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A Step Toward Peace? South Korea Announces Trump Will Meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

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The White House says President Trump has accepted an invitation to meet directly with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. South Korea’s National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong spoke with reporters Thursday night outside the White House after briefing officials on the recent talks between Seoul and Pyongyang, and said the meeting would take place within two months. No sitting U.S. president has ever met with a North Korean leader; Kim Jong-un has never met another sitting head of state. For more, we speak with Tim Shorrock, correspondent for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism in Seoul.

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

AMY GOODMAN: The White House says President Trump has accepted an invitation to meet directly with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. This is South Korea’s National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong speaking to reporters Thursday night, in the dark, outside the White House, near the portico, after briefing officials on the recent talks between Seoul and Pyongyang.

CHUNG EUI-YONG: I expressed President Moon Jae-in’s personal gratitude for President Trump’s leadership. I told President Trump that in our meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he is committed to denuclearization. Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. He understands that routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue. And he expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible. President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un, by May, to achieve permanent denuclearization.

AMY GOODMAN: The South Korean official went on to say the meeting would take place within two months. No sitting U.S. president has ever met with a North Korean leader; Kim Jong-un has never met another head of state from anywhere in the world.

Thursday night’s announcement was a complete surprise to many. It came at a time when Trump has been beset with escalating questions about his alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels, including questions about whether a $130,000 payoff to her to be quiet, sent by Trump’s personal lawyer only days before the election, could have violated federal election law. Thursday’s announcement of direct talks even appeared to be a complete surprise within the Trump White House. Only hours earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said talks were a long way away.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: In terms of direct talks with the United States—and you asked negotiations, and we’re a long ways from negotiations. I think it’s—we just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it. I think the first step—and I’ve said this before—is to have talks, have some kind of talks, about talks, because I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet, ourselves, face to face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Rex Tillerson speaking Thursday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This is Tillerson speaking today in Djibouti.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: In terms of the decision to engage, between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, that’s a decision the president took himself.

AMY GOODMAN: The potential talks between President Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-un come after a delegation of South Korean officials traveled to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-un, where he said he’d suspend nuclear weapons testing in order to hold talks with the United States. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Victor Cha, former National Security Council director for Asia, wrote, “While the unpredictability of a meeting between these two unconventional leaders provides unique opportunities to end the decades-old conflict, its failure could also push the two countries to the brink of war.” Victor Cha had been under consideration for U.S. ambassador to South Korea until the Trump administration dropped him when Cha criticized the idea of a preemptive strike on North Korea.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with Tim Shorrock, correspondent for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism in Seoul.

Tim, welcome back to Democracy Now! What did you think when you heard this announcement last night?

TIM SHORROCK: Thank you. I was, frankly, elated. And I was kind of expecting this. And I’m going to take a moment here of personal privilege to say I’ve been on this show for 10 years talking about the need for the United States to talk directly to North Korea to resolve this crisis and bring an end to the Korean War. And I feel very vindicated today that this has happened—against the wishes of the media, the think tanks here, who have been down on this idea and who have criticized it and are still criticizing it as we speak. They cannot deal with the fact that the two Koreas have come to an agreement to reach a peace accord in the Koreas and end this state of war between the United States and North Korea.

And I think it’s a very, very important day, and we should be very gratified for the work of President Moon Jae-in. A year ago, I interviewed President Moon Jae-in. I was the only American reporter to talk to him during his presidential campaign last May. And he told me, you know, in—

AMY GOODMAN: The South Korean president now.

