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North Korea puts denuclearization on the negotiating table. Is it a breakthrough or stalling tactic?

South Korean officials say North Korea has offered to stop testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles if the U.S. agrees to direct talks, and that Kim Jong Un is reportedly open to denuclearization negotiations if assured of his regime’s long-term security. William Brangham talks to former CIA official Bruce Klingner and Joseph Detrani, former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Returning to one of our top stories, on North Korea's reported offer of possible talks to give its nuclear weapons program — to give it up — and to stop testing those weapons while those talks are under way.

    William Brangham explores whether this is a real breakthrough or simply the North stalling for time.

  • William Brangham:

    The announcement came from top South Korean officials who had just completed a two-day visit to Pyongyang for meetings with Kim Jong-un.

    It said Kim was open to talks on denuclearization if his regime could be assured of its own long-term security. If true, this is the first time the North Koreans have said they will even discuss disarming, which has been a consistent demand of the U.S.

    We turn now to two men with years of experience dealing with North Korea and different views of what this means.

    Joseph DeTrani was special envoy for Korea during the George W. Bush administration, and he then oversaw the intelligence community's work on North Korea for the director for national intelligence. He's now adjunct professor at Missouri State University Graduate School of Strategic Studies.

    And Bruce Klingner had a 20-year career in the intelligence community, where he focused on Korea, including chief of the CIA station in South Korea in the 1990s. He's now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

    Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    Joseph, I would like to start with you first.

    What do you make of this overture? The North Koreans allegedly say that they will talk about denuclearization if they can be assured of their security. What do you make of that?

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    No, I think it's a positive statement.

    The fact is, we have been having this discussion with North Korea since 1994. And we had some progress in 2005 with a joint statement. So we have been there. We have had this discussion.

    The key will be the particulars. What are they talking about when they talk about security assurances? We think of a peace treaty. We think of some assurances that we have no ill intentions. Occasionally, or more than occasionally, North Korea has other interpretations of security assurances.

    It could even include our presence on the Korean Peninsula, our military presence on the Korean Peninsula, or indeed our presence in the region. It's a question of us sitting down and getting the particulars, the details.

    What does this young man — because we have not negotiated with this man. We have negotiated with his…

  • William Brangham:

    Kim Jong-un.

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    Kim Jong-un.

    We have negotiated with his father, Kim Jong Il, who agreed to a joint statement in 2005, committing to comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of all their nuclear programs. Now this young man comes into power, has a significant arsenal of weapons and delivery systems, and is saying, I'm not prepared to denuclearization.

    Now he's saying he is prepared. What does that mean?

  • William Brangham:

    Bruce Klingner, do you share that trace of optimism I heard there?

  • Bruce Klingner:

    Well, right now, the two Koreas are rushing down the path of reconciliation. It's a well-trodden path.

    To date, it's always led to both of them rushing off the cliff like lemmings. But we can always run down the path again and hope for a different result.

    You know, it is a significant development. It is a bit surprising, especially considering where we were in late December, when it seemed like we were on an inevitable path to some kind of military conflict.

    So this is really a dramatic change. The Koreas really are leading the game right now. There's some concerns in Washington as to how eager South Korean President Moon is, whether he will have less conditions or more eagerness than the U.S. may want.

    But at least right now, we're starting from a good place. The South Korean president, he is a progressive, but he's adopted a much more centrist policy towards North Korea than many of us had expected. He reversed himself on a number of issues.

    So, he's — he was up until now been pushing pressure over engagement.

  • William Brangham:

    Joseph DeTrani, though, explain, why should we believe them now? There are plenty of administrations. You have both been through this process where the North Koreans make promises and then those promises are broken. Why believe them now?

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    Well, he has pain. North Korea is suffering now.

  • William Brangham:

    Because of our sanctions?

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    Well, the sanctions are biting, there's no question.

    Also, the military exercises. We have introduced strategic forces in those exercises.

