STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
At a resort island just off Singapore, President Trump meets North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, alone except for interpreters. That will be the start of a summit Tuesday morning, Singapore time. It's the kind of dramatic one-on-one session where President Trump says he is in his element. He said he doesn't need to prepare much, that he will know within a minute if Kim Jong Un is serious about giving up nuclear weapons - quote, "it's my touch. It's my feel. It's what I do." Behind that personal interaction, though, are the intricate interests of a nuclear power, and a superpower, and their neighbors and allies. In Singapore, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he's watching to see if North Korea will do what it takes.
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MIKE POMPEO: The United States has been fooled before. There's no doubt about it. Many presidents previously have signed off on pieces of paper only to find that the North Koreans either didn't promise what we thought they had or actually reneged on their promises.
INSKEEP: So are they serious? And is the United States? Joel Wit has been asking. He's a former U.S. diplomat deeply involved in North Korea issues.
Mr. Wit, welcome back to the program.
JOEL WIT: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Does your experience tell you that North Korea really wants to give up its nuclear weapons?
WIT: Well, I think the North Koreans are probably conflicted because on the one hand, we've had 60 years of hostility between the United States and North Korea, and those weapons are their main source of security. On the other hand, they probably understand that if they want to actually modernize their economy, their nuclear weapons are going to have to be on the negotiating table.
INSKEEP: Have they made a serious offer in the past to give up their nuclear weapons?
WIT: Well, the agreement I participated in 1994 was a denuclearization agreement. Although they didn't have nuclear weapons then, they certainly could build them very quickly. And I believe it was a serious agreement. The problem was, we never got to the end of the implementation process.
INSKEEP: And then in 2013, there was another statement by North Korea, right?
WIT: Well, in 2013, in private talks that I and other former American officials had with the North Koreans, they laid out a specific road map that would lead to denuclearization. It wasn't overnight, but it was a specific plan, and I'm sure they have one.
INSKEEP: Well, that raises another question, then, Joel Wit. Looking back on that, did President Obama's administration miss an opportunity because, as you have written, the Obama administration heard what the North Koreans were offering, but they didn't think that they were really going to do it?
WIT: Well, you know, if I had to be pinned down, I would say that the Obama administration could've tried harder to pursue denuclearization through diplomatic channels. It was stuck in this mode of coercive diplomacy and never got out of it. The beauty of what President Trump has done - and, of course, we don't know where it's going to lead, exactly - is he's cut through all that. They are going to meet leader-to-leader, and that's where decisions can really be made. And once Kim Jong Un makes a decision, believe you me, all the North Koreans fall in line.
INSKEEP: Can you imagine, though, the United States offering enough - enough security for North Korea for Kim Jong Un to give up on that security blanket of nuclear weapons? Could a U.S. embassy in North Korea be enough? Could the lifting of economic sanctions really be enough?
WIT: Well, this is the point, that it can't happen overnight. The North Koreans aren't going to all of a sudden give up their weapons because of a promise from the United States. It has to be a process. It has to be confidence building. And those measures and others that you haven't mentioned have to be part of that process to end what the North Koreans call U.S. hostile policy.
INSKEEP: In 2013, you heard from the North Koreans about - I guess about a three-step process that I guess would take a number of years. They had a plan. They had a plan in mind about something that they would find acceptable. And we had on this program last week Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, former U.S. senators involved in nonproliferation efforts, and they said, it's really essential that the United States show up with its own plan. Looking at it from the outside, do you have the impression that the United States is showing up with a plan, that it does have a concrete idea to put on the table for the North Koreans?
WIT: Well, I think the U.S. does have concrete plans. They've studied it very closely. And, you know, having been in the U.S. government, I know there are cabinets filled with plans for denuclearization on North Korea inside the U.S. government. So I'm sure they have a plan. The point here is that while our ideal objective would be complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the program, we are going to have to make compromises. And so the issue is, where do we end up with our plan, which, essentially, has been overnight, and their plan, which is a process that takes time?
INSKEEP: Do you think you can trust the North Koreans with a process that takes time?
WIT: You know, I don't trust anyone to implement a deal - any other country, including our friends or our enemies. So, of course, there have to be verification provisions built into the plan. And everyone understands that, including the North Koreans.
INSKEEP: OK. Joel Wit, thanks very much, always a pleasure.
WIT: Thank you.
INSKEEP: He's a former U.S. diplomat, now the director of 38 North, a website focused on North Korea analysis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.