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Former Director Of National Intelligence James Clapper On Trump's Visit To North Korea


For decades, American presidents have visited South Korea, visited the DMZ - the Demilitarized Zone - and peered through binoculars across the border to North Korea. Well, yesterday, President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to step across that border, prompting all kinds of questions, including what was gained from the U.S. point of view. And where does this leave the nuclear negotiations? General James Clapper is one of the few other American officials to visit North Korea and to negotiate with the Kim regime. He was President Obama's director of national intelligence, and he joins me now. General, welcome.

JAMES CLAPPER: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: May I ask just what went through your mind when you saw this tweet over the weekend with President Trump dangling the prospect of maybe meeting up at the border and saying hi?

CLAPPER: Well, I supported him meeting at the summit in Singapore. And the reason was it struck me when I was in North Korea that the North Koreans were stuck on their narrative, and we were stuck on ours. You must denuclearize before we'll talk to you. And the only way that impasse could be resolved is if the bigger partner, meaning the United States, changed the narrative. That's why I supported President Trump meeting, you know, directly with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. And, of course, that had the same photo-op atmosphere as the meeting at the DMZ. But the problem has been the difficulty in following up these photo ops with something substantive. So it's, you know, not surprising. He did what he did. It worked. Whether something substantive comes of it - I think that remains to be seen.

KELLY: Are you optimistic something substantive might come of this?



CLAPPER: Well, just knowing the North Koreans, they will stretch this out. I mean, Kim Jong Un is not term-limited. And he is in this for the long game. He will want to secure some important concessions. And one question to my knowledge that we have not asked the North Koreans and I wish the president would ask him is, what would it take for you to feel sufficiently secure that you don't need nuclear weapons? And it seemed to me that knowing the answer to that question would be key to designing a negotiating strategy. And to the best of my knowledge, we don't know the answer to that question.

KELLY: From - so from the North Korean perspective, it sounds like this was - as you see it, this was a win - nothing lost here and perhaps something gained.

CLAPPER: Well, photo ops like that are always better than underground nuclear tests or long-range missile tests. That's certainly a given. But I think there needs to be some hard negotiations at the nitty-gritty, worker-bee level. You know, there's the New York Times article suggesting that the United States is giving consideration to recognition of what North Korea has today. North Korea is already de facto a member of the nuclear club. You know, a lot of people are uneasy with the fact that the likes of India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. But the reality is they have them. And the reality is they've been responsible with them. So perhaps there's some merit here, at least...

KELLY: I'll just recap for people following along here. The New York Times is reporting that a nuclear freeze is potentially under consideration - so tacitly accepting that North Korea is a nuclear power and allowing negotiations to unfold. The national security adviser, John Bolton, has come out and knocked down that reporting. But you see it as a potentially promising path forward. Why? Because nothing else has worked?

CLAPPER: Well, what's worked so far? Demanding that the North Koreans give up what they consider is fundamental to their national survival has not proven real profitable, if you will, for this administration or previous administrations. So perhaps another approach might be in order. And at least as a starting point, cap what they have now. Now, this would require, to be clear, a verification regime that will be a hard pill for the North Koreans to swallow.

KELLY: General Clapper, thank you.

CLAPPER: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: That's the former director of national intelligence, General James Clapper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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