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Comparing Trump's North Korea Policy To Past Presidents

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And as we were listening to the secretary just now, Joel Wit was listening, too. He's a former U.S. diplomat who once negotiated with North Korea. He's on the line from New York. Good morning.

JOEL WIT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So Secretary Tillerson effectively says Kim Jong Un of North Korea, this is the deal. Talk with us directly. Give up your nukes 'cause you don't need them. How big a change is that in the U.S. approach?

WIT: Well, I think there have been some signals that the administration was open to dialogue but this is the clearest possible signal to North Korea that the administration is willing to sit down and have direct talks with them. And I think that's very important.

INSKEEP: And that's a big change for the United States?

WIT: Well, it certainly appears to be a change for the Trump administration but, you know, for years, the U.S. has signaled to North Korea that we're willing to talk. The problem has been that we've put preconditions on talking to the North Koreans. And if you talk to a North Korean, they'll say that's unacceptable. We have to have talks without precondition.

INSKEEP: Well, Secretary Tillerson also said what the goal of the talks need to be - North Korea giving up the nuclear weapons it already has, not just freezing its nuclear program in some way. I asked him, is that realistic to get them to give up all the nuclear weapons? He said, well, that's the goal. Let me ask you, is that a realistic goal?

WIT: Well, it depends on what you mean by realistic.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I mean realistic. Can you get it done?

WIT: Well, let me explain to you. If you mean they have to give up their nuclear weapons by tomorrow, it's not realistic. If it means that the long-term process we'll enter into through negotiations means at the end of the process they'll give up their nuclear weapons, then it might be realistic. And North Koreans will tell you that a goal of any negotiation would be a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

INSKEEP: OK. Let me bring another voice into the conversation here because President Trump spoke with Reuters yesterday. He did say that he hopes diplomacy works but he also said this. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea, absolutely.

INSKEEP: Joel Wit, how big a chance is there?

WIT: Well, I think there is a chance but it's not a chance in the near term. It's a chance that may come down the pike in a year or two or - I mean, we can't predict. But when North Korea starts testing an ICBM, a missile that can reach the United States, and continues testing nuclear weapons, then that's going to escalate the tensions.

INSKEEP: OK. Joel Wit, thanks very much, really appreciate your help.

WIT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And he's speaking with us on this morning that we have news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants the United States to have direct talks with North Korea over its nuclear program. He'll chair a U.N. Security Council meeting today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.