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Veteran Diplomat Weighs In On What To Expect From Trump's Meeting With North Korea


It's been decades since a U.S. administration entertained high-level, one-on-one talks with North Korea. The leaders of the two countries have never met. Robert Gallucci is a professor at Georgetown University and a veteran diplomat. Ambassador Gallucci led bilateral talks with North Korea in 1994. They produced what's called The Agreed Framework, a plan to freeze nuclear production with the goal of eventually eliminating all nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. That agreement came apart two years later. Ambassador Gallucci met more recently with North Korean diplomats in the fall of 2016. And he joins us now. Welcome.

ROBERT GALLUCCI: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You've spent more time sitting across the table from North Korean negotiators than most people. Obviously, a meeting of these two world leaders is different from a meeting of professional negotiators. But what advice would you offer going into this?

GALLUCCI: The advice I would have for anybody involved in any of this is keep your expectations modest. Keep your patience intact here. Look at this as a long-term process. Look at engagement as something that will continue for a while. And always remember that - you know, to keep the eye on the ball. We're looking for material change in the situation. And material change means capability of North Korea directly to do damage to the United States of America or its allies, specifically with respect to nuclear weapons. If you keep a focus on that, then I think you can end up in the right place.

SHAPIRO: Many people have asked whether anything that the North Koreans say can be trusted. Given your experience negotiating with them, what do you think?

GALLUCCI: I think talking about trust in international affairs is a very iffy proposition, particularly between states that have been either - experienced war - as we have with North Korea - are generally considered to be belligerents, one to the other, as we are with North Korea. We, I think, freely have ever since the late, late '90s talked about North Korea as something of an enemy. So I think to be looking for a trust at this point is a tad bit outrageous, and that what we really ought to be thinking about are agreements that can be verified, arrangements that can be useful and be built upon with always expecting that the substance of those arrangements, if there are to be relied upon, must be relied upon only to the extent that they can be verified.

SHAPIRO: Do you worry about the absence of lower-level people who would have been holding senior positions at the State Department if they had been nominated and confirmed, but right now there are vacancies?

GALLUCCI: I generally worry about the Department of State and its capacity to do what I think most of us have understood has been the job of the Department forever. They are significantly understaffed. Staffing up for negotiations isn't that difficult. The thing - under most circumstances - I think there are those that the Trump administration could recruit that could step up to the challenge of conducting negotiations over a protracted period of time. So I think the staffing issue with this administration is a nontrivial one, but I think it's manageable.

SHAPIRO: Diplomacy involves important thorny issues and also just person-to-person relations. Are there aspects of working with the North Koreans that are different from other countries you've negotiated with?

GALLUCCI: I think the first thing for me to note is that it's been a long time since I represented the United States of America in a negotiation with the North Koreans. And when I did a quarter of a century ago, the North Koreans were not, I would say, expert at international engagement. They did not interact like a normal team would. Their tactics were at times I would say even crude.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean by that? Can you give us an example?

GALLUCCI: I can think of a - more than one occasion sitting in their mission in Geneva and having my opposite member, Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, yell, and then having his somewhat diminutive interpreter mimic his yelling as he translated it into English. And the combination of the two is surreal for me. The point - overall point I want to make is that was a long time ago. When I met the North Koreans in Kuala Lumpur, they have come a long way, I would say. They were much smoother and more polished. And I don't think there was anything hugely different between talking to a delegation from North Korea and talking to a delegation from any other country.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Gallucci, thank you for joining us.

GALLUCCI: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Robert Gallucci is chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.