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As North Korea Talks with China, South Korea & Japan, Could Bolton Derail Denuclearization Progress?

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The leaders of North and South Korea announced today that they will hold a historic meeting on April 27, coming together for talks for the first time in more than a decade. The news comes after Kim Jong-un’s surprise trip to China this week to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, where he reportedly said he was willing to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Kim is due to meet sometime soon with President Trump, although a date has not been set for that summit. It would be the first-ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. We speak with Tim Shorrock, correspondent for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s official. The leaders of North and South Korea announced today they’ll hold a historic meeting April 27th, coming together for talks for the first time in more than a decade. The landmark meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will be held at Freedom House on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone.

The news comes after Kim’s surprise trip to China this week to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first foreign trip since taking office in 2011 and his first meeting with another head of state. During the four-day trip, the two leaders discussed denuclearization, with Kim reportedly saying he was willing to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Kim also invited President Xi to visit Pyongyang, North Korea.

On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “Received message last night from XI JINPING of China that his meeting with KIM JONG UN went very well and that KIM looks forward to his meeting with me. In the meantime, and unfortunately, maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost!”

Kim is due to meet sometime soon with President Trump, although a date has not yet been set for that summit. It would be the first-ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. A recent poll shows two-thirds of Americans support Trump’s plan to meet with Kim Jong-un.

This is a senior Chinese official speaking today after briefing South Korean officials on Kim’s visit.

YANG JIECHI: We believe Kim’s visit will help the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, ensure peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, and resolve problems regarding the peninsula through political negotiations and discussions.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Japan says it, too, has begun talks with North Korea through its embassy in Beijing.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Tim Shorrock, correspondent for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism in Seoul, his latest piece headlined “South Korean President Moon’s Gamble for Peace with North Korea Has Paid Off.”

Tim, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about this latest historic development, both the trip that Kim Jong-un took to China, the first since he’s taken office, the first foreign trip, and, two, that North and South Korea will hold a summit?

TIM SHORROCK: Thank you, Amy. Sure.

Well, as you said, this is the first meeting between North and South Korean leaders since 2007, so it is very historic. It’s part of the Korea peace process, that’s really been controlled by the Koreas since it began in early January, when Kim Jong-un reached out to Moon Jae-in and offered to send a high-level delegation to the Olympics and participate in the Olympics. And since then, events have unfolded at a very rapid rate.

And, you know, to the surprise of many Americans, including many Americans here in the media, this—you know, the pace is hastening, and it’s happening, and these meetings are going to take place. You know, it’s interesting that two days ago The New York Times had a front-page, over-the-fold story about North Korea supposedly having another reactor online that would be a problem. And they said in this story, quoting U.S. officials, that many people doubt this meeting will happen between Trump and Kim. And within 24 hours, Trump tweeted that, you know, he’s looking for to the meeting. So I think the media has been quite off on the story.

But, you know, it’s a very significant meeting, obviously. You know, the two Koreas are trying to resolve this situation, and Moon Jae-in, as I pointed out in this article in The Nation, has been working assiduously for the past 10 months to avoid a war, make sure there’s no war in the Korean Peninsula, and develop a peace process where eventually they do talk about denuclearization.

And so, I think, you know, Kim’s trip to China was, as you say, his first trip abroad as North Korean leader. And, you know, China has been kind of sidelined, in a way, in this diplomacy, just like the United States has been, in a way. And, you know, for all of last year, we heard from pundits and from the government and from Trump himself that, you know, China has got to do more, and China has got to push North Korea. In fact, there was even voices here in Washington saying, you know, China should try to push for regime change in North Korea and like force them into denuclearization by forcing the leadership out. And this was all like, you know, basically outsourcing our policy to China. But, of course, China is an old ally of North Korea, and so Kim Jong-un went there to discuss what’s going to be happening with these upcoming summits, and, I think, to get Chinese support. And I think Chinese support, once you get to a peace process, and perhaps a peace treaty, Chinese guarantees of North Korea’s security as part of that process could be very important. And so, you know, China obviously has a very important role to play in all of this diplomacy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Tim, if you could talk about this meeting that—the meeting that was so well kept under wraps? I mean, you have the president of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, taking this armored train to China for four days, and we only learn of it after. And then, if you could say whether you believe that he is talking about abandoning nuclear weapons altogether or diminishing the supply?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, on the train, that’s not unusual. I mean, the last time his father, Kim Jong-il, traveled to China, he went on the same train. You know, that’s what they take. It’s not very far from North Korea to Beijing. So, you know, that’s really not unusual. Neither is the secrecy, for that matter. I mean, usually these meetings are announced after the North Korean leader leaves. I mean, for one thing, all this security, well, you know, North Korea’s leadership has been under threat, you know, at least until the recent past, by the United States. So, I mean, I don’t blame them for taking high-security measures.

