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What South Korea hopes for from a Trump meeting with Kim Jong Un

Two weeks ago, there was a surprise announcement that President Trump had accepted an offer to meet North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un this spring. What do South Koreans think of that development? Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff from Seoul for an update.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It’s been two weeks since the surprise announcement that President Trump had accepted an offer to meet North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, later this spring.

    Last week, I spoke with South Korea’s foreign minister, who was here in Washington to consult with the administration about that meeting and the nuclear standoff with the North.

    But how does all this look from the ground in South Korea?

    For that, I’m joined from Seoul by our newly announced foreign affairs and defense correspondent, Nick Schifrin.

    Let me welcome you, Nick, officially to the “NewsHour” family. You have been contributing to the program from all over the world these last couple of years, but you’re going to be with us full-time starting in May.

    So, Nick, you have been in Seoul. You have been talking to South Korean and American officials there. What is the messaging you’re hearing from them?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The messaging from both sides is positive.

    The messaging from both sides to North Korea is, we are committed to diplomacy, we are committed to talking.

    So, from the South Korean side, that’s what we have been hearing for a while, an emphasis on diplomacy, an emphasis on trying to speak Korean, to Korean sides, and bring the U.S. along when it comes to diplomacy.

    But we’re now also hearing the message from American officials that I’m speaking to, and specifically through the military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea that will happen next month. These exercises have really inflamed the North Koreans in the past.

    And what U.S. officials are now saying is, they’re going to try and make these exercises as low-key as possible. So they will limit press coverage during that exercise, so they’re not as public as they used to be.

    And while they’re not confirming a South Korean media report that there will be fewer assets from the U.S. side, namely, submarines, an aircraft carrier and other military assets, they are suggesting that certainly this military exercise will be as low-key as possible, so as not to inflame the North Koreans, so as not to risk any damage to the ongoing diplomacy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, when you talk to the South Korean officials, how do they see these next few months going? What are their expectations?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, I think the South Korean officials are very optimistic and, long-term, they very ambitious. They talk about peace. They even talk about unification in the long-term.

    But, in the short-term they’re trying to tamp down expectations. And they say, what is success over the next few months? Simply having a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. They say, look, look at what happened over the last six months, nine months. Think about the rhetoric between both sides.

    If we can just get them in the same room with a handshake, that’s good enough, and then we can start a longer-term process of talking about what can happen over the long term, what can happen in terms of denuclearization.

    And their hope is that they can just simply make this dialogue sustainable, sustainable path of the President Trump administration and sustainable path of President Moon’s administration here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Nick, what do the South Koreans say they believe the North Koreans are willing to do here, and what do they want from all this, ultimately?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, this is where the South Koreans are truly optimistic.

    The South Koreans think that the North Koreans are willing to denuclearize, both their present capacity and their future capacity. Critics would call that naive, but the South Koreans say, look, we talk about irreversible denuclearization. They will talk about that so long as they get irreversible security guarantees and prosperity guarantees.

    And what does that look like? Not only sanctions relief, not only a U.S. pledge not to attack North Korea, but foreign direct investment into North Korea by the U.S. One South Korean official even joked, Trump Tower Pyongyang. That would convince the North Koreans that the U.S. was serious about North Korean security and prosperity.

    Now, for the critics, they say, look, we’re not only talking about diplomacy. We’re also talking about security. There’s going to be an 8 percent budget increase of the military here, not only missile defense, but also navy, air force, intelligence assess, and, of course, the massive U.S. presence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, so many eyes on the Korean Peninsula, where you are.

    Nick Schifrin, reporting for us from Seoul, thank you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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