Morning News Brief: U.S. Officials Travel To Korean DMZ

May 28, 2018
Originally published on May 28, 2018 6:58 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A group of U.S. officials crossed into North Korea yesterday.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, the State Department says they met North Korean officials. They are preparing for this possible summit between President Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. This comes after a dizzying few days. The U.S. spoke harshly of North Korea. Then North Korea responded. President Trump canceled the summit. North Korea's tone changed, and so did the president's tone.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think there's a lot of goodwill. I think people want to see if we can get the meeting and get something done.

MARTIN: Before all this activity, one U.S. official called the summit a coin toss. The same official now says it's better than a coin toss, though another official told reporters that it's going to be hard to be ready for this by June 12. Whenever it happens, the bigger question is, what is actually going to be on the table?

INSKEEP: Reporter Anna Fifield is in Seoul for The Washington Post and joins us by Skype.

Welcome to the program.

ANNA FIFIELD: Thank you. It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: How hard was it to restart this meeting, so far as you can tell?

FIFIELD: Well, it seems, like, not that hard. They're - everybody has swung into action to try to get the summit back on track. Obviously, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has been leading the charge there. But these two American teams are now in full action. We have one lot - diplomatic and NSC, Defense Department officials in South Korea and crossing over to North Korea to have talks about substance with the North Korean representatives. That means denuclearization. And meanwhile, we have a separate team on its way to Singapore to talk to North Koreans there about logistics for the meeting that's set to take place. So it certainly looks like everybody is going full steam ahead with the preparations for the summit.

INSKEEP: So part of the story after the president - President Trump's cancellation was that Moon Jae-in held this emergency meeting of his cabinet in the middle of the night and then suddenly showed up on the border with North Korea. That's some pretty quick action. Had the South Koreans been prepared for this sort of wild development?

FIFIELD: I think nobody was prepared for this sort of wild development. You know, President Moon had only been back in Seoul for 24 hours after visiting President Trump in the White House when the summit was, like, abruptly canceled. And the look on his face at that midnight meeting, you know, said it all. He was clearly shocked by this turn of events. But they swung into action immediately. And on Friday, President Moon and president - sorry, Kim Jong Un of North Korea talked. And they arranged to have this meeting the following day on Saturday face to face in Panmunjom in the DMZ, which is really kind of unprecedented to think this is only the fourth time in 18 years that the two Korean leaders have ever met, and they were able to pull it off with 24 hours' notice. So everybody seems to be swinging into action.

MARTIN: Which is so extraordinary - right, Anna? - that actually, President Trump - an American president's action, would actually draw the two Koreas together even closer.

FIFIELD: Yes, exactly. I think - you know, clearly, Kim Jong Un wants to go ahead with this summit. The signals coming out of North Korea over the past few days have been very kind of positive in that direction. But also, Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, you know, he is really invested in this process. And he desperately wants this to work because the other option if diplomacy fails may be military action, and that would be devastating for South Korea and the capital of Seoul. So one analyst we spoke to likened Moon Jae-in to a ball boy in a tennis match. She said, you know, every time the ball gets stuck in the net between Kim and Trump, Moon Jae-in rushes in to get it out again.

INSKEEP: Although if you're the president of a country, maybe not the image you really want. But, I guess, he really wants this summit. But let me ask - do the two sides agree, so far as you can tell, Anna, on what the goal is? Fundamentally, is North Korea ready to give up its nuclear weapons relatively quickly, which is what the U.S. wants?

FIFIELD: We don't know about the relatively quickly part. President Moon has said repeatedly that they're prepared to talk a bit about denuclearization. But that very vague term has not been defined, and President Moon declined on Saturday to say whether that meant complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantlement, like the U.S. wants. So there still seems to be quite a big gap there on substance.

INSKEEP: And we've been told that the North Koreans speaking directly with the United States have never signed on to that goal. Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

FIFIELD: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: She joins us by Skype. So what effect does President Trump's reversals on this and other issues have on American foreign relations?

MARTIN: Yeah, because besides the about face on North Korea, the president has scrapped the nuclear deal with Iran, of course. He has reconsidered trade deals. And he recently walked back these penalties on the Chinese telecom company, ZTE. These were penalties that his own Commerce Department had ordered. They ordered them because this company had violated U.S. sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley has been following all of this - I don't know - whiplash. Is that a good word for it, Scott?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: (Laughter) Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hey, good morning. Do you see a strategy here?