TIM SHORROCK: The South Korean president, who was elected in May. And Mr. Moon told me that, you know, in reference to the criticism from people in Washington that he would divide the U.S. and South Korea by pushing for peace engagement with North Korea, he said, “Well, in my view, if we can resolve the situation between North and South Korea and resolve the tensions between North Korea and the United States, that would be good for the United States, and that would be good for President Trump.” And his gamble was correct. He took it, and it worked. And we now have the situation where Moon has helped negotiate a move toward talks that are going to lead to a conclusion to this crisis. And I think it’s a really terrific day for Korea and for peace in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about the tick-tock of this yesterday that we’ve come to understand? You have the South Korean officials apparently in the White House, not there speaking to President Trump, but to other people in the White House, to report on the meeting they just had with President Kim of North Korea in Pyongyang. Trump hears that they are around, and asks to speak to them. And it’s after that that he what? This is according to The New York Times, pokes his head into the pressroom to give reporters the heads-up about what’s about to happen. And then it was the South Korean officials who walked outside into the night, under the portico, the national security adviser of South Korea, and made this announcement.

TIM SHORROCK: Well, the significance is that when President Moon took office last May, he said South Korea should be in the driver’s seat of the Korea peace initiative and in engagement with North Korea. South Korea should be in the driver’s seat. And he has remained there, and he has stayed there. He made offers last year to North Korea to meet. They rejected it. They didn’t respond for over a year, as they kept going on their nuclear and missile program to defend themselves against what they believe is a threat from the United States. And finally, on January 1st, Kim Jong-un said he would send a high-level delegation to the Olympics and would engage with talks with South Korea. And this is a result of the South Korean initiative.

And so, you know, the fact that Trump may have poked his head in there and may have heard about the meeting, briefing, at the last minute, shows that South Korea is in fact in the driver’s seat. And I think that’s very important. And, you know, the United States has been supporting these initiatives, despite the fact that Vice President Pence went to the Olympics and completely ignored the North Koreans behind him and was very rude to his Korean hosts. They know that these talks have been going on. And so, I think we really need to focus on the role that South Korea has played and the historical—you know, the history of North-South engagement and talks.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where do you expect—they’re saying that this summit will take place in May. Where do you expect it will take place? Might President Trump go to North Korea, South Korea? The six-party talks were held in China. They have not said anything at this point whether they would do this and host this.

TIM SHORROCK: That’s anybody’s guess. I mean, I’d be surprised, frankly, if Trump did go to Pyongyang, but that’s a possibility. It might be in a city, you know, close to there, such as Beijing, even a city in Russia in that part of the Pacific area. It could be anywhere. But I think the fact that Trump is willing to meet with Kim Jong-un shows that the United States understands that only through direct negotiations and talks can this situation be resolved.

And I think it’s important to look at the concessions that North Korea made. After all, one of the big issues they have had for years has been these U.S.-South Korean military exercises that take place twice a year, which I’ve talked about quite a lot on this show, you know, in which they’ve practiced, over the years, things like, you know, decapitation of the leadership of North Korea and assassination and regime change. Well, North Korea agreed to these talks and said they would suspend their nuclear tests and their missile tests while any talks went forward, but they would also—they will also not object to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, if they were scaled down. And, in fact, they’ve been scaled down. There’s a story this morning in the South Korean press that the U.S. aircraft carriers and submarines that normally take part in these exercises, that are going to begin in late March, will not take part.

And so, I think there’s been—over the last few months and weeks, there actually has been, you know, behind-the-scenes talks between the United States and North Korea on sort of the terms of this agreement. And they’ve been in very close touch with Moon Jae-in and his government.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think, Tim, about the comment of Victor Cha? Very significant, he was being considered for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, right? And they drop him because he’s concerned about a preemptive strike, the U.S. preemptively striking North Korea. When he says, “While the unpredictability of a meeting between these two unconventional leaders provides unique opportunities to end the decades-old conflict, its failure could also push the two countries to the brink of war,” do you think that’s just too pessimistic?

TIM SHORROCK: I think it’s way too pessimistic, and I think it’s a little ridiculous, frankly. I mean, you know, he was cut out of the situation. He was not named ambassador. So I think he’s a little bit bitter about that. But to say this is going to bring on war, when we were on the verge of war, I think is pretty silly.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about what’s at stake then right now, what you think North Korea wants. They’re talking about no more nuclear testing until this summit, if it’s happening. And they’re allowing these U.S.-South Korea military exercises to take place. What does the U.S. want out of it, South Korea want out of it, and North Korea? And are we looking at the reunification of the Korean Peninsula?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, unification is a long way off, but I think this is a first step in it. First there has to be peace.

