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Why previous North Korea negotiations have failed

The road to Tuesday's summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore has been long and dangerous, littered with fraught diplomacy, broken agreements and threats of war. Nick Schifrin looks back at how we got here.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the historic summit in Singapore between President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

    The road that's led to this meeting has been long and dangerous, littered with fraught diplomacy, broken agreements, and threats of war.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, again from Singapore, Mr. Trump has expressed hope that he can solve a problem that has bedeviled four American presidents.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Twenty-five years ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the current leader's father, made a critical decision. His country was desperately poor and suffered malnourishment and famine, but he built a nuclear program to guarantee his regime's security.

    In 1993, he threatened to kick out inspectors from plutonium reactors that could building nuclear weapons. In response, President Clinton drafted plans for war.

  • President Bill Clinton:

    It is pointless for them to try to develop nuclear weapons, because if they ever used them, it would be the end of their country.

  • Robert Gallucci:

    The intelligence community assessed in 1994 that if these reactors were completed, the North Koreans would probably have enough plutonium and enough time to produce about a hundred nuclear weapons. So the idea here was, don't let that happen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1994 a beardless Robert Gallucci tried to defuse the crisis diplomatically by negotiating with North Koreans, who were a little rough around the edges.

  • Robert Gallucci:

    They had ill-fitting suits. My opposite number would yell if he was excited. He would pound the table.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But after 17 months, the U.S. and North Korea signed the agreed framework. North Korea promised to dismantle its reactors. And the U.S. promised to replace them with reactors more suitable for power than bombs and pursue normalization for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the DPRK.

  • Robert Gallucci:

    This framework document, when it is implemented, should resolve the outstanding issue over the DPRK nuclear program.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Relations peaked in 2000, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and top North Korean military officer Marshal Jo Myong Rok visited Washington, but the U.S.' promised replacement reactors, which were supposed to fill this pit, were never finished and the U.S. never offered the North Koreans normalization.

  • Robert Gallucci:

    They regard us as having failed to complete our obligations. And they mean by that both the fact that we didn't finish our reactors, but I think, more importantly, that we never normalized relations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the North Koreans also broke promises. They began creating a second uranium path toward a bomb, with centrifuges similar to these, which caused critics to say North Korea never intended to denuclearize and the U.S. never understood it had been conned.

  • Mike Green:

    The agreed framework came out of the diplomatic process which ended up with North Korea cheating and continuing to develop new and more dangerous weapons. That is the pattern. And the agreed framework was the first time we held this football from Lucy like Charlie Brown.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the 2000s, Mike Green helped negotiate with the North Koreans for a Bush administration that scaled back on promised aid for North Korea. In response, North Korea reactivated its plutonium reactor. The Bush administration made threats.

  • President George W. Bush:

    States like these and terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But with no good military options, the U.S. turned to Russia, China, South Korea and Japan for six-party diplomacy. The U.S. again promised a replacement reactor and normalization, and North Korean again promised to abandon its nuclear program, and again U.S. expressed confidence.

  • Christopher Hill:

    It is a very important moment in their history to make this turn and to turn away from these sorts of weapons.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But North Korea didn't turn away from nuclear weapons.

    In 2006, North Korean TV announced and a massive crowd celebrated the country's first nuclear test.

  • Mike Green:

    The north Koreans were not prepared to give up nuclear weapons. These weapons are just too essential for their survival.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Which is why most analysts believe North Korea continued to test, despite international sanctions that targeted all of North Korea's exports.

    Like his predecessor, President Obama also used threats.

  • President Barack Obama:

    We will not hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And tried out diplomacy in fits and starts.

    But, by 2017, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the East Coast of the U.S. and showed off what it called a thermonuclear bomb. By then, Kim Jong Un had replaced his father, killed his own uncle to consolidate power, and dramatically accelerated the North Korean nuclear and weapons programs.

    And, by then, Donald Trump was president.

    Both were willing to threaten war.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.

  • Kim Jong Un (through translator):

    The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons. And a nuclear button is always on my desk.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration believes that rhetorical pressure, combined with unprecedented sanctions that targeted North Korea's oil and coal exports, forced Kim Jong Un to negotiate. But North Korea chose to negotiate, says Wendy Sherman, who focused on North Korea for the Clinton and Obama administrations.

  • Wendy Sherman:

    I think the sanctions helped. I think, though, the fundamental reason that Kim Jong Un is coming to the table is because he has his nuclear weapons. He has a delivery system to deliver those nuclear weapons. He's gotten what he needed. He wanted to get the recognition and the dignity of a meeting with the president of the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And it is that dignity that this summit provides.

  • Mike Green:

    By agreeing to the summit, essentially without conditions, the president has handed North Korea two its major objectives, number one, de facto recognition as a nuclear weapons state. Kim Jong Un is having summits with everybody.

    And, number two, the sanctions pressure is off. This summit has given the Chinese an alibi to back off on their economic pressure, and they're 90 percent of North Korea's trade.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senior administration officials describe the summit as a kind of smell test to see whether they can avoid making the mistakes of the past and whether Kim Jong Un is more willing to denuclearize than his predecessors.

    In Singapore, Kim Jong Un could go further than previous negotiating teams, but many analysts are skeptical.

  • Mike Green:

    The North Koreans usually come into these talks pre-scripted and don't have the permission to do anything other than read their talking points. That will be different for Donald Trump, because it is the supreme leader himself.

    Kim Jong Un will be free to ad-lib and say things that are probably pretty clever. He lived abroad. He speaks English and French. And so he will find ways to charm, offer historical breakthroughs that are in fact not breakthroughs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials admit they went into the summit not knowing whether Kim Jong Un is here to buy time or invest in a new future.

  • Robert Gallucci:

    I myself think it's very hard, some place between very hard and impossible to know, without testing. I favor negotiations as a method of testing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Singapore, the U.S. will consider lifting sanctions and offering security guarantees in exchange for denuclearization. The two sides will also discuss formally ending the Korean War that devastated the peninsula and was never officially ended.

  • Wendy Sherman:

    We all want the president to succeed. It is in our national security interests that he succeed.

    So, take a deep breath, get started, have a good first summit, open the door, but then know, to really open that door, to have the victory lap the president is looking for, it's going to take a considerable amount of time, attention to detail, and patience.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In recent weeks, President Trump has tried to find that patience and reduce expectations. But with so much on the line, after so much history, the president is hoping to make some of his own.

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

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