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North-South Korea Summit Sets The Stage For Possible Trump Meeting


North and South Korea today followed up symbolic drama with what seemed like serious announcements. North Korea's Kim Jong Un stepped across the line into the south and shook hands with South Korea's Moon Jae-in. That was the symbolism.



Then came the statements. The Koreas planned military talks in May. They will stop blaring propaganda broadcasts across the border at each other. They vow to stop all hostile acts over, quote, "land, sea and air," and South Korea's president will visit the north.

INSKEEP: So how important is all that? Danny Russel is going to help us think that through. He's just back from South Korea. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state under President Obama, now with the Asia Society and was helping the South Koreans prepare for this moment. Mr. Russel, good morning.

DANNY RUSSEL: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what do you make of these announcements today?

RUSSEL: Well, the so called Panmunjom declaration, the document that the two leaders produced, is part of a big pageant that they've just staged, which felt a little more like the Olympics than a peace conference, frankly, in the run up - at least when I was in Seoul. Look, it's, you know, appropriately lofty. It's appropriately aspirational. It has a few specifics - pretty modest but specifics nonetheless. They are planning to open joint liaison offices, although it doesn't sound like it's in capitals. They're going to field a joint sports team. They're going to try to resuscitate some lapsed transportation projects. Generally speaking, though, the rest is kind of recycling of elements from past inter-Korean agreements and other agreements.

INSKEEP: This is what you mean by felt like the Olympics - it was a little bit of good spirit kumbayah but not actually a lot of substance for these two great rivals?

RUSSEL: Well, there was definitely a high ratio of spectacle to the substance, and that's OK. There was some substance. I mean, I think it points at what the leaders themselves were trying to do. President Moon is trying to pump up and validate his progressive agenda, and I think that Kim Jong Un is acting in a way that suggests he wants to sort of seize the high ground - to reinvent himself as a reasonable statesman and not the ruthless totalitarian dictator who murders his uncle and his half brother.

INSKEEP: OK. So you just said President Moon of South Korea wants to advance his progressive agenda. I want to make sure that I understand that. They say all politics is local. Is that true for these Korean leaders - each is thinking about a domestic audience, as well as whatever might happen internationally?

RUSSEL: Well, there's both a domestic audience and - in the case of North Korea, public opinion is something that Kim Jong Un deals with through his secret police and his propaganda ministry, not through elections or polling. But there's a bigger objective for him, certainly, which is to persuade the international community that - now that the pressure appears to be off, let's forget about this quest to actually remove North Korea's illegal nuclear weapons and its ballistic missiles and concentrate on integrating it into the, you know, community of nations.

INSKEEP: Wow. So you're suggesting that Kim Jong Un is trying to do a little bait and switch here and offer things other than his nuclear weapons up to the world rather than denuclearize as the United States really wants.

RUSSEL: Yeah. Look, he - you know, you can declare a new era of peace. You can invoke vaguely the principles of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, something that North Korea has much more explicitly committed to in other statements more than once. But what you're seeing is - what we should pay attention to is what Kim Jong Un himself is saying. You know, what he has said in his New Year's speech and in other propaganda vehicles is, hey, I've finished developing my nuclear deterrence. I finished - virtually finished - my missile deterrence. Mission accomplished. I don't need nuclear tests for the moment, and so I'll keep working to expand my arsenal quietly. But in the meantime, I'm going to devote my efforts to the other part of my strategy, which is building up my economy.

INSKEEP: So in a few seconds that we have, Danny Russel - if you got a call from President Trump, and the president said, hey, I understand you've been spending time in South Korea - I'm thinking about whether to finally go ahead with this summit with Kim Jong Un - would you tell him, yeah, the stage is set, go for it?

RUSSEL: Well, President Trump is not notorious for seeking advice from his staff, let alone from me. And I think his determination...

INSKEEP: Yeah, but in 10 seconds, would you tell him to go if he did call? That's all I'm asking.

RUSSEL: My advice to President Trump is to stay focused on practical steps North Korea can take to come into compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

INSKEEP: Danny Russel of the Asia Society, thanks very much.

RUSSEL: My pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.