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What Trump’s personal relationship with Kim Jong Un means for U.S. policy

Last June, President Trump called his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a new chapter in the historically adversarial relationship between the two nations. Since then, American policy toward North Korea has evolved from demanding complete denuclearization to emphasizing peace on the Korean peninsula. Nick Schifrin reports from Hanoi on how and why that change has taken place.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we return to the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in Vietnam.

    Our Nick Schifrin is back now to examine the major issues they will discuss.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's been eight months since a historic handshake and what President Trump called a new chapter between the U.S. and one of its principal adversaries.

    Since then, he's portrayed his personal connection to Kim Jong-un as the most important source of progress, and pledged great affection for North Korea's authoritarian leader.

  • Donald Trump:

    And then we fell in love. OK? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they are great letters. We fell in love.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump's critics accuse him of going soft and say the U.S. has lost its leverage, because North Korea has done nothing to reduce nuclear capacity.

    Sung-Yoon Lee is with Fletcher School at Tufts University.

  • Sung-Yoon Lee:

    Well, the U.S. is playing into North Korea's hands, which is to grant illusory concessions, as North Korea buys more time and money with which to perfect the bomb.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump's defenders say the administration finally has it right.

  • Donald Trump:

    I'm in no particular rush.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Patience and reasonable expectations for a long process toward denuclearization.

  • Robert Carlin:

    In my view, we're in the best position we have been in for 16, 17 years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robert Carlin worked on North Korea for the U.S. government for decades and has visited the country more than 30 times. He says the U.S. does have leverage because Kim Jong-un needs the U.S.

  • Robert Carlin:

    Kim is serious about getting his economy started again. The North Koreans believe you can't do that as long as you have an external threat, a security threat. So, in their mind, they have to lessen that threat to give themselves space to do this work internally. That's what he's doing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the U.S.' top priorities is to agree on a definition of denuclearization. Last year, North Korea blew up the entrances to its main nuclear test mountain, and vows to destroy an engine testing site.

    Since the early '90s, North Korea has claimed these site destructions represent progress. But critics say they're meaningless.

  • Sung-Yoon Lee:

    Kim Jong-un has decommissioned retired nuclear test site, as we saw last year in May, that he no longer needs after six underground nuclear tests. There have been no meaningful concessions made by Kim Jong-un over the past year.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, meanwhile, these satellite images show North Korea maintains 20 missile sites, and continues to produce fuel for their nuclear weapons.

    The administration's critics say anything less than rolling North Korea's program back is accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

  • Sung-Yoon Lee:

    What the U.S. is unwittingly doing, I fear, is really abetting, enabling North Korea's full nuclearization, and really changing the status quo, the balance of power in North Korea's favor in the Korean Peninsula.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration says that misses the important concessions North Korea has already made. After an unprecedented number of tests in 2017, Kim Jong-un hasn't tested any missiles or nuclear weapons for 15 months, a significant sacrifice for a program that still needs more testing.

    The administration wants to broaden the freeze, a position supported by former Defense Secretary Bill Perry.

  • William Perry:

    And we should try to maintain that freeze, no testing in particular, but also try to expand it to no production and no exports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the late 1990s, after Perry served as secretary of defense, President Clinton dispatched him to start negotiations with the North Koreans. Back then, the idea was to expand the relationship to accomplish arms control.

    Today, the administration is following a similar strategy, and Perry urges the president to negotiate less ambitions objectives.

  • William Perry:

    To the extent we hold the standard complete dismantlement, complete verification, and that it could be never turned back again, this is just unrealistic. It cannot happen. So I don't like to hold out objectives for negotiations that are just not achievable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior U.S. officials admit their goals have evolved. Last summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Pyongyang and demanded unilateral actions by the North Koreans.

    Now U.S. officials talk about simultaneous actions taken by both sides. They're no longer demanding an inventory of weapons up front. And they're not only willing to negotiate denuclearization, but also some of North Korea's goals, peace on the peninsula and improving the relationship with the U.S. overall.

    That can be done by resolving the Korean War, which, in 1953, ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. A political declaration to end the war and perhaps diplomatic liaison offices would enable Kim to harness changes to North Korean society, like a rapid expansion of markets, argues Bob Carlin.

  • Robert Carlin:

    I believe Kim needs the — a declaration on the end of the Korean War so he can justify changing priorities. He is trying to move things in place for big moves on the economy, and that is linked up with what he's doing with the Americans.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's also linked up to what he's doing with South Korea. South and North Korea recently blew up outposts along the demilitarized zone, and officials from both countries are trying to connect railroads.

    The U.S. could allow that opening to proceed by lifting some of the sanctions now imposed on North Korea. But critics fear that could lead the U.S. to withdraw some or all of the 23,000 troops currently stationed in South Korea.

    Last week, President Trump said that's not on the table.

  • Donald Trump:

    No, it's not. That is not a consideration.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But early this month, he highlighted their cost to CBS' Margaret Brennan.

  • Margaret Brennan:

    You're going to keep U.S. troops there in South Korea?

  • Donald Trump:

    Yes, I mean, we haven't talked about anything else. Maybe someday. I mean, who knows. But, you know, it's very expensive to keep troops there. You do know that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But President Trump's advisers know they have to improve on the generalities agreed to in Singapore and create a specific road map both sides can follow.

    While critics say that's a road to nowhere…

  • Sung-Yoon Lee:

    North Korea buys more time as the other side, as the U.S., puts its guard down with which to build its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … defenders argue today provides an opportunity for the U.S. to transform the relationship by negotiating more than denuclearization.

  • William Perry:

    There are many things we can do to sort of bring North Korea into the world of nations, instead of being a pariah nation and an outcast nation. And I think those things are worth doing too, in parallel with working on the hard objectives.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump argues he can do that by promising to make North Korea great again by providing the country prosperity and by harnessing the two leaders' relationship.

  • Donald Trump:

    And where are we now? No missiles, no rockets, no nuclear testing. We have learned a lot. But much more importantly than all of it, much more important, much, much more important than that, is, we have a great relationship. I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Hanoi summit will test whether a good relationship translates into convincing North Korea that, once and for all, it can survive without nuclear weapons.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Hanoi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Nick will continue to report on the summit tomorrow.

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