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Sen. James Risch On The Prospects For The U.S.-North Korea Summit


Ahead of next week's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, we're spending some time trying to figure out what might come out of it. Could it be a big, historic agreement in which North Korea unilaterally agrees to give up all its nuclear capabilities? Maybe something more modest, where there is an agreement to some kind of incremental steps? Or, it could just end up being a high-profile meet and greet. One person who's been considering all these options is Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho who sits on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, and I asked him which he thinks is most likely.

JAMES RISCH: I expect and I hope that there will be an understanding between these two very strong personalities as to what the objective is. And this can be successful if two things happen - number one, if the two parties are able to agree on a mutual objective. Secondly, that both parties work in good faith to reach those objectives. Neither one of those were present in the Iranian situation. So if those two things happen, I think that this can get done. But when this original meeting is over, I think it is obviously going to be a meet and greet to start with. It always is. And then secondly, a discussion of, what are the general objectives that each of us want to reach?

MARTIN: How do you convince Kim Jong Un that he is safer without nuclear weapons than he is with them?

RISCH: That's a really good question, and I don't think there is a magic answer for that. I think that is a feeling that he gets based upon what the parties are willing to give and take. I think that part of the thing that made that dramatic change was the fact that we had laid some things on the table that gave him that security and said, look, if the nuclear weapons are given up, we are not going to invade, it is not going to be the policy of the United States to have regime change. Those are kinds of things that I'm sure he stopped and thought and said, you know, there's a couple of different ways I can go here, and one is - after the indications that we had given that there would be almost certainty to the end of his regime - he probably rethought this and thought, you know, maybe there's a different direction we can go.

MARTIN: President Trump believes that he alone has a certain negotiating skill and a certain personality that will help break the stalemate with North Korea. What is the evidence of that, do you think?

RISCH: Well, I think first of all, that's part of the - as you know, there's a tremendous hate and vitriol against President Trump from the other side in this town.

MARTIN: But he has claimed this. He positions himself this way.

RISCH: I understand. But my point is that this hate and vitriol is such that they criticize everything he does no matter what. They're looking for ways to put a negative spin on what's happened. It's pretty hard to do that. This thing has been a series of positive steps. Has there been a few speed bumps? Yeah. But this - nobody has been able to do this before. My favorite is the other side saying, we disagree with this. He shouldn't have met with him. OK. So how has it worked before? It hasn't worked at all before. And this has never been tried because of the stakes here. What is wrong with giving the opportunity to these two strong personalities to get in a room and see if they can't reach an agreement? This is about...

MARTIN: But the levers for change are the same. Are they not? The personalities may be different in Kim Jong Un and President Trump, but the levers for change are the same. It's security protections. It's relief of economic sanctions. And that has not worked in the past.

RISCH: It has not worked in the past. It has certainly brought pressure on them. Now, we always argue amongst ourselves, exactly what is it that made them turn and go the exact opposite direction from where they were going? Was it the economic sanctions? Was it the realization that they had a person in the White House who when he says something he means it, and that they were headed in a direction that was going to be a certain end to the North Korean regime? What is it that made that change? Who knows? But what we do know is one man makes that decision in North Korea, and he has the ability to resolve this.

MARTIN: You bring up the Iran deal. I do want to ask because it is another complex nuclear threat the U.S. is trying to manage right now. And this week, European leaders are scrambling to try to save the Iran nuclear deal, doing it in some form without the U.S. They sent a letter to top U.S. administration officials asking for an exemption from U.S. sanctions so that basically they can keep doing business with Iran. Are you concerned about losing the support of America's closest allies at such a delicate time?

RISCH: Well, look, they parade in here every day, and we talk with them. They're our friends. They're our allies. Sometimes friends and allies have a disagreement. We have a very basic disagreement on this. Look, if they want to do business with Iran, they're absolutely free to do that. Iran makes up about 1 percent of their economy over in Europe.

MARTIN: Do you think they should be exempted then from U.S. sanctions?

RISCH: No. I don't think they should be exempted from U.S. sanctions. And, indeed, there are secondary sanctions that are going to go in place. They need to listen carefully when the president says something. They're going to have very difficult decisions to make, but at the end of the day, if you're a banker over there, are you going to do business with Iran, or are you going to do business with the United States? Because that's the choice that you're going to have to make. It's unfortunate that they're in that position, but we said at the time that this was a very, very bad deal. At that time, President Obama should've sent that to the United States Senate for ratification as a treaty. Probably wouldn't have been ratified, and we wouldn't be in the position that we're in right now. I always have to re-explain to our European allies. They always come in here and say, well, America has this agreement. I say, no, America does not have this agreement. Barack Obama had that agreement.

MARTIN: Let me ask you then on that, when you get back to North Korea, do you think this needs to be a binding treaty so that a subsequent administration can't overturn it? I mean, why would Kim Jong Un sign onto anything if he thinks another president will come in and undo it?

RISCH: Excellent question. The president of the United States and I, sitting just like this, one on one, told me that he wants this to be a treaty ratified by the United States Senate. The vice president of the United States, one on one, sitting here like this, told me that and so did the secretary of state. All of them are committed to seeing that they get an agreement that they can bring to the United States Senate and have it ratified as a treaty. That is not only good for us, but it is also good for North Korea because they will then have a treaty that they can rely on.

MARTIN: In closing, is there a risk that this summit ends with nothing, and the U.S. launches a military strike against North Korea?

RISCH: Look, I think that's speculation that's unnecessary at this point. The parties are going in the right direction. And instead of talking about failure, what we ought to do is talk about success. Failure here has consequences that are very, very serious. I don't think the North Koreans want to go back to where we were. I know we don't want to go back to where we were. And if the parties do what I've suggested, and that is get mutual objectives and work in good faith, there is absolutely no reason we have to go back to where we were.

MARTIN: Idaho Republican Senator James Risch. Thanks for your time, sir.

RISCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.