How Does Kim Jong Un Define 'Denuclearization'? Korea expert Jean Lee of the Wilson Center tells Michel Martin Kim Jong Un's understanding of "denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula may be very different from what President Trump expects.
NPR logo

How Does Kim Jong Un Define 'Denuclearization'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/604789492/604789493" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Does Kim Jong Un Define 'Denuclearization'?

How Does Kim Jong Un Define 'Denuclearization'?

How Does Kim Jong Un Define 'Denuclearization'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/604789492/604789493" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Korea expert Jean Lee of the Wilson Center tells Michel Martin Kim Jong Un's understanding of "denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula may be very different from what President Trump expects.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now to Korea and our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we dig into a word or phrase that's likely to be in the news. This week's word is denuclearization, and we chose that because the presidents of North Korea and South Korea are scheduled to meet this Friday. The peninsula has been frozen in a cold war since the shooting stopped 65 years ago. But those discussions are also a prelude to a summit in the works between North Korea's Kim Jong Un and President Trump to talk about North Korea's nuclear program. Both sides say they are pushing for denuclearization, but we wondered if they mean the same thing when they say that.

So for some clarity, we called Jean Lee. She reported for years for the AP from Korea, and she opened the first U.S. News bureau in Pyongyang. She's now with the Wilson Center, a think tank here in Washington. Jean Lee, thanks so much for joining us.

JEAN LEE: Great to join you.

MARTIN: Let me start with a tweet from President Trump this morning. He talked about his negotiating posture going into a meeting with Kim Jong Un. He said, quote, "we haven't given up anything, and they have agreed to denuclearization. So great for world. Site closure and no more testing, exclamation mark." So, first of all, has North Korea really agreed to denuclearization? What does that mean? Do the two sides see that the same way?

LEE: I think President Trump is in for a rude surprise if he thinks that he's going to come to this summit with Kim Jong Un and that Kim Jong Un is going to say, sure, I'll hand over my nuclear weapons - because that is certainly not the case. What Kim Jong Un has said is that he supports this concept of a nuclear-free world and that he is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And so the U.S. may think that that means forcing or requiring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons without anything from the U.S. side. But North Korea has very consistently said that that, for them, means that the United States also has to give up its nuclear umbrella over the Korean Peninsula and in the Northeast Asian region.

MARTIN: How significant is what Kim Jong Un said? I mean, just to remind people, he said North Korea did say that it will suspend nuclear and missile tests and did promise to shut down a testing site. Is that significant?

LEE: It is significant. So it's a good start and I want to - I would love to be optimistic about where this could take us. But we have to remember that we've been down this path before. And that was only six years ago that North Korea - when Kim Jong Un was in the early stages of his leadership - agreed to do exactly the same thing, and then weeks later, tested a long-range rocket. And so that deal, which we called the Leap Day Deal, fell apart. So we have to keep that history in mind.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the summit on Friday between the presidents of North Korea and South Korea. What's on the agenda of the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in? And does the South Korean agenda dovetail with what the U.S. is seeking?

LEE: This summit will roll out differently, I think, than the anticipated summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un because the North and South Koreans have been preparing for it very methodically step-by-step. What we will see is a strong show of unity between the two Korean leaders. This is something that will play well in Pyongyang for Kim Jong Un is to show that he's got the South Korean leader on his side. The South Koreans will certainly want to discuss denuclearization and discuss the upcoming summit with Donald Trump and perhaps try to pave the way and lay the groundwork for that summit. They will most likely come up with some agreements at this meeting, perhaps some agreement on reducing the military tensions along the DMZ and also perhaps some agreement on restarting the family reunions of those Koreans on both sides of the DMZ who hadn't seen each other in more than 65, 70 years.

MARTIN: So, before we let you go, I think - I'm sure that this is something that many people in korea remember, but I'm not sure a lot of people in America in the United States remember - that there was never actually a formal end to the Korean War. An armistice was signed in 1953, but a peace treaty was never signed. Would that be significant? Is that a possibility that that might be an outcome of the summit this coming week? And would that matter? Would that be important?

LEE: That is the backdrop of all of this, the Korean War. You know, we call it the forgotten war here in America, but they have not forgotten in North Korea. And it is a core part of North Korean identity. Some people ask me how it is that North Korea has managed to maintain stability through all the famines of the 1990s, the sanctions, the difficulty of life in North Korea.

And one thing I point out to them is, you know, when you tell your people that they are under threat from an outside force or that they are at risk of being attacked, for any country, that brings the people together. And that's what the regime has been - in North Korea has been doing to its people is telling them we are under threat, we are under attack, and so we need to come together. But the big thing that Kim Jong Un wants is to have a resolution of that peace treaty. He wants something big to celebrate this year. And the big goal for him would be to somehow negotiate a peace treaty to bring that Korean War to an end.

MARTIN: That's Jean Lee. She directs the Korea program at the Wilson Center. That's a think tank here in Washington, D.C. Jean Lee, thank you so much for coming in.

LEE: Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.