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The risks of the North Korea summit for U.S.-South Korea relations

President Trump voiced doubts about whether a planned summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would proceed as planned, as he met with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in at the White House. Nick Schifrin talks with Balbina Hwang of Georgetown University and Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, President Trump today voiced doubts about whether next month's planned summit with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, would proceed as planned.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, Mr. Trump and his South Korean counterpart met today at a crucial moment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the Oval Office today, President Trump blended a handful of hope with a pinch of perspective, hope that his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could create a historic peace.

  • President Donald Trump:

    He has a chance to do something that maybe has never been done before. He will be safe. He will be happy. His country will be rich. North Korea really has the chance to be a great country. And I think they should seize the opportunity, and we will soon find out whether or not they want to do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that perspective, that maybe the summit won't even happen.

  • President Donald Trump:

    There are certain conditions that we want. And I think we will get those conditions. And if we don't, we don't have the meeting.

    There's a chance that it will work out. There's a chance, there's very substantial chance that it won't work out. That doesn't mean it won't work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    North Korea enters the summit presenting itself as a full-fledged nuclear state. Whether and how the country denuclearizes is at the negotiation's core. North Korean officials have expressed interest in slow, step-by-step denuclearization and step-by-step American incentives.

    President Trump said today he'd prefer, but wouldn't insist, on swift denuclearization.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It would certainly be better if it were all in one. Does it have to be? I don't think I want to totally commit myself. But all in one would be a lot better, or at least, for physical reasons, over a very short period of time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The go-between for Trump and Kim has been South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who pushes peace in part by praising the president.

  • Moon Jae-in (through translator):

    I have no doubt you will be able to accomplish a historic feat that no one has been able to achieve in the decades past.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior administration officials describe this moment to the "NewsHour" as brinksmanship between two men who don't want to be the one to cancel or be canceled on.

    President Trump said his blend of hope and perspective comes from his past experience in business.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have made a lot of deals. I know deals I think better than anyone knows deals. You never really know.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As of now, the administration continues to plan as if the summit will happen, but a senior official suggests that reporters who plan on going book refundable tickets.

    We take a closer look now at today's meeting and the prospects for next month's summit with Balbina Hwang, who served in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, and is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University. And Jeffrey Lewis is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He is also founding publisher of the blog Arms Control Wonk.

    Welcome to you both.

    Jeffrey Lewis, if I could start with you, why is President Moon of South Korea here? What's his mission?

  • Jeffrey Lewis:

    I think he has one overriding mission, and that's to save the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.

    From President Moon's perspective, he wants to improve relations with North Korea, but he can't do that unless the United States is also doing the same thing. So, if he wants what he wants, he has to get that summit to happen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Balbina Hwang, is that right? Is President Moon here to save the summit?

  • Balbina Hwang:

    Oh, absolutely, and not only. President Moon has absolutely one mission, and that is actually to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And trying to keep some of the rhetoric that we heard last year down.

    I want to play some comments for both of you by the national security adviser, John Bolton, to FOX News about four weeks ago.

  • John Bolton:

    We have very much in mind the Libya model from 2003-2004. There are obviously differences. The Libyan program was much smaller, but that was basically the agreement that we made.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Bolton is talking about a deal about denuclearization from 2003. But, of course, we know in 2011 he ended up dead in a ditch.

    So, Jeffrey Lewis, what was Bolton's intention by bringing up the Libya model?

  • Jeffrey Lewis:

    Well, you know, in his memoir, Bolton bragged about using diplomacy to actually advance other goals.

    So he bragged about sending a delegation off to Pyongyang, feeling that he had sabotaged them and knowing that it would collapse. My guess is that he was bringing up Gadhafi not because it really is a model for disarmament, but because he knew it would annoy the North Koreans.

    And, in fact, it did. I think we saw that the North Korean statement the other day singled Bolton out and made it very clear that Libya wasn't a precedent they liked.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Balbina Hwang, is that right? Was the national security adviser perhaps trying scuttle this summit or somehow convince North Koreans that the U.S. wasn't serious about diplomacy?

  • Balbina Hwang:

    Well, absolutely.

    Libya is a red line that everybody knows is something that North Korea will not accept. Now, on the other hand, it is also the sort of extreme that you set up going into negotiations, so that you know that that is the furthest line that you know that is the extent to which is the hard line, the extreme.

    Now, we also know that President Trump is the negotiator. That's how he presents himself. That's how he is the deal-maker. And when President Trump is going into the summit, that is what he says that he's going to do. He's going to come out with a deal.

    And so that is how he is going to go in, and that's exactly how he wants to set it up. And so North Korea is obviously going to come out and say, we're not going to go into a summit with this kind of a deal. So of course he's going to do that.

    And I think that that's exactly how Bolton is setting this up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So you're suggesting it actually could help, that this is something important, whether the U.S. public or for the U.S. simply to have this hard line going into the summit, that it's helpful?

  • Balbina Hwang:

    Exactly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    OK.

    Jeffrey Lewis, should there be a summit? We heard a lot of doubt about this today. And what do you expect to come out of the summit if it indeed goes forward on the 12th?

  • Jeffrey Lewis:

    Well, I think the answer to whether there should be a summit is, it depends, and I think it depends on whether the president goes in with realistic expectations.

    I don't think the North Koreans are going to offer up their nuclear weapons. I don't think that they're planning on disarming. And so the real question is, are the North Koreans going to offer something short of that, a prolonged moratorium on testing missiles, a continued pledge not to test nuclear weapons, maybe a pledge not to export those technologies?

    So you have to look at the likely North Korean concessions, what they're likely to put on the table and then ask, is that something you want? The nightmare scenario for me is that John Bolton's counsel in private is not preparing the president for this, that he's getting him ready to expect a kind of surrender from Kim.

    And when that doesn't happen, will the president settle for less or we will he throw a tantrum and walk out?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Balbina Hwang, should there be lowered expectations for the summit?

  • Balbina Hwang:

    Well, is the summit really about the process of denuclearization and disarmament, or is the summit really about politics and is this really about a political process?

    And I would argue that this really is about a political process, and if so, then, yes, there should be a summit. And, possibly, there will be one.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jeffrey Lewis, quickly, is there any risk in this summit to the U.S. alliance with South Korea?

  • Jeffrey Lewis:

    Well, I think there is some risk.

    You know, we're entering into this period where there are a lot of tensions. President Moon is a progressive, but he's also quite nationalistic. I think he's quite negative about the U.S. presence in the country. And President Trump has insisted that South Korea pay more.

    So my fundamental concern is, if the summit goes badly, we don't want a situation where President Moon decides that the big threat isn't Kim Jong-un; it's Donald Trump.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's interesting.

    Balbina Hwang, do some people in South Korea believe the threat is not Kim Jong-un, but actually Donald Trump?

  • Balbina Hwang:

    I think this is the single biggest underestimated risk, is the alliance. And this is the one thing that we are not looking at.

    The whole summit is, unfortunately, played as between the United States and North Korea. And what we're not looking at is the third actor, which is South Korea and the U.S. alliance with South Korea.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, therefore, is there risk to this alliance, especially if the summit doesn't go well?

  • Balbina Hwang:

    Absolutely.

    That's right. And, especially if the summit doesn't even occur at all, the alliance could be at risk.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All right.

    Balbina Hwang, Jeffrey Lewis, thank you very much.

  • Balbina Hwang:

    Thank you.

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