STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What was North Korea talking about when it promised a Christmas present? The deputy foreign minister recently suggested the United States would get a present depending on nuclear talks. Days after that, North Korea carried out what it called a very important test. NPR's White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is on the line. Good morning.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What on earth did North Korea mean?
RASCOE: Well, North Korea is threatening to take action by the end of the year if the U.S. does not lift sanctions, and this is really the central conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. The U.S. wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. North Korea wants sanctions relief. And - but they don't want to give up all of their weapons. And North Korea realizes that Trump is up for reelection next year, and they can make life more difficult for him. I spoke with Michael Green, who was a senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under George W. Bush, and he said North Koreans want to force Trump to negotiate.
MICHAEL GREEN: Well, the North Koreans have, from their own experience, some expectation, I think, that escalation will get Donald Trump to the table and that the outcome will be good for them. And what they want more than anything is Trump in the room without his advisers.
RASCOE: And that's kind of what happened before the historic Singapore meeting. North Koreans believe that Trump is more likely to strike a deal with them than some of his officials.
INSKEEP: Singapore meeting - of course, that's one of Trump's meetings directly with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. So they've thrown out this deadline, talked about a Christmas present. What does the U.S. do now?
RASCOE: Well, so the U.S. did request a U.N. Security Council meeting about North Korea, and that happened yesterday. So they are raising concerns, but for the most part, officials are publicly being optimistic about the chance for resolving these issues. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about whether he expects North Korea to return to an aggressive posture, and Pompeo said he's hopeful that North Korea will stick to its prior commitments, which includes, according to the administration, not conducting long-range missile tests. He talked about this issue with Russia's foreign minister this week, and this is what Pompeo said.
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MIKE POMPEO: We continue to work to try and develop places where we can communicate negotiation mechanisms, where we can talk to them about paths forward to achieve the denuclearization.
RASCOE: Experts I talked to said that this is a pattern for North Korea, these moves from bargaining to brinksmanship. But still, Trump has been mostly complimentary about Kim. But he did recently remind reporters that he used to call him Rocket Man, and that caused North Korea to remind them that they called him dotard.
INSKEEP: OK - so not always the kindest relationship, but they've tried to keep it warm recently, or President Trump has tried to keep it warm recently. This is the way he spoke with Kim Jong Un just the other day.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's somebody that I've gotten along with very well for three years, and he's gotten along with me very well.
INSKEEP: Does the president's fondness for Kim - or effort to keep Kim on his side, anyway - have anything to do with another U.S. move, Ayesha? The U.S. blocked a United Nations meeting on North Korea's human rights.
RASCOE: Well, so the administration is saying that the U.S. objected because it felt that focusing on nonproliferation would be the best use of the Security Council's time this week. But Trump has gone out of his way at times to not anger Kim, and North Korea had warned that it would respond strongly if that meeting on human rights went ahead. There has been some criticism of this move from some who just saw it as the U.S. appeasing North Korea and not dealing with this very serious issue. One of those critics was Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton. And Bolton tweeted that Kim's repression of his people warrants scrutiny and that the U.S. should be taking the lead and not obstructing other countries.
INSKEEP: Bolton has his voice back. He had apparently lost control of his Twitter account at one time after he left the White House, but he says he's back and speaking out from time to time...
RASCOE: Yes (laughter). Yes.
INSKEEP: ...Although not on the impeachment questions at this moment.
RASCOE: No, no, but on North Korea.
INSKEEP: Ayesha, thanks so much.
RASCOE: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.