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Explaining U.S. Policy Toward North Korea


The United Nations slapped new sanctions on North Korea this week. They're aimed at cutting off funding for the nuclear-armed nation, but they did not go as far as the United States would have liked. And let's get a perspective now from inside the Trump administration. Susan Thornton is the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the president's point person on North Korea. She's on the line. Good morning.

SUSAN THORNTON: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So these sanctions, I mean, cutting off some oil imports and cutting off textile imports, what is the goal here of these sanctions?

THORNTON: Well, David, it's important to understand that the Trump administration has a strategy on North Korea which involves ramping up as much pressure as we can from the international community on Kim Jong Un to cause him to really change the path he's on, decide his - missile and nuclear programs are - cost him too much and that he should come back to the negotiating table.

GREENE: So the ultimate goal is to get him to the negotiating table, but aren't there doubts about how well sanctions have worked in that regard in the past? Is there any reason to believe that these are going to accomplish that?

THORNTON: Well, I do think the sanctions are working. And the pressure is being ratcheted up on the regime. We've had unprecedented levels of cooperation in the U.N. Security Council. We've had - the last two months unprecedentedly strong sanctions resolutions passed unanimously in the council. And I think what we're focused on now is keeping the international community together and focused on enforcing those sanctions. Of course, you know, sanctions don't work until they work. And so we're focused on making sure that there's an airtight group of countries that are working on enforcing these to make sure that they work.

GREENE: So just to be clear here, President Trump and the administration - the focus right now is on diplomacy, sanctions, trying to get the North Korean regime back to the negotiating table. Is that right?

THORNTON: Yes, that's right. But, of course, the president has said - and I think it's important to continue to note that, you know, we can't take any option off the table. We have a diplomatic track that we're working. We have the economic sanctions track that we're working. And we also have a very important military deterrence track that we work with our South Korean, Japanese allies. So I think, you know, we've always got to have that prospect of, you know, a very big stick in the background as we work on the diplomatic track.

GREENE: Speaking of the stick in the background, I mean, some of the president's rhetoric has scared the living daylights out of people, I mean, making them think that we might be heading to war, saying, you know, North Korea's actions will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. Is that language helpful?

THORNTON: Well, I think one thing that it is important to note is that it's difficult sometimes to be sure that our messages are getting through to the North Korean regime. Kim Jong Un is very isolated. And I think what the president's doing, what the secretary has done, what Secretary Mattis has done is - made public statements to make sure that we can go over the head of whoever is surrounding Kim Jong Un and get to him directly and so to make sure that there's no miscalculation there.

GREENE: Acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Susan Thornton is President Trump's point person on North Korea joining us this morning. Thanks so much. We appreciate it.

THORNTON: Sure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.