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Pompeo In North Korea: What Success Would Look Like

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And there are lots more questions about what Secretary Pompeo will be able to accomplish in North Korea and what success would look like down the road. With us now to parse through all of this is David Kang. He directs the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. Thanks for talking to us.

DAVID KANG: Oh, my pleasure.

CHANG: So let's just step back a little bit. Has the Trump administration made it clear exactly what it expects the North Koreans should give up under this joint statement that the two leaders released last month when they met in Singapore?

KANG: No, they haven't. And that's where a lot of the debate or the controversy comes around because what the United States has claimed it wants is complete denuclearization. And the North Koreans sort of say they'll do that, but it's pretty clear they don't mean the same thing. And so no one's really sure exactly what is on the table.

CHANG: Has North Korea done anything in the last few weeks that shows it's on board with some of the spirit of what the U.S. might mean by denuclearization?

KANG: Well, you know, in the last few weeks, it's come out that North Korea has continued to move forward with proliferation in some ways with their...

CHANG: Right.

KANG: ...Nuclear program, right? And so in some ways, that's counter to the spirit. In other ways, there are still the missile test moratorium and the nuclear test moratorium and the dismantling of the nuclear test site. So they're in a sort of holding pattern just like I think the way that we are.

CHANG: Is it realistic to expect North Korea to make any concessions if the U.S. hasn't been altogether clear about what it's willing to do to help North Korea?

KANG: No, it's not, and that's one of the things that we tend to overlook, which is, we're all focused on what North Korea's going to do, and they haven't made enough concessions, or, you know, what do they really mean? But it's not clear what the United States will do. We canceled one war game, one military exercise.

CHANG: Right.

KANG: We can always start those up again. Beyond that, it's not clear what the U.S. means by a peace treaty, by economic aid, et cetera, et cetera. So the North Koreans I think are looking to see what the U.S. really mean, and the U.S. is looking at what the North Koreans really mean. And that's why you engage in diplomacy.

CHANG: If we take Secretary Pompeo at his word, as you just heard, all of this is going to be done in Trump's first term. What do you think? Is that realistic?

KANG: It's realistic if you define success so that we already meet the bar, right? And this is the question again. The dirty secret or the open common knowledge is that there will never be complete denuclearization of North Korea because they can always start over again. So the real question that we should have for ourselves is, can we move the needle in the right direction, and can we keep it going that way? And in that sense, compared to where we were literally one year ago, we are so much better off. A year ago, we were testing missiles and fire and fury. And everyone was really worried.

CHANG: How much could the needle actually move by the end of Trump's first term? The - we're talking about 2 1/2 years from now. What do you see can be realistically accomplished in that timeframe?

KANG: You know, I think if North Korea actually takes one or two more steps backwards - for example, allowing in some inspectors or even turning over some nuclear weapons or something like that - that would be huge. Most people don't expect them to even do that. On the U.S. side, the real question is, what would we do? Maximum pressure is still in effect - you know, economic sanctions, threats that we can always go back to more military exercises. So is the U.S. really prepared to walk back a number of those sanctions and to move forward with some kind of actual peace treaty? It's not clear, but that's what would be success.

CHANG: So what do you expect to come out of this meeting between Secretary Pompeo and the North Koreans?

KANG: I think a optimistic outcome would be that both the U.S. and North Korea make some kind of specific commitment to some step. That would be success, meaning North Korea says, OK, we've done X and Y, and now we will dismantle something - whatever. And the United States comes out and says, this is our next step. We now will do X or Y. This is what diplomacy is - is about trying to push forward. And it's not clear at all what either side really wants to give, but both sides are aimed in the right direction at least. And last year, we weren't.

CHANG: David Kang teaches Korean studies at USC. Thank you.

KANG: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.