I think, you know, what the United States wants is the denuclearization of North Korea and the denuclearization of Korea. They’ve made that very clear. But that was not possible as a condition for talking, and North Korea made that very clear.

What North Korea has wanted, and has been saying for years, actually, is an end to what they call the U.S. hostile policy toward them, an end to nuclear threats against them, nuclear war threats against them, an end to these massive exercises where they actually practice regime change, and an end to the sanctions, that are definitely hurting the North Korean economy. North Korea wants normal relations with the United States and has been wanting that for years. I think its objective is to have a peace treaty. Remember, the Korean War ended only in an armistice. And there’s a necessity to end this war through a peace treaty. And if you have a peace treaty, there’s no need to shoot nukes at anybody, at the United—for them to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons, and vice versa.

So, I think, you know, North Korea wants peace, so it can do something economically for its people. The United States wants, you know, denuclearization. And I think South Korea, obviously, wants peace and wants to move toward more further engagement and going back to the policies of Kim Dae-jung in the past, of the Sunshine Policies, when there was cultural and sports and intellectual, academic exchanges, and they built, you know, strong ties between North and South Korea during that time, during that Sunshine era.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim, is it too cynical to say, “Look at what happened with DACA, with President Trump’s complete reversal. Look at what happened just on gun control, where he was suggesting the most comprehensive gun control legislation and then completely reversed”? Is it too cynical to say right now the news cycle was completely dominated by this hush money paid to a woman, Stormy Daniels, who alleges that Trump had an affair with her, and they wanted to silence her right before the election, and the money paid to her is clear—what Trump’s involvement is, we’ll see—that he wanted to stop this news cycle? It was enveloping everything. Of course, this stops it. It is stunning. It is historic. But that he will then just simply reverse?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, you know, Trump is totally unpredictable. That’s for sure. But, no, I think it is too cynical to say that, yes. I think, you know, these negotiations have been going on for weeks now. I mean, Kim Jong-un made his overture on January 1. Moon Jae-in accepted almost instantly. And talks began right after that. The North sent the highest delegation ever to go to South Korea since the Korean War during the Pyeongchang Olympics. And they met and discussed for hours, you know, the possibilities of negotiation, the possibilities of moving forward on engagement. And so, you know, the timing is just coincidental that it happens to coincide with this other scandal that’s hitting Trump.

I think that this has been going on for weeks, and, you know, this is the fruition of it. They met with—they met in Pyongyang, and they had this totally unprecedented meeting at the Workers’ Party headquarters in North Korea. No South Korean had ever gone there. And no leader had ever been—no leaders of South Korea had ever been invited there. And they met with Kim Jong-un and his highest-ranking leaders, and they had long discussions. And they came back, and, you know, Moon said, “Before anything happens, we’re going to come brief the United States.” And they carried this letter, apparently from Kim Jong-un to Trump, inviting him to meet. And, you know, that’s what happened. I think, you know, that whatever happened in—happening with Trump is just a coincidence.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think next December 10th we may see North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Donald Trump and President Moon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway?

TIM SHORROCK: I certainly think President Moon would deserve it. That’s for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue to cover this, of course. This is a historic development. Tim Shorrock, thanks so much for being with us, investigative journalist based in Washington, D.C. His book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Outsourced Intelligence. Grew up in Tokyo and Seoul and has been writing about the U.S. role in Korea since the ’70s, a correspondent for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism in Seoul.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, has announced he’s rolling back regulations on coal ash, the chemicals around the coal plants in this country, as a new government report comes out that talks about mercury and arsenic and lead contamination around these plants. We’ll go to Alabama and to Puerto Rico to find out the latest. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Us” by Ruby Ibarra, released yesterday in celebration of International Women’s Day.

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