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Trump's Upcoming Meeting With North Korean Leader Has Potential For High Reward


President Trump surprised the world last night when he accepted an invitation to meet face to face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Now comes the hard part. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Where will the leaders meet? Who will accompany the president? What did the U.S. and its allies hope to get out of the summit? NPR's Scott Horsley joins us from the White House to walk through some of those questions. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The president accepted Kim Jong Un's invitation as soon as he heard about it yesterday from a South Korean official. Then today, it sounds like the White House is attaching some qualifiers. What can you tell us about that?

HORSLEY: Right. Past presidents have always been wary about meeting with North Korean leaders. In fact, there's never been such a meeting with a sitting president. And there was some criticism that maybe Trump had acted too hastily here agreeing to a sit down that would showcase the North Korean leader on an equal footing without necessarily getting anything in return. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders push back against that idea this afternoon.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Let's be very clear. The United States has made zero concessions, but North Korea has made some promises. This meeting won't take place without concrete actions that match the promises that have been made by North Korea.

HORSLEY: Now, Sanders was not specific about what kinds of concrete actions she's talking about, and we haven't actually heard any promises directly from the North Koreans. What we have heard both from President Trump and from South Korean officials is that Kim has expressed a willingness to denuclearize, though it's not entirely clear what that means or how it might be verified.

SHAPIRO: So without those specific details nailed down, why would the White House accept the invitation?

HORSLEY: This is how Donald Trump likes to conduct foreign policy. He is not someone who is overly concerned about briefing books or how things have been done in the past. In fact, he seems to relish throwing out the books and starting from scratch. He figures whatever has been tried up until now hasn't worked, so why not do something different? He's also said he likes to be unpredictable. He thinks it keeps other countries, other people, guessing and gives him a strategic advantage. Lisa Collins, who's a Korea scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks Kim is counting on that.

LISA COLLINS: I think the North Koreans are probably actually deliberately playing up to Donald Trump's unpredictability. I mean, they may actually be counting on the fact that President Trump doesn't plan things as carefully as previous U.S. presidents.

HORSLEY: Now, Ari, however impulsive this president may have been in agreeing to the summit, though, the U.S. and its allies are not relaxing any of their economic sanctions on North Korea. So what the administration calls its maximum pressure campaign will continue.

SHAPIRO: If this is really going to happen by May, there's a lot to get done in a very short time. The White House says the time and place for the meeting still have to be worked out. What else has to happen?

HORSLEY: The White House is consulting with U.S. allies. Of course, the South Koreans were there for the announcement. Trump spoke last night with the Japanese prime minister. He spoke with the Chinese president today. Also ordinarily, you would have in the run-up to a meeting like this lower level diplomats laying the groundwork, trying to put up some guardrails, specifying what is on the negotiating table, what is not. Dan Drezner, who is a foreign policy scholar at The Fletcher School of diplomacy, says that won't be easy in this case.

DANIEL DREZNER: First of all, I assume a lot of Maalox is being consumed right now. If you tell Trump you can't say this, of course the first thing he's going to want to do is say it. So I would not envy the people at the State Department or the Defense Department or the National Security Council who have to try to support and staff the president on this issue.

HORSLEY: The White House spokeswoman said this afternoon that Trump will have an incredible team working with him as he prepares for this summit. But she said at the end of the day, the ultimate person leading the negotiations will be President Trump.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.