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Experts Pessimistic About Value Of Another Trump-Kim Summit

Feb 17, 2019
Originally published on February 17, 2019 3:54 pm
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The U.S. and North Korea are preparing for a second summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It will take place in Vietnam at the end of this month. Some experts doubt Kim is serious about giving up his nuclear weapons and question the wisdom of another summit. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul about what North Korea is expected to bring to the negotiating table and what it might be worth.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: After months of deadlock since the first Trump-Kim summit, Kim Jong Un restated his commitment to denuclearize in a televised New Year's address.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SUPREME LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Through interpreter) We declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them. And we have taken various practical measures to that end.

KUHN: Kim appeared to be offering to freeze his nuclear weapons programs. Pyongyang hasn't tested a nuclear bomb or missile since late 2017, although experts suspect work on those programs continues. Last year, North Korea partially dismantled a nuclear test site and a rocket launch site. Kim also pledged to his South Korean counterpart to shut down the North's Yongbyon nuclear plant if the U.S. offers an appropriate response. Leif-Eric Easley, an international relations expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, says that it's likely that North Korea may offer inspectors access to those sites.

LEIF-ERIC EASLEY: But if we actually witness in the coming months an agreement to get inspectors back on the ground in North Korea and to verify that certain facilities are no longer producing weapons-grade material, that would certainly be progress.

KUHN: Critics argue that those facilities have outlived their usefulness so North Korea is not really giving anything up by dismantling them. Yang Mujin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul disagrees.

YANG MUJIN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: North Korea has continuously improved the Yongbyon facilities, he says. And it has produced weapons-grade plutonium and uranium there. I think it accounts for about 50 percent of North Korea's nuclear capabilities.

Experts here seem to agree that North Korea's offerings are not new. They're not complete. They're conditional on what the U.S. gives in return. And it's not even certain that Pyongyang will deliver them as promised. But they're also not insignificant, and - they're sure better than a diplomatic stalemate or the threat of war. Park Jiyoung, a nuclear expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank, advises folks to keep expectations for the summit low.

PARK JIYOUNG: (Through interpreter) If North Korea needs to take 100 steps to denuclearize, what is being discussed now seems to be only the first two or three steps.

KUHN: Some observers are not so concerned with what the North's offerings are worth.

EASLEY: My concern is, for the benefit derived from this process with North Korea, what are the costs?

KUHN: If, for example, Ewha University's Leif-Eric Easley says, the U.S. responds by lifting sanctions on North Korea, ignoring its human rights situation or selling out the U.S. as South Korean or Japanese allies, then...

EASLEY: I think that those costs may outweigh benefits. And that's something that we have to watch very carefully.

KUHN: There are appropriate things the U.S. can offer in return, Asan Institute's Park Jiyoung says, such as opening a liaison office in Pyongyang or allowing more humanitarian aid into North Korea. Both of these steps are easily reversible, and the U.S. has already pledged to allow more aid in anyway.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.