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North Korea's Pledges Are Easier Said Than Done


A historic handshake between the leaders of North and South Korea this week. Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in also smiled, hugged, strolled, shoveled a little dirt for a tree-planting ceremony in the DMZ that separates their countries. But will that symbolic tree come to signify a permanent agreement? The two leaders did pledge to formally end the Korean War this year and work toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Here to talk about this and its implications for the summit meeting with President Trump between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong Un is Frank Aum. He's senior expert of North Korea with the United States Institute of Peace. Mr. Aum, thanks so much for being with us.

FRANK AUM: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: But hasn't North Korea pledged to denuclearize before?

AUM: They have. And in 2000 and 2007 there has been inner-Korean summits and joint declarations similar to the one last week where they've made - sort of provide aspirational language about moving down the path towards denuclearization and peace. So I think the substance of the summit that we saw a couple days ago was not new, but yet I think there are some tangible things in there that could be helpful in terms of confidence-building measures.

SIMON: Like what?

AUM: So there are three areas that are addressed. So one is improving inner-Korean ties. The summit and the joint declaration talked about establishing joint liaison offices. It talked about jointly participating in international sporting events like the 2018 Asian Games, holding family reunions between separated members in August and in general increasing the people-to-people ties. All of that is very realistic and doable.

SIMON: Let's look ahead if we - and try - President Trump's unplanned meeting with the North Korean leader. Are South Korea and the United States necessarily on the same page?

AUM: They are. They both are interested in seeing a resolution to the problem. They're - they both have agreed that pressure will be maintained on North Korea until it takes concrete steps towards denuclearization. I think President Moon recognizes that both inner-Korean ties and U.S.-DPRK relations have to improve in parallel. And so President Moon also recognizes that an ultimate agreement and solution to the nuclear problem has to be decided between the United States and North Korea but in conjunction with the international community, especially China, South Korea and the other countries in the region.

SIMON: How do the United States and South Korea reconcile, referring to Kim Jong Un and his regime as monstrous and a danger to the world and oppressive of the Korean people, his own people, and then enter into an agreement to say, yeah, but you can stay in power?

AUM: Well, I think they're under no illusions that Kim Jong Un is ruthless, despotic. At the same time, they recognize that in order to achieve peace, they need to sort of compartmentalize that aspect and take steps to achieve what is realistic. And that's for the overall betterment and good of the Korean Peninsula and the international community.

SIMON: Friday, President Trump said the United States in the past was played like a fiddle by North Korea. The president has been criticized for his bluster, little rocket man and other phrases. But is it possible that the bluster helped bring about this moment between the two Koreas?

AUM: It's possible. I think President Trump deserves some credit, but I think there are sort of three theories about why Kim Jong Un is coming to the table now. One is that he was worried and concerned about the maximum pressure, about the possibility of military action. There's also the notion that Kim Jong Un had already achieved his nuclear force development and now is in a position of strength and leverage to come to the table. And the last theory is that President Moon was very effective in bringing the two sides together. So I think all three of those are factors that could be in play.

SIMON: Frank Aum of the United States Institute for Peace, thanks so much for being with us today, sir.

AUM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.