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Trump's Historic Meeting With North Korea Leader Is Propaganda Bait, Expert Says


We're going to start the program today with news that happened while most of us in the U.S. were asleep. President Trump traveled to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then stepped over the concrete slab that marks the borderline between the Koreas, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korean territory.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is my honor. I didn't really expect it. We were in Japan for the G-20. We came over, and I said, hey. I'm over here. I want to call up Chairman Kim. And we got to meet, and stepping across that line was a great honor. A lot of progress has been made. A lot of friendships have been made, and this has been in particular a great friendship.

MARTIN: Afterwards, Trump and Kim met for about an hour on the southern side of the border, and Trump announced that the two leaders would restart nuclear disarmament talks. Joining me now to tell us more about this is Jean Lee. She is the director of the Korea program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Jean Lee, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us.

JEAN LEE: Hello.

MARTIN: So first of all, let me just fact-check something. This is being presented as impromptu. It seems that that's not really possible, given the intense security apparatus, you know, on that border. But, having said that, like, what is the relevance of President Trump stepping across the line into North Korean territory? Symbolically, what's the weight of this?

LEE: It is historic. It will be the first time a U.S. president has done this while in office. I think it's also notable that it's probably setting a record in terms of how to - how quickly he can organize a little mini-summit like this. But I have to say, it wasn't a surprise to me. There have been signals for a couple weeks, so I suspected that they would use this trip to Asia as an occasion to reach out to Kim Jong Un. So if you're paying close attention to North Korea, it won't come as a surprise.

But absolutely, the part about stepping over - there are reasons for why presidents past have not done that. You're giving Kim Jong Un this amazing propaganda moment. And you saw all the North Korean state media, the photographers, the producers, the video cameras that were there. They're going to milk it. And he's going to be able to take that back to his people and prove to them that his decisions have been right all along.

MARTIN: So the president - President Trump talked to reporters and said that he hoped - something to the effect of - I'm not quoting him exactly, but something to the effect that he hoped this would restart something more substantive. Now, these - just to remind people, these two leaders have attempted talks before, most recently in Hanoi, Vietnam in February. The meetings have come and have had a lot of fanfare, but there has not been much progress toward an agreement. Analysts have a lot of different opinions as to why. But what is your sense about the opportunity to restart some substantive talks?

LEE: In a sense, this is going about it completely the opposite of the way we've seen diplomacy under past presidents. But this is a very different presidency under Donald Trump, and he uses his personal diplomacy as the main driver of his foreign policy. He has brought us to this point where he is making it very personal. That's a good thing - that he's met with him, and that may kickstart negotiations, that they talked about setting up these negotiating teams and having them sit down in the next couple of weeks. But we need more than that. We need more than just these photo ops. We need for these two teams to really have some solid quality time because the negotiations are going to be extremely difficult.

MARTIN: So the lines of kind of a Trump doctrine are, in a way, emerging - based a lot on kind of personal relationship, based a lot on creating unexpected moments, right? And also, basically, assuring people who have appalling human rights records that the U.S. is not going to take an interest in that as long as U.S. interests as defined by him are met.

OK, so those are sort of the broad outlines of the Trump doctrine. But last year, the president withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. This was the agreement reached in 2015 to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran stopping its nuclear activities. A number of analysts have said, well, the problem here is not just that agreement but what it signals to others about whether the U.S. can be trusted to keep its word. Is that something that would play a role in North Korea's negotiations with the U.S. going forward?

LEE: Absolutely. Trust me, the North Koreans are paying attention to everything in terms of the U.S. relationship with other countries, including Iran and a couple of years ago Libya. When I was there, we had a lot of conversations about Libya. And so, trust me, they are paying close attention to what happens to countries that give up their nuclear weapons. And so that's going to make it harder to nail this deal down because the North Koreans are going to do their best to ensure that they're not going to give up too much too soon.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask? As one of the very few who's spent time in North Korea - you are the former Korean bureau chief for The Associated Press. You opened the first U.S. News bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea in 2012. Do you - forgive me for asking for sort of a personal reaction, but, you know, I know that you stayed up all night to watch these events unfold, and I just have to ask what it was like for you, I mean, as a person who has spent time there. Is this something you thought that you would see?

LEE: I'm not surprised because I've been following it so closely. And I have to say that when President Trump was campaigning in 2016, there were signs even back then that he was going to be a very different president if he were elected when it comes to North Korea policy. And there was a part of me back then that was both a little afraid but also looking forward to what could happen if he were to upend this whole process. But I had a lot of concerns.

I want the best for the North Korean people and the South Koreans, frankly. And I want to make sure that the decision-making by the Trump administration watches out for their interests rather than some sort of short-term foreign policy victory. And, to be honest, it's a very complicated question when you think about what is absolutely best for the North Korean people, and it might be different than what is best for either leader. So I have mixed feelings about it.

I both support the fact that he's reaching out and engaging Kim Jong Un because it's much better to have him close rather than to have him off on his own doing whatever he wants. But it's also - it also makes me uncomfortable that we are legitimizing somebody who does still maintain repressive and very totalitarian policies against his people. So mixed feelings, but hopeful that the working-level negotiators that President Trump did empower will be able to carry out their roles and will be able to come to some sort of deal that will constrain that nuclear program.

MARTIN: That's Jean Lee. She's the director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She's the former Korea bureau chief for The Associated Press. She opened, as we said, the first U.S. news bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea in 2012. She was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C., after a very long night.

Jean Lee, thank you so much for talking to us.

LEE: Time to take a nap. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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