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World

U.S. Official: North Korea Ready To Talk About Denuclearization

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

North Korea has met the one basic condition given by the United States for serious talks. Our colleague Michele Kelemen reports the U.S. confirmed this. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent word that he is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This means that preparations can continue for President Trump and the North Korean leader to meet. Jonathan Cheng is The Wall Street Journal's bureau chief in Seoul, South Korea, and he joins us now via Skype.

Welcome to the program.

JONATHAN CHENG: Hi there.

INSKEEP: What does the U.S. mean when it says it wants to talk about denuclearization?

CHENG: Well, from the U.S. perspective, it's very clear. It means that North Korea, which has been developing nuclear weapons for several decades, now needs to give them up. And perhaps, in exchange, we'll give them some sort of a guarantee for their security and bring them into the world, as it were.

INSKEEP: OK. Does North Korea mean the same thing when it sends word that it's willing to talk about that?

CHENG: Well, it depends on who you talk to, but a lot of folks who have spoken to North Koreans over the years have said that their phrasing there - the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula - actually has a very specific meaning, and it has more to do with the U.S. troops that are in South Korea and often are conducting exercises with nuclear submarines or with nuclear-capable bombers and other things like that, as well. Now, of course, their own nuclear arsenal may be up for discussion, but only if this takes place.

INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute. Are you saying that the North Koreans might show up for talks and say, sure, we can talk about giving up our nuclear weapons, but only if the United States, which is a great nuclear power, backs off completely from South Korea?

CHENG: Yeah, that's right. Well, a lot of people are precisely worried about that, and it could even extend to the nuclear umbrella that the U.S. extends to Japan and to South Korea, implicitly promising to protect their two allies against nuclear threats. And that is basically a nonstarter for many people in Washington.

INSKEEP: Well, let's just figure that out then. If what you're saying is what the North Koreans mean, then aren't the North Koreans essentially saying, sure, we're happy to talk about things, but nothing is going to happen here?

CHENG: Yeah. And, in fact, I think what many people believe is that North Korea wants to steer this discussion towards accepting them as a nuclear power, to say, look, we already are, and many people have believed that we have been a nuclear power for many years. Now let's talk about safety. Let's talk about ways to prevent an accident from happening, but let's not talk about taking away these weapons just yet.

INSKEEP: Meaning that the North Koreans might say whatever to get the talks started and get the meeting with President Trump, which is something they've wanted for a long time, and then change the subject.

CHENG: Something like that. And remember, this comes after a year in which North Korea tested, you know, an unprecedented number of missiles, delivery systems that could get these nuclear devices potentially to the continental U.S. - as well as they're sixth in most powerful nuclear tests, so they're coming with a pretty strong hand.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, I know that North Korea's leader went to China to meet with Chinese officials just a few days, weeks ago. What is China's role in all of this, and what is China's interest?

CHENG: Well, China's interest remains mysterious, I think, to the outside world. They won't say exactly what they're interested in. But they definitely hold a very important trump card here, too, which is that they are now the main economic partner for North Korea. So North Korea's economy can't really stand on its own without China, with which it conducts 90 percent of its trade. So it does have a lot at stake here. But I think that what it wants to do is it wants to preserve stability in the region. And the real question is whether the region is more stable with a nuclear North Korea or with a denuclearized South Korea.

INSKEEP: OK, Mr. Cheng, thanks very much.

CHENG: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Cheng of The Wall Street Journal, who spoke with us via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.