RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And we're going to begin today with this historic breakthrough in efforts to address the nuclear threat from North Korea. President Donald Trump says he is accepting an invitation to open up a dialogue with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, about ending the North's nuclear program. South Korea's national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, made the announcement at the White House yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHUNG EUI-YONG: Along with President Trump, we are optimistic about continuing a diplomatic process to test the possibility of a peaceful resolution.
MARTIN: After months of name-calling between Kim Jong Un and President Trump and flat out threats of war, this is going to be quite a test. Elise Hu covers Korea for NPR and joins me now, along with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hello to you both.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So I want to start with you, Elise. One minute, Americans living in Guam are thinking about how to get to shelters if North Korea strikes, and seemingly the next minute, the president is meeting face to face with Kim Jong Un. How did we get to this moment?
HU: Well, there have been a lot of surprises in these first months of the year on the peninsula. This is perhaps the biggest one. We got here because 2018 started with a pivot from Kim Jong Un himself. He began the year with a New Year's Day speech where he made a diplomatic overture to South Korea about participating in the Olympics. That really opened a door for engagement, which South Korea was willing and ready to jump in on. It started this hyperspeed diplomacy over the past few months that got us to this point.
Earlier this week, South Korea sent its spy chief and its national security chief. Those are the envoys who wound up in Washington. But first, they went to Pyongyang where they met with Kim Jong Un for the first time. It was during that meeting that Kim said he made up his mind to pause testing in missiles and nuclear devices. And that's partly because he felt satisfied that he had achieved the development he wanted. He also invited President Moon here in South Korea for a summit; also sent a letter with the envoys to bring to the White House to invite Trump to a summit. But perhaps the biggest surprise here is that Trump decided to say yes.
MARTIN: Right. But it is still remarkable. There were all these critics who were like, oh, this whole, like, we're going to get along for the Olympics, this is just a bunch of symbolism and propaganda. And what I hear you saying is it really did make a difference in all this. Tam, I want to turn to you. Just yesterday, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was talking about diplomacy with North Korea as unlikely in the short term. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REX TILLERSON: We're a long ways from negotiations. I think it's - we just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it.
MARTIN: All right, so some conflicting messages here.
KEITH: Well, what he's saying now is that he knew what he was saying all along. And that - and the White House and also the State Department are making a very strong distinction here saying that this is not about negotiations, not about formal negotiations. This is just an agreement from the president to meet with the North Korean leader. This is - this is not a negotiation yet...
KEITH: ...Is what they're saying.
MARTIN: I mean, North Korea has wanted this for a long time, to be able to sit down face to face with an American president to feel elevated in that way. Did the North have to concede anything to get this meeting, Tam?
KEITH: What the White House would say is not only did the North sort of lean in and agree to stop these tests and express an openness that hasn't really been expressed in this way before but also that the U.S. isn't really making any concessions other than President Trump agreeing to meet with him, that the sanctions and maximum pressure campaign are going to continue, that the U.S. and South Korea can continue their military exercises. So the idea here is that the White House is sort of just saying, yeah, a meeting can happen, doesn't mean that we're negotiating.
MARTIN: Although then that would be a really awkward meeting if they just sat there and ate together.
MARTIN: Let's talk about expectations. Elise, what might the U.S. ask for? I mean, if we presume that they're not just going to sit there, that they are going to negotiate, where does that conversation even begin?
HU: Right. And this is actually the hard work that needs to begin before any heads of state can sit down with one another. Usually, there's a lot of lower level meetings that happen so that the heads of state are prepared. We don't know specifically what the U.S. wants in terms of steps it's going to ask for. All we hear from Trump is denuke, but that's actually a process. It's not a single action. Typically, the steps in denuclearization are a halt to further development, a rollback and then dismantling.
As for what North Korea wants, well, it wants to feel like the threat of destruction from the U.S. will be relieved. North Korea uses its memories of being carpet-bombed by the U.S. during the Korean War constantly in its propaganda still. It positions the U.S. as its sworn enemy and basically says its nuclear force is meant to deter the U.S. And so in addition to getting the optics of international recognition of sitting down with President Trump, it's likely going to want to see steps from the United States to remove what it sees as a hostile occupation on the Korean Peninsula.
MARTIN: I mean, this - if this happens, it would be historic. This is a generations-long conflict. How are South Koreans feeling right now?
HU: It depends. I mean, if you're asking about how the administration feels, it's elated. It feels like it's going to be this historic milestone. There is some concern in South Korean and Japanese civil society, because North Korea has played this game before, extracting aid and concessions and then going back to its weapons development, that South Korea could get played again here. And North Korea, we should remember, is positioned extremely well. A longtime North Korea watcher and East Asia historian based here in Seoul, John Delury, put it this way.
JOHN DELURY: The North Koreans are infamous in terms of negotiation. They're extremely skilled negotiators. They know the counterpart. They're going to know the Americans very well - as well as they can. And so President Trump cannot just waltz into this kind of summit.
MARTIN: He's going to have to be prepared, clearly. Tam, we should just note there is still no U.S. ambassador in South Korea, right?
KEITH: That is correct. Also the main envoy, this senior State Department person who's been there a long time working on the relationship, just retired. So there are a lot of empty positions. But as the White House is saying, you know, President Trump has a reputation for making deals, and he also has a reputation that he has cultivated for doing things differently. So having people missing may not be seen as a disadvantage to this president himself.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tamara Keith and NPR's Elise Hu for us this morning. Thank you ladies.
KEITH: You're welcome.
HU: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: It was a busy day at the White House yesterday. Right before this announcement about North Korea, another big moment came when President Trump officially signed off on tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from a whole lot of countries, which includes Brazil, which is actually the second largest supplier of steel to the U.S.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting in foreign language).
MARTIN: That is the sound of steel workers protesting outside the U.S. consulate in Sao Paulo earlier this week. Many of them expressing their frustration