  • William Brangham:

    These are the U.S.-South Korean exercises.

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    The U.S.-South Korean exercises, and it's got to be intimidating for North Korea.

    But also, I might add, Kim Jong-un has had a good year in 2017 in regard to his nuclear and missile program, 25 missile launches, to include an intercontinental ballistic missile that can touch the whole of the United States, a hydrogen bomb test.

    So he's coming to the table feeling a little better about himself.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think his success in his testing regimen makes these negotiations maybe more feasible?

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    I think that's part of the equation.

    It's not only the sanctions that are biting and the military exercises, the joint exercises, that are intimidating. It's him feeling a little more confident that he has this arsenal and he will be treated, I think, with what they usually talk about, greater respect.

    So what does that mean? It's the particulars. It's in the details. And that's why some exploratory discussions — I'm not saying negotiations. I don't think we should go into negotiations until we're clear as to what their intentions are. Is he serious about comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement?

    That is our position. And it's a correct position. I think everyone agrees North Korea with nuclear weapons would be catastrophic.

  • William Brangham:

    Bruce Klingner, what do you make of the other news that came out of this, that Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in might potentially be meeting face to face very soon? How significant is that?

  • Bruce Klingner:

    Well, it's very significant because it would be the third time, only the third time that two Korean leaders have met.

    I think it's a positive development that it will be in the border area of Panmunjom. Also, the area is fairly austere, so it's not going to have all the diplomatic trappings of state dinners. And if it was in North Korea, the North could have controlled the message more.

    Here, it is going to be much more businesslike. It's going to be in these pavilions which are very austere. So, I think it will be more a case of they arrive and they get down to business.

    Now, the business is the difficult part, and we have been down this path many times. So I think there is a lot of reason and justification for being skeptical.

  • William Brangham:

    Joseph DeTrani, what would you — if you were advising the Trump administration, how would you have them respond to this overture?

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    Well, I think exploratory discussions would be justified.

    Indeed, if North Korea halts its missile launches and indeed has no nuclear tests, I think that would — and they know that we will move forward with our joint military exercises with South Korea that we have planned.

  • William Brangham:

    Which they didn't ask us to abandon.

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    They did not say to walk away.

    Eventually, they will ask us to scale them back and eventually they will ask us to cease and desist. They're moving down that path. But I think exploratory discussions, where we're not putting anything, we're not giving anything to them, they, in fact, are halting what they're doing, we should listen to them and question them, because there is a joint statement.

    I keep mentioning the 2005 joint statement. It took us two years of hard negotiations to get that, and then four years of pursuing it, and North Korea then walked away from it. I mean, there's a document there. There's a lot of work there.

    But that can be revisited. And North Korea could be asked, well, if your father, Kim Jong Il, committed to this, why have you persisted with your nuclear weapons? And if you're so concerned about security assurances, what do you mean by that? What are you looking — besides a peace treaty?

    And I think, in the statement from the South Korean, I think they noted they would like normal relations with the United States. This is something they have always wanted. Indeed, that is the best security assurance they can get.

    But they need to work hard at getting that, not only because of nuclear missile issues, human rights and illicit activity issues.

  • William Brangham:

    Bruce Klingner, what would you have the administration do?

  • Bruce Klingner:

    I think we need to obviously have close coordination with our allies, not only South Korea and Japan.

    But right now, the momentum is such that we can't stay out of the diplomacy game. There's Been a lot of questions of whether President Trump is supportive of diplomacy or not, a lot of focus on whether the U.S. was going to do a preventive attack or not.

    So, now that we're actually getting to diplomacy, really, because in a way we're being dragged into it by the two Koreas, it's sort of a case of the dog catching the car. We don't really know what to do with the car now, because the administration hasn't articulated what it's looking for or what its conditions or preconditions are for engaging with the North.

  • William Brangham:

    Bruce Klingner, Joseph DeTrani, thank you both very much.

  • Joseph DeTrani:

    Thank you. Appreciate it.

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