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Former Director Of National Intelligence Weighs In On Release Of Detained Americans

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right, I want to bring into the conversation the last top U.S. official to travel to North Korea and bring home American detainees. That would be James Clapper. In 2014, when he was director of national intelligence, General Clapper flew to Pyongyang and secured the release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. And General Clapper is with us now. General Clapper, welcome.

JAMES CLAPPER: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: What is your take on today's news - these three detainees landing back on U.S. soil? I guess my specific question is how much credit is due to the Trump administration for negotiating that release.

CLAPPER: Well, first, it's a great thing no matter who does it. As Americans, we should all rejoice. So due credit to the administration - in particularly, I think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - for pulling this off.

KELLY: How do you read North Korea's motives? Do you see this as a genuine gesture of goodwill?

CLAPPER: Well, I think it is for now. I think it is somewhat transactional in that in the interest of having a summit, which itself is a huge concession to the North Koreans, releasing those three citizens almost had to be done to kind of clear the deck. And this, of course, consummates a standard North Korean technique, which is have a small stable of American hostages that you can use as chips at convenient times. I think that's the case here.

KELLY: We mentioned President Trump was at Andrews this morning. And a reporter asked him why he thought Kim Jong Un was releasing these prisoners. Now here's what the president said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think he did this because I really think he wants to do something and bring that country into the real world. I really believe that, John (ph). And I think that we're going to have a success.

KELLY: General Clapper, what do you think?

CLAPPER: Well, I don't actually disagree with that. But I do think, at least from my standpoint, it's useful to think about what was the motivation. And I ascribe two major reasons. One, I believe the North Koreans have achieved whatever they thought they needed to achieve in the way of a nuclear capability so that they feel that they have deterrence. The reason that's important is when they do enter into negotiations with us, this time they will not be as a supplicant. They will feel on a more coequal basis. The other thing is I think that a lot of credit needs to go to President Moon of the Republic of Korea who may be...

KELLY: South Korea.

CLAPPER: ...Of South Korea - Republic of Korea - may be the most astute president that they've ever had. And he managed his account, so to speak, up North, capitalized on the intense desire of the North Koreans to be included in the Winter Olympics. And I think he's certainly managed the account with the United States.

KELLY: This is interesting because you're describing two very key dynamics that have changed in the four years since you were in North Korea negotiating with that regime - one being change of leadership in South Korea and the other being Kim Jong Un now sees himself as an equal, a nuclear power sitting down with another nuclear power at the negotiating table.

CLAPPER: Right. When I was there, the first White House issue talking point that I was to recite to the North Koreans was, you must denuclearize. Well, they were all over about they weren't going to do that. So it'd be very interesting to see what price they wish to extract to assuage their willingness to denuclearize.

KELLY: Do you think then that it is a realistic possibility that the Korean peninsula would be denuclearized as a result of, you know, this summit and ongoing diplomatic contact? I'll play one more piece of tape from the president this morning. He was asked whether securing the release of these detainees was his proudest achievement. And here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: My proudest achievement will be - this is a part of it - but will be when we denuclearize that entire peninsula. This is what people have been waiting for for a long time. Nobody thought we could be on this track in terms of speed.

KELLY: The president there speaking very optimistically about this as a real prospect.

CLAPPER: Well, I admire his optimism, and I hope it works out that way. What's not clear to me is what our own strategy is. I mean, the obvious thing the North Koreans could ask is that we leave the peninsula. Now, I don't know if they will.

KELLY: Meaning get U.S. forces out of South Korea - there's about 28,000 U.S. forces there.

CLAPPER: Exactly. And we've had forces there for 68 years. And, of course, the problem with that is that this has huge regional implications.

KELLY: So as somebody who's actually sat down with the North Koreans, any advice to the U.S. team in the run-up to June 12?

CLAPPER: Well, the North Koreans will have done their homework. They are very rational about this, and they are pretty good debaters. For the most part, the exchanges I had with them were pretty nasty. But the one point that I brought up that seemed to resonate with them was, you know, the United States has no permanent enemies. And I cited my own personal experience having been in Vietnam in 1965 and '66. And it was 47 years later that I went back. With a country we once fought, we have diplomatic relations with. We have economic relations with. We have military relations with - and so could it be with the DPRK, the formal name for North Korea. And that's the one point I made where I didn't get the kind of finger-in-the-chest kind of response, which was the case with just about everything else I said.

KELLY: General Clapper, I appreciate your time.

CLAPPER: Thank you.

KELLY: That is former Director Of National Intelligence General James Clapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEDI MIND TRICKS SONG, "HEAVENLY DIVINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.