And second—what was the second part of the question? I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of really, you know, getting rid of nuclear weapons.

TIM SHORROCK: The denuclearization, right. Well, you know, Kim Jong-un, when he was in China, apparently said he wants a phased, sort of gradual process to talk about denuclearization. Through the South Korean delegation that came to see him a few weeks ago in Pyongyang, he said he would talk about denuclearization issues. And I think, you know, there is going to be some diplomacy that’s involved here, and there’s some slight differences between South Korea and the United States, about what they each mean by denuclearization, and North Korea.

You know, North Korea built these weapons as a deterrent against the United States, and it’s made that very clear, and their missiles, as well. But they stopped short. Last year, they stopped testing before they reached the point where they actually had a weapon they could place on an ICBM that could go and enter the atmosphere. And so, you know, they stopped short of that and began passing the word that they were ready to talk. And so they basically froze their testing in hopes of getting some negotiation.

They want—you know, what they’ve talked about is they’re willing to talk about denuclearization, but they want the United States to show signs of itself dropping its hostile policy toward North Korea. And that means, you know, ending massive war games, ending nuclear weapons threats. You know, North Korea has been under the aim of U.S. nuclear weapons since the end of the Korean War. And they also would like to have the economic embargo and, obviously, the sanctions lifted. So, you know, that’s what they see the hostile policy, and they actually want to normalize relations with the United States, full economic diplomatic relations.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock, South Korea’s unification minister said just today, “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has been the most important part of the agenda since the high-level talks of January 9th and the exchange visits between North and South Korean envoys. That’s the issue we will focus on for further discussion, as well.”

TIM SHORROCK: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But I also wanted to read a quote from President Trump’s pick for national security adviser, who will take office April 9th, apparently—and this would be before the U.S.-North Korea summit—John Bolton, who’s repeatedly pushed for a more forceful response against North Korea—well, called for bombing it. In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, not last year, but just last month, headlined “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” Bolton said a preemptive strike on North Korea’s arsenal would be a “perfectly legitimate” response to a threat to the American mainland. He wrote, “The threat is imminent, and the case against pre-emption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times. Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.” Your comment on the significance of the elevation of, the appointment of John Bolton to be national security adviser, which doesn’t have to be approved by the Senate?

TIM SHORROCK: Right. And, you know, this guy is a very dangerous man. As he said, he’s threatened and, you know, proposed to have a massive attack on North Korea very recently. So, you know, his appointment, I think, is kind of Trump’s strategy to have this kind of, you know, forceful advocate for a military force in as part of these negotiations, kind of a “good cop, bad cop” routine. So, you know, that’s where the question marks arise. You know, he’s going to obviously push—and he said this in actually recent days. You know, he wants sort of an immediate answer to North Korea: We’re going to denuclearize or not?

Well, North Korea is not going to just surrender. Like I said, they want this sort of phased process, where each side would give something, and you get eventually to denuclearization. And that’s how the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has also outlined it in many speeches and discussions over the last year. You know, in other words, denuclearization is the last step of a peace process. You know, you first stop testing, you first stop making them, and then you move toward gradual building trust in various measures.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim, we’re—

TIM SHORROCK: Now, you know, Bolton, Bolton is just—he’s not a diplomat. He doesn’t even like the idea of diplomacy. So, that’s what’s dangerous. They could come in and say—you know, he could tell Trump, “Well, OK, let’s try it. And if the North Koreans don’t immediately respond, then we’re going to say, 'These negotiations haven't worked. We tried diplomacy. So let’s go the military route.’”

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Tim—

TIM SHORROCK: That’s the danger.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap up, Japan now, today, saying they want a summit with North Korea?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, Abe is, you know, trying badly to catch up. I mean, Abe has been behind Trump’s hard line. And I think he’s really desperate to get in on this kind of deal. You know, so I don’t—I don’t think that’s that important right now. I think the key is getting, you know, Trump and Kim to sit down and work out a process. They’re not going to make some huge, grand alliance in this one meeting, but they’re going to set the process, set the stage, for some long-term negotiations, that I think could probably last a few months, not real—not years, but months. I really think a deal is possible, particularly with Moon Jae-in being at the head of it and really driving this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Tim, for joining us. Tim Shorrock, correspondent for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism in Seoul. We’ll link to your latest piece, “South Korean President Moon’s Gamble for Peace with North Korea Has Paid Off.” And we’ll link to your piece when you interviewed President Moon of South Korea.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to a Manhattan church, a Unitarian church, where a Guatemalan mother, who’s lived in this country for over 13 years, tells a secret that she has held for a long time, fearful that she will be deported back to Guatemala.

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