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Why North Korea is threatening to pull out of the U.S. summit

What seemed like a sure thing a week ago in now up in the air. A top North Korean official released a statement saying that they are not interested if the U.S. insists on complete nuclear disarmament. Judy Woodruff talks with former State Department official Joel Wit about the recent back and forth and the prospects for productive talks.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to the prospect of talks now in question between President Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

    For more on what the recent back and forth means, I’m joined by Joel Wit. He worked as part of the State Department team that negotiated a nuclear agreement with North Korea during the Clinton administration. He is now a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and founder of 38 North. It’s a Web site that focuses on Korea.

    Joel Wit, thank you very much. Welcome back to the program.

    How to you read what North Korea is saying right now?

  • Joel Wit:

    Well, there are a number of different ways to read it, but I think the main way to read it is that, for months, we have been used to North Korea essentially being a pussycat, which is very different from the way they have been in the past.

    And I think now they’re reverting back to their past behavior in the run-up to the summit, and that means trying to heighten the pressure on the United States to give them a good deal. And by threatening to not go to the summit, that’s their attempt to do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What precipitated this? Can you tell what was behind these statements?

  • Joel Wit:

    Well, aside from the general North Korean attempt to play tough guy, which they normally do, there could have been a number of other things that were going on.

    One, it may reflect difficulties in secret preparatory talks that are leading up to the summit that I think are being held in Singapore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    These are — and these are under — have been under way.

  • Joel Wit:

    They have been under way, because, as we all know, the leaders don’t sit down in a summit and negotiate agreements by themselves.

    There’s a lot of preparation ahead of time. So it could be a reflection of that. But, secondly, it’s also a reaction to some of the statements by Trump administration officials, like John Bolton, which basically say to the North Koreans, you give up your nuclear weapons and then we will reward you afterwards.

    And that’s unacceptable to them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, if Bolton’s statement went too far, which the White House — we reported earlier the White House sounds like they’re backing away from that. They’re saying, we don’t have a specific plan for what we think North Korea should do.

    But it does sound as if there is room for the North Koreans to do something, to do some step, some measure toward nuclear disarmament.

  • Joel Wit:

    Well, that’s exactly the case. That’s what a negotiation is about.

    So what we’re hearing are — at least from the United States, we’re hearing the opening position, which is, you give up everything, and then we will give you something in return. And the North Korean position, which isn’t public, but I’m pretty sure is, no, we will gradually give up things, but you give us things in return during that process.

    So the issue is whether the two sides can meet somewhere in between that’s acceptable to both.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the Trump administration — the North Koreans are saying, you need to do something about these joint exercises the U.S. and South Korea. They’re saying a couple of things.

    The U.S., the Trump administration has been saying, we’re not going to make any concessions. It’s entirely up to the North.

    But, in fact, are there steps that the U.S. and South Korea are going to need to take, to need to seriously consider taking before there can be any deal?

  • Joel Wit:

    Well, there are a lot of steps, because what the North Koreans are going to demand are, first, the normalization of relations with the United States, the establishment of diplomatic relations.

    Secondly, they’re going to demand lifting of the sanctions. And the third step they’re going to demand is a peace treaty. And all of these are big steps for the United States and South Korea to take. And the issue is whether we’re willing to do that and get denuclearization in return.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you — were you — before these statements happened in the last few days — or from the last 24 hours from North Korea, did you have a sense that things were moving in a positive direction?

  • Joel Wit:

    You know, it’s very difficult to say because most of us can only see what’s going on in public, and there wasn’t much going on at all, except the occasional public statements by the North Koreans and the United States.

    So it’s hard to say whether things are moving in the right direction, and this could be the first sign that things aren’t moving in the right direction. And so we need to watch very closely and see what happens from now to the summit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you expect to happen next? Who makes the next move?

  • Joel Wit:

    You know, I’m not sure there are any more moves yet, because the secret talks are under way. We will see what happens in those.

    And there could be more back and forth publicly. But if we don’t see an escalation of the current exchanges between President Trump and the North Koreans, then that means things are moving along in the right direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you have a gut instinct, Joel Wit, about whether this gets back on track or not?

  • Joel Wit:

    You know, all along, I have thought that there will be a summit, and a lot of people have been very skeptical about that.

    And my analysis is from the North Korean angle. I think they are very serious about having a meeting with President Trump and finding a way from confrontation to a peaceful path forward.

    The issue is, as I said earlier, whether we can make the two sides’ positions come together in a way that’s acceptable to both.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Joel Wit, with the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, thank you.

  • Joel Wit:

    Thank you.

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