HORSLEY: I'm not sure there's a broad, overarching strategy. Instead, maybe what we're seeing is a lot of tactical moves by this president, reacting to events as they come, trying to be flexible. You hear that in the president's oft-repeated phrase, we'll see what happens. One point Trump did make in his book on deal-making is, you never want to seem too eager to be at the deal. That gives too much leverage to your - the person sitting across the table from you. So in walking away last week, he may have sort of recalibrated, made it clear that Kim Jong Un wants these talks at least as much, if not more than Trump does. And in that very personal breakup letter that we're told the president dictated himself, he did leave the door open for resumed talks. And here we are.

INSKEEP: Well, sure he certainly did, although I want to ask about this, Scott. It's hard to overlook the fact that when the president makes these sudden shifts - one direction, then another, then back again - one of the things that he does is refocus attention on himself, makes himself the center of the story.

HORSLEY: Yeah, the Trump show is the only show in town, and it's playing to a packed house every night. I think the president himself said something like that at one point. It's not easy, though, for the supporting players, whether we're talking about Moon Jae-in or U.S. allies or adversaries or even the president's own staff, Steve. You know, just last week, we had a senior White House official briefing reporters that it would be impossible to restart these talks in time to meet on June 12 in Singapore as originally scheduled. And then over the weekend, you had to president himself insisting that was a made-up source, that no one had said that, that the news media was inventing this, even though it was his own staffer who had made that point to reporters (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: In front of dozens of reporters. Dozens of people heard this person say this.

HORSLEY: It's difficult to be a spokesman for this administration.

INSKEEP: OK. Scott, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

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INSKEEP: Brazil has one of the world's more advanced economies, but still, in Brazil - just about anywhere, in fact - if you want to get a product to market, you're going to need, probably, a truck.

MARTIN: Right. That's how most cargo is moved around Brazil - a huge country - because it doesn't have much of a railway network. In the past week, though, you'd have been in trouble if you were trying to move things from point A to point B. Brazil's truckers have been on strike. This has caused shortages of fuel and food, and it has paralyzed much of the economy.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is in the center of it because he is in Rio de Janeiro.

Hey there, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: So what's it like to be in Brazil in the middle of a trucker strike?

REEVES: Well, it's more dramatic than many people would have expected. The impact this is having on the public is huge. We're seeing empty shelves in stores due to shortages of perishable foods - fruit, eggs, vegetables and so on. We're seeing very long lines at gas stations. You know, some people are sleeping in their cars overnight to get gas. Some gas stations actually closed over the weekend because their supplies ran out. Today, many schools are shut because public transport's in disarray. Flights in recent days have been scaled back. And it's worth remembering that Brazil's a huge exporter of poultry, and poultry producers have had to destroy more than 60 million birds because of the shortage of feed.

INSKEEP: Oh, because they can't get the feed - amazing. And they probably can't even move the birds when they need to be moved. So why are the truckers going on strike?

REEVES: It's about the cost of fuel. This has gone up a lot thanks to rising international oil prices and the sharp depreciation of Brazil's currency recently against the dollar. Truckers say that means their operating costs are too high.

INSKEEP: So let me just ask, Phil, in the United States, as you know, when the economy goes south, the president gets blamed, the government gets blamed. Maybe they deserve more or less of the blame, but they will shoulder the blame for that sort of thing. What happens in Brazil when the economy comes to a standstill?

REEVES: Well, we're about to find that out, I think. I mean, there is a bigger picture here. Brazil's been through the largest recession in its history. A massive corruption scandal involving much of the nation's leadership is still playing out. Politicians are generally very unpopular, especially the president, Michel Temer. There's a presidential election in Brazil in just over four months, and no one has a clue who's going to win it. The big question now is, could this dispute snowball and turn into something even bigger and threaten to bring down Temer's government? And if that government falls, what happens next?

INSKEEP: Well, what can the government do about this central complaint of rising fuel prices?

REEVES: Well, last night, Michel Temer went on TV, and he offered a deal that includes cutting diesel prices by the equivalent of 13 cents per liter for a period of 60 days. It's not clear if the truckers will accept this. Brazilians have a practice in which they demonstrate their disapproval by banging pots and pans. And as Temer was speaking on TV last night, the sound of banging pots reverberated around Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

INSKEEP: Wow. Philip, thanks very much. We'll leave it right there.

REEVES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves talking with us from Rio de Janeiro in the midst of a Brazilian trucker strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.