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Trump's Deal With North Korea Was Anemic, Sen. Menendez Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Tokyo today. He's on his way to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean officials on Friday. Earlier this week, President Trump tweeted that they'd been having many good conversations with North Korea and that only the opposition party, which includes the fake news, is complaining. If not for me, President Trump tweeted, we would now be at war with North Korea.

We reached out to Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And I asked him about that tweet.

ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, I mean, it's self-congratulatory and not based on reality. I mean, you don't get points for not threatening a nuclear holocaust when you were the one earlier threatening to create it. This agreement that came out of the summit was actually one of the most anemic communiques I have seen in our history dealing with North Korea. It basically was a document that promised to make more promises. It did not even define what denuclearization is of the Korean Peninsula.

And, if anything, Kim Jong Un got everything he wanted in Singapore. He went from international pariah to being recognized as a legitimate leader of his country and a statesman. We stopped our military exercises with South Korea without even telling South Korea that we were doing it. Our ally Japan is also critically interested in the region. And already we have China advocating at the U.N. to begin to relieve some of the sanctions on North Korea because supposedly we're on a different path.

KING: On the other hand, I wonder if there is anything that you think the president can take credit for. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently headed to North Korea. He'll be meeting with North Korean officials on Friday. This is his third time there that we know of. Is that not evidence that this administration is committed to this process and, frankly, getting some traction in North Korea, these repeated meetings?

MENENDEZ: Well, getting meetings and coming to an agreement with North Korea has never been the difficult part. President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama - they all achieved agreements with North Korea - and, by the way, without a presidential summit. So it's not the question of getting an agreement with North Korea. It's getting a verifiable agreement that is irreversible and that actually dismantles the nuclear infrastructure of North Korea, both its existing weapons, its production capability and its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Look, we herald diplomacy as an effort to deal with the challenge of North Korea's nuclear weapons. But the question is, what is the strategy here to achieve that? Up to now, we have not seen anything that leads us to believe that we're on the right path.

KING: Diplomacy does take time. But given your criticisms, if you were in the president's shoes, what would you do differently?

MENENDEZ: Well, first of all, to the extent that we would have engaged with North Korea, we would have done it at the levels of, you know, an assistant secretary or lower to begin to engage and test the proposition of - what do they mean by denuclearization? What are they willing to do?

KING: You want a definition of what exactly denuclearization means to North Korea.

MENENDEZ: Well, for starters, if we're not talking about the same thing, then we're not going to achieve anything. For us, denuclearization means the verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of their nuclear weapons, their infrastructure and their intercontinental ballistic missile program - which, by the way, as these talks are going on, we have evidence that North Korea is still making progress on both of those elements.

KING: You're talking about those satellite images that were reported this week about...

MENENDEZ: Yes.

KING: ...Nuclear facilities in North Korea...

MENENDEZ: Yes.

KING: ...And also non-nuclear facilities in North Korea, facilities that make missiles. Given your position as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, what do you take those images from North Korea to mean?

MENENDEZ: Well, some analysts have said that basically they're advancing - continuing to advance and perfect their programs. So if that is the case, then ultimately, it belies the veracity of North Korea's intention to actually achieve an agreement with us on a defined dismantlement of their nuclear weapons and missile development programs. And that is obviously totally different than what we need to achieve. So I hope the secretary can both define it, come to a common understanding, and then a framework as to how it will be executed upon.

And that's why we've actually, in a bipartisan legislation, the North Korean Policy Oversight Act - working with Senator Gardner of Colorado, a Republican - have joined together to have an oversight similar to what we did during the Iran nuclear agreement so that the Senate can monitor, can be informed. We haven't even gotten Secretary Pompeo since the summit to come before the Senate, either in a classified or open briefing as to what transpired and what's the pathway forward.

KING: Just one last question for you - New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writing last month - and I'm going to paraphrase him here - he said President Trump on North Korea is actually doing something right, but Democrats seem more concerned with undermining him than with supporting a peace process with North Korea.

I wonder, has politics oozed into this in a way that is making it unproductive?

MENENDEZ: No, not at all. I think that Congress - I have always asserted in all of my years in the House and the Senate, sitting on both chambers' Senate - foreign relations committees, that the Congress is a separate, coequal branch of government that, particularly as it relates to foreign policy where we'll have to execute elements of any agreement, needs to exert its oversight influence. And it does so in a way that I think can be constructive. We had plenty of both public and classified briefings as it related to the Iran nuclear agreement. I didn't agree with everything the administration did. I didn't think it was politics then. I don't think that it's politics now.

KING: Senator Bob Menendez is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He joined us from New Jersey.

Senator, thank you so much.

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

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