RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Donald Trump has accepted an invitation to meet directly with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, possibly as soon as this May. This could mark a big breakthrough in the diplomatic efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear threat, and it would make Trump the first sitting American president to ever meet with a leader of North Korea. These aren't the first talks his administration has had with Pyongyang. There were unofficial discussions last year happening behind the scenes. Suzanne DiMaggio was the interlocutor who made those informal talks happen. She's a senior fellow at the think tank New America in Washington, and she joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.
SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: Happy to join you.
MARTIN: The North Koreans have wanted exactly this for decades, to be able to put their leader at the same table as the American president. Did the Trump administration agree to this meeting too early without enough concessions?
DIMAGGIO: Well, you're absolutely right. They've wanted this for a long time and in fact relayed this very idea to me a year ago. So one way to look at it is before the North Koreans have delivered anything concrete, Trump has already handed them a major concession - an unprecedented meeting with the leader of the free world. But the other way to think about it is that we were quickly heading down the road to a possible military confrontation with the North Koreans. And a major step toward diplomacy is a most welcome turn of events.
MARTIN: You were the person, as we mentioned, who helped facilitate these first discussions with North Korean delegates last year. What is it like to sit in that room and engage in this kind of discussion with the North Koreans?
DIMAGGIO: Well, first of all, they're highly rational, unlike some people say. And second of all, they have a strategy. They were committed to completing what they call their nuclear force to increase their negotiating position once they get to the table. So I think unlike our side of the table, which seems to be a bit scattered and unfocused, they are on a clear timeline to get to the table at the most - at the best time for them. So they have played their cards very well, and they're basically setting the agenda now while the Trump administration reacts to it. So at this stage of the game, the Trump administration needs to act quickly and change this dynamic.
MARTIN: You say the administration is a bit scattered in this moment. I mean, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made efforts today to say that these are talks, not negotiations. But in a tweet, President Trump made it seem like he expected that the North was going to be willing to discuss denuclearization. Are there mixed messages? I mean, when you say it's scattered right now, what do you mean?
DIMAGGIO: Well, I think that is the point is they are mixed messages that we've been hearing from various people within the administration. Anyone would be hard-pressed to say what exactly is the U.S. policy towards North Korea today. So one of the first priorities is going to have to be how to soundproof this process from President Trump's tweets and rants. Otherwise, we're going to be in for a rocky road ahead.
MARTIN: What does the Trump administration need to do to be in the best position? I mean, what concrete demands do they need to make of the North before sitting down?
DIMAGGIO: Well, I think, first of all, the president needs to step back over these next couple of months in preparation for this summit and really let the diplomats do their job. They need to lay the groundwork for this meeting. There's a great deal of preparation that needs to be done.
MARTIN: Who are the diplomats? There's no American ambassador in South Korea.
DIMAGGIO: There's no American ambassador, but I would suggest as a first next step would be a high-level meeting perhaps between Secretary Tillerson and the foreign minister of North Korea, Ri Yong Ho. I think that would help set the stage, and that should be done quickly.
MARTIN: Let me ask you - we heard elsewhere on the program from Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a Republican, who said agreeing to this meeting is essentially drawing a red line with the North Korean regime. It's high stakes. If these talks fail, what are the consequences?
DIMAGGIO: Well, that is a concern I think a lot of us have. I think we need to go into this with the mindset that this is going to be a long, arduous process. The North Koreans are not going to give up their nuclear program anytime soon. They very well may never give it up. But I think we need to go in with that as our preferred outcome. But we need to really get in place the priorities that we want to achieve in the near term. And there are a number of things - for example, preventing North Korea from proliferating its nuclear program and selling its nuclear technology to others. I think that should be a major priority.
MARTIN: Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America think tank here in Washington, thank you so much for your time this morning.
DIMAGGIO: Great to be with you, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.