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WH Insists North Koreans Prove Their Intentions To Denuclearize Before Meeting

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Other administrations have negotiated with the North Koreans. But when President Trump sits down to talk to Kim Jong Un, it will be a first for a U.S. president. Until now, the most senior U.S. official to visit Pyongyang was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during the Clinton administration. The journalist Robin Wright was on that trip and joins us now. Welcome.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you.

SHAPIRO: How significant is it that the president of the United States has agreed to sit down with the head of North Korea?

WRIGHT: Well, it's an extraordinary opportunity for the United States. The challenge of course is that this is in many ways diplomacy running backwards. Usually a presidential summit involves months, even years of diplomacy to work out the details, and the deal-maker is the final summit where they make the formal agreement to the terms. This is starting backwards, and the administration faces the danger of it turning out to look more like a photo op but doesn't actually achieve something substantively.

SHAPIRO: President Trump has repeatedly called out his predecessors for not getting a breakthrough with North Korea. This was something he said just late last month. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Other presidents should have solved this problem long before I got here. And they've been talking for 25 years. And you know what happened - nothing.

SHAPIRO: They've been talking for 25 years. Do you think this round of talks will do something different?

WRIGHT: I think there's generally pessimism or skepticism about the prospects of President Trump actually producing something in such a short time frame. These are some of the most complex issues that any country in the world faces. When you look at the Iran nuclear deal, for example, it required two years of very intense diplomacy. And Iran did not have either a nuclear weapon or ballistic missiles, much less the ability to marry the two technologies. So the specifics of finding terms will be much more expansive.

And Kim Jong Un has far greater ambitions of getting tangible gains out of this, whether it's the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula and an end to military exercises, potentially even economic aid and the lifting of economic sanctions. It'll be very hard for the U.S. to figure out a process that we can verify that the North Koreans are dismantling their entire program. So this is not something that is going to happen a month after the two men meet.

SHAPIRO: Something that I don't understand here is that North Korea has often pointed to Libya as a case study of a ruler who gave up his weapons and then was overthrown and killed. Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown during what we then called the Arab Spring. If they really see that as the model, why would they consider giving up their weapons?

WRIGHT: Well, at the end of the day, the North Koreans are not going to feel safe unless they have a nuclear weapon. In some ways, that is the ultimate security guarantee that they will not be invaded or not confronted by the outside world short of a full-scale war. And if there's nothing else Kim Jong Un wants, it is the survival of a dynasty that has been in power for seven decades now.

SHAPIRO: When you went with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000, apart from the subject of the negotiations, what stood out to you about the atmosphere of the negotiations?

WRIGHT: Madeleine Albright's trip was the first ranking visit by any U.S. official. And one of the things that struck me was her description of talking with Kim Jong Il, who's the father of the current leader. They wanted to talk movies. They wanted to talk basketball. Madeleine Albright brought him a gift of an autographed basketball by Michael Jordan. Now, I will say North Korea is indeed the most isolated, and you feel that when you're in Pyongyang. It was walking down the streets, and not a single North Korean would look at me.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

WRIGHT: It was as if I didn't exist because I was a foreigner. Things like lightbulbs in the hotels were so dim. I went down and asked if they had anything stronger because the light was basically from my computer screen. And they said they'd (laughter) put in the good lightbulbs for the secretary's visit.

I went to the museum, to the World War II, and saw all these displays that are rotating on the top floor of scenes where the North Koreans were victorious over the United States. So it's a very strange world with its own version of what's happened anywhere.

SHAPIRO: Robin Wright, thanks so much for joining us.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: She's with The New Yorker magazine and the U.S. Institute of Peace, speaking with us on Skype.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE GIBBS AND MADLIB SONG, "BROKEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.