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Former Diplomat Discusses Importance Of North Korea's Nuclear Dismantlement Progress


President Trump says his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un back in June is now bearing fruit. At an event in Missouri today, Trump talked about progress getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: New images just today show that North Korea has begun the process of dismantling a key missile site, and we appreciate that. We had a fantastic meeting with Chairman Kim, and it seems to be going very well.

SHAPIRO: To discuss how significant this dismantlement is Joel Wit joins us. He's a former diplomat, now director of 38 North. That group has analyzed these satellite images from North Korea. Welcome to the studio.

JOEL WIT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: So President Trump says North Korea has begun the process of dismantling a key missile site. Is that what these images show?

WIT: Well, yes, it is what the images show. This is a place that North Korea built just a few years ago, and it's been used to launch satellites into space on rockets. So those - that technology could be used to build ballistic missiles also.

SHAPIRO: How key is this one site to North Korea's program?

WIT: It's an important site. And this is one step forward. But there are many other sites, too. So it's important, but as I said, it's just the beginning of what could be a long process.

SHAPIRO: We were talking earlier this month about satellite images that showed North Korea expanding a ballistic missile factory. Does that complicate this narrative that the North is moving away from its nuclear weapons program?

WIT: Well, yes, you're going to get these conflicting signals at the beginning of this process until we have a detailed agreement that lays out a roadmap to move towards denuclearization. And we don't have that yet.

SHAPIRO: And so how would you describe the overarching picture of what North Korea is doing right now?

WIT: I would describe the overarching picture as steps forward. But there's still a long way to go.

SHAPIRO: Today the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the U.S. is still pushing for independent inspectors who can verify that North Korea's dismantling its nuclear program. Without those inspectors, how useful is the sort of satellite imagery that we're talking about today?

WIT: Well, I think it's useful, but of course it's better to have people on the ground to tell us firsthand what's going on. Nevertheless, I think these are important steps. And from what we can tell, the site will be dismantled.

SHAPIRO: What do you think it would take for North Korea to let inspectors in?

WIT: You know, I led an inspecting team in 1998 to North Korea. And we did it because the political atmosphere was good and the North Koreans let us in. So in a similar situation today, I think there could be more inspections.

SHAPIRO: You say that would require the kind of formal written agreement that doesn't exist as of now. What would it take to get that kind of an agreement?

WIT: Well, what it will take is face-to-face negotiations that are going to last maybe weeks or even months. And we don't have those yet. So we need to start them very soon.

SHAPIRO: If you're talking about weeks or months, it doesn't sound like you're talking about heads of state.

WIT: No, we're not talking about heads of state. We're talking about negotiators. But there is room for more summits between Trump and Kim to get over hurdles that negotiators are going to face.

SHAPIRO: Well, without the movement towards those kinds of conversations, how significant is the kind of dismantlement that we're seeing in these satellite images?

WIT: Well, I would say we need both. We need unilateral steps by both sides to build momentum and confidence, but we also need these detailed negotiations.

SHAPIRO: Taking a step back, President Trump today said it seems to be going very well with North Korea. Do you think that's a fair and accurate assessment?

WIT: Well, I know the president somehow exaggerates. So what I would say is we are moving down a road we haven't moved down in some time. And so we need to take advantage of this opportunity. And it's still unclear whether we will or not.

SHAPIRO: I'm just curious. When you and your analysts at 38 North saw the images of this dismantlement, were you surprised that North Korea hadn't called attention to this on its own?

WIT: Well, the North Koreans have said publicly that they are going to dismantle missile test sites. And so it wasn't a total surprise. But I didn't expect them to go as far as they've gone.

SHAPIRO: Joel Wit is a senior fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center and director of the 38 North project. Thanks for joining us today.

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