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North Korea willing to discuss dismantling nuclear program, says Trump official

There’s no doubt that President Trump and Kim Jong Un intend to meet, said Victoria Coates, special assistant to the president, who noted that the tone coming out of North Korea is making the Trump administration “very hopeful.” Coates joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the meeting between CIA Director Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the potential for denuclearization and more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, now we have a view from the White House on Mike Pompeo's trip to North Korea and the diplomatic state of play between North Korea and the U.S.

    We turn to Victoria Coates. She's special assistant to the president and senior director on the National Security Council.

    Victoria Coates, welcome to the program.

  • Victoria Coates:

    Judy, thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we heard the president say just then that he's going to be meeting with North Korea's leader in coming weeks. Does that mean this meeting is definite, for sure, it's going to happen?

  • Victoria Coates:

    Well, he was actually a little bit more specific earlier on today. He said early June, if not a little bit before. So, I would say that sounds pretty confirmed to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The reason I'm asking so specifically about whether it's on is because, the other day, the president said, well, we may be meeting or we may not be meeting.

    So there's no doubt in your mind the meeting is happening?

  • Victoria Coates:

    There's no doubt in my mind that they intend to meet, but we have to remember the North Koreans have a vote as well, that a lot of this discussion has been contingent on their willingness to talk about denuclearization.

    And that is our goal. So, if for some reason, they were to do something, I could see that being a spoiler. But I think, from our perspective, given the very constructive meetings Director Pompeo had, and the tone coming out of North Korea right now, we would be very hopeful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's talk about those meetings that Mr. Pompeo had with North Korea's leader. Highly unusual. We weren't expecting it. It was a surprise. Kept a secret for a while.

    What came out of those meetings? What did the United States learn about the North Korean leader from those meetings?

  • Victoria Coates:

    Well, I mean, as you know, that's the first time since 2000 that we have had a meeting on that level. And I think it was very important before we go in to any proposed presidential engagement that we have someone the president very much trusts, somebody who can speak for the president, meet with that person, take their measure.

    I'm not going to speak to the details of the meetings, but you can imagine what kind of — sort of preparation and detail that you would go through, and also very much, as I said, to establish that our goal for the peninsula is something that they're willing to talk about and consider.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, are they prepared? I mean, what we have been told is that…

  • Victoria Coates:

    They have said that, yes, they are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, that means completely dismantling this program that they have spent years building up, spending money on, spending all — pouring all their time and energy building up, that they're prepared to completely get rid of it?

  • Victoria Coates:

    Well, they're at least willing to have that conversation.

    And we have been very clear that the verifiable, complete, and irreversible dismantlement of that nuclear program is our goal. And so they know going in that that is what we're looking for.

    When President Trump came into office, one thing he made very clear is that he was going to put this campaign of maximum pressure on North Korea. And so we have spent a great deal of time and energy over the last 15 months applying that pressure.

    We have gotten excellent support out of, obviously, South Korea and Japan. We have also had some support from China, which has been unprecedented. And I think that really is starting to have an effect.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you already looking at how do you verify once they dismantle?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Victoria Coates:

    That's always the trust, but verify. It is always the very difficult thing, is to get an inspections program in place that you are confident that, indeed, your goal has been met.

    And so that — nobody is making light of this task. I think it will be extremely difficult, but, so far, we, I think, have reason to be hopeful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we know that we have been mentioning the president's meeting today and yesterday with the Japanese prime minister.

    One thing the Japanese are concerned about, they say, is conventional weapons. Even if the nuclear program goes away, they're worried, because they're so close, about North Korea's conventional weapons program.

  • Victoria Coates:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that going to be part of these talks?

  • Victoria Coates:

    Well, I think we certainly have to address it. I think that's definitely a lesson from our experience with Iran a couple of years ago, that we do need to pay attention to a full arsenal.

    And, as the president said in the press conference, he's very aware of Japan's proximity to North Korea. I mean, I think that was clear last year when the prime minister was at Mar-a-Lago the previous time, and there was that test, and you could see on the map how close it comes to Japan.

    That's a very different reality that they have to face. And the president clearly appreciates it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another thing that we are — that has been raised is whether, as part of this negotiation over the meeting, the North Koreans are promising to return the three Americans who are still being held in detention in North Korea.

    Are — is the administration talking to them about that? Do you expect those people will be released?

  • Victoria Coates:

    The president has been very clear that the return of unjustly detained American citizens is a top priority for this administration. He's worked very hard on it.

    There are a number of us who have personally engaged with some of the — some of the families. We have a large number of people who work on it. So, I think he has made that very clear, and I think his raising of the Japanese detained citizens was a significant moment in the press conference today.

    That's obviously a top priority for the Japanese. So, I don't want to speak to conditions or preconditions or anything like that. But, certainly, I think he's been very, very clear that he wants our people back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    These are Japanese citizen who were taken in the 1970s and '80s.

    What about the location for the meeting? Is Pyongyang one of the places you're looking at?

  • Victoria Coates:

    We have heard so many different places. I mean, it's been almost like a global tour. I have heard Sweden, Finland, Mongolia, Vietnam.

    I think the answer to that question, given the number of places, is, nobody knows yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is Pyongyang a possibility?

  • Victoria Coates:

    I have not seen that raised internally as a possibility, but I — since I don't think anybody knows, anything could be possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you come away, does the administration come away with a better understanding of this opaque regime after Mr. Pompeo's meeting with Kim Jong-un?

  • Victoria Coates:

    Oh, absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What can you say about him or about his government that…

  • Victoria Coates:

    I think it's very important to get that firsthand knowledge. And, obviously, I wasn't there, so I don't want to put words in Director Pompeo's mouth.

    But he is a very astute student of human nature. He is very talented at putting himself in some else's shoes, because, as we look at the North Korean regime, it's inexplicable to us. Why would you spend your money and energy on this?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Victoria Coates:

    You know, what is your motivation for doing that?

    And I think getting that kind of perspective, so you understand, you know, what is their currency, what are they looking for in this negotiation, would be enormously helpful to the director. And that's something he's obviously highly trained at.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're saying that some new information was — came across?

  • Victoria Coates:

    Well, definitely you're going to get — obviously, from meeting somebody firsthand, it's always very, very different from seeing them on screen. So…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Victoria Coates from President Trump's National Security Council, thank you very much.

  • Victoria Coates:

    It's a pleasure. Thank you, Judy.

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