koreas. It could mean one without nuclear weapons someday.

  • Moon Jae-in (through translator):

    Today, Chairman Kim Jong-un and I agreed on specific measures to remove the fear of war and possibility of armed clash. Also, we promised to keep our land permanently free from nuclear threats and war and pass it down to our descendants.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Kim agreed to dismantle his main Dongchang-ri missile testing site. He also said he would allow experts from relevant countries to be present. Satellite images, though, show work was already under way to decommission the site.

    Kim also committed to permanently dismantling his main nuclear weapons complex, but he said he would only do so if the U.S. takes unspecified corresponding measures. The U.S. has said it will ease economic sanctions only in exchange for complete denuclearization.

    But, in Washington, President Trump sounded upbeat.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Very importantly, no missile testing, no nuclear testing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So far, North Korea has refused to list its nuclear sites, as well the timeline for dismantling them.

    Last month, Mr. Trump canceled a trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang. The president cited the North's lack of progress on giving up its nuclear weapons. Today, he cited improvement of a different kind.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The relationships, I have to tell you, at least on a personal basis, they're very good. It's very much calmed down. In the meantime, we're talking. It's very calm. He's calm. I'm calm. So we will see what happens.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Pompeo said today he has invited the North's top diplomat to meet next week. He said he expects nuclear talks to be finished by January 2021.

    Back in Pyongyang, the Moon-Kim talks produced several achievements for North-South relations, including military cooperation.

  • Kim Jong-Un (through translator):

    We adopted a military pact to end the history of brutal and tragic confrontation and hostility, and agreed to make efforts to turn the Korean Peninsula into a land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The two countries also agreed to make a joint bid for the 2032 Olympic Games and work on reunifying more families separated after the Korean War. Kim also agreed to travel to South Korea, something no North Korean leader has ever done.

    How significant are these steps, and how should the United States respond?

    We get two views.

    Bruce Klingner had a 20-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on North Korea. He's now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. And Jenny Town is the managing editor and producer of 38 North, an online policy journal that focuses on North Korea.

    Thank you, both of you, for being here.

    Bruce, I'm going to start with you.

    What's your reaction to the meeting yesterday and these agreements that have been announced?

  • Bruce Klingner:

    I think we have to measure it two different ways.

    On inter-Korean relations and reducing the potential for military conflict, at least at a tactical level, I think it was successful. On the denuclearization, which is of greater concern to the United States, we didn't make any real progress. And we need to put more meat to the bones of this agreement, as well as the Singapore agreement that President Trump had.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Bruce is talking about possibly there being not a lot of change there. What do you think about that, Jenny?

  • Jenny Town:

    Well, I tend to agree.

    I mean, they did offer a confidence-building measure, in terms of actually destroying also the launch pad at the Dongchang-ri at Sohae, as well as this engine test stand, which they had already agreed to.

    But they reiterated that this is not a unilateral process. And I think expectations were too high to begin with of what President Moon would be able to accomplish on the denuclearization front, because it really is much more of U.S.-DPRK discussion.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now, these leaders announced several different agreements.

    One of them, Jenny, is that the North Koreans are going to allow international inspectors in to a key missile testing facility to confirm whether or not Kim Jong-un is permanently dismantling that. How important is that?

  • Jenny Town:

    Well, first to clarify, it's actually not a missile testing facility. It is what they consider to be their civilian space launch — satellite launch program.

    So there is an engine test stand there where they have been building and testing liquid fuel engines that could be used either for rockets or for missiles. But the launch pad has only been used for satellite launches.

    I think it is significant, because this is an area where there has been disagreement in the past over this distinction between civilian programs and military programs. And it has derailed agreements in the passage, such as the Leap Day agreement in 2012. So this does help close that loophole.

    And if they allow actual experts in, and not just media, to actually observe the dismantlement, I think it is a very positive move, but it's still a confidence-building measure. It's not meant to be unilateral denuclearization.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Jenny is looking at this as a positive development. What do you think about that, Bruce?

  • Bruce Klingner:

    I would say this, along with many other aspects of the — or the Pyongyang declaration are good, but then, in many cases, they're outweighed by the "however, comma" aspect.

    So, North Korean has said they don't need a nuclear test site, they don't need a rocket engine test site because their ICBM and their nuclear weapons programs are over. So it's less important than it would have been during the development of these programs.

    And also the missiles that we are worried about, including their ICBM, are mobile. So they wouldn't be launched from a gantry like this facility. So we're more worried about the mobile missiles than any fixed-launch facility.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And staying with you, Bruce, the North Korean leader says that he's willing to close the Yongbyon nuclear complex if and only if the United States takes corresponding measures.

    What's your reaction to that? Should the United States take these corresponding measures? And what can the United States do, other than lift sanctions?

  • Bruce Klingner:


    Well, North Korea is putting a lot of conditionality on things that they are required to do under 11 U.N. resolutions. And, in fact, they had promised to abandon this facility back in 1994. So we're trying to get back to the — back to the future.

    When North Korea has put a heavy conditionality of it appropriate measures, they didn't define what that is. We think it might be a peace declaration, which they have said is very important. There are a number of really sort of serious ramifications for where a peace declaration could go.

    And unless we get something specifically as a quid pro quo, I don't think we should go down that path.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Jenny, what do you think of this idea of corresponding measures?

  • Jenny Town:

    Well, that's always been the case. And that's always been the expectation by North Korea.

    And if you look at Singapore summit declaration, there's a lot of room, though, for what the U.S. could do, other than just lifting sanctions, because the way that the North Koreans are looking at this is really the road to denuclearization is paved with a fundamentally different political relationship with the United States.

    And so you have the — the number one point is looking U.S.-DPRK relations. The number two point is looking at this peace regime. And there's a lot you can do within that to offer to improve relations, to create liaison offices, to live the travel ban, to even admit — or commit to not imposing new sanctions along the way, without lifting sanctions, until you have more specific measures.

    But, certainly, the U.S. is going to have to do some of these things if we want North Korea to continue down this road also.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Bruce, before yesterday's meeting, the president of South Korea said one of the main objectives was to get the U.S. and North Korean talks back on track. They have been stalled.

    What do you make of that? And has what you have learned in the last 24 hours made you feel as though these talks are back on track?

  • Bruce Klingner:

    Well, I think they will be, because the president very quickly and very positively reacted to this communique. So I think, for him, that's enough to justify having a second summit, as he has accepted an invitation from Kim Jong-un.

    But I think experts will say that nothing really has changed, so when he canceled Pompeo's trip, nothing has changed, except receiving a very nice letter from Kim Jong-un and then this positive, though not really any action on denuclearization.

    So I think the president will agree to it, but I think a number of people are concerned that there's not sufficient preparation for the summit, because, in many cases, we're going into these things, we don't know what North Korea needs.

    Well, we need to find that out. We always negotiate with ourselves. We think this is what North Korea wants, so let's do that. And they either pocket the concession and then move on to the next demand.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And I want to ask you, what do you make of that? And what do you think of this idea?

  • Jenny Town:

    Well, I think — I agree that the president obviously responded to it very positively.

    I think my biggest concern, too, is, how are they actually interpreting the agreement, because, if you look at Pompeo's statement this evening, there are things in there that seem to indicate he thinks that North Korea actually committed to closing down Yongbyon.

    But the wording of the agreement, it doesn't actually say that. It says it's willing to do things like that if the U.S. continues to play their part as well.

    And so I think this is where we really run into problems as to, do we have matching expectations of what's been committed? Do we have matching expectations of how do we even evaluate and measure progress over time? And I don't think we do.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    We have 30 seconds, last one I'm going to ask you really quickly.

    The U.S. wants to not — to not lift sanctions unless there's a full denuclearization. South Korea wants to have incentives that are economic.

    What do both of you think?

    You can go first, Bruce.

    What do both of you think about that idea of these two countries being out of sync? Could it hurt the U.S. and South Korea alliance?

  • Bruce Klingner:

    I'm hearing from U.S. officials there's — there's a dissatisfaction with how quickly the Moon Jae-in administration is moving forward, without demanding commensurate progress in denuclearization.

    So there are already some strains. And that could get worse.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And Jenny?

  • Jenny Town:

    Yes, I agree.

    I think it is causing tensions in the U.S.-Korea alliance. And — but for Moon, Moon really needs this to work, and he's bet a lot on North Korea now. And so they're going to have to find a way to make this compromise, or President Moon is going to have to make a very difficult decisions.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:


    Well, thank you to both of you for joining me, Bruce Klingner and Jenny Town.

  • Bruce Klingner:

    Thank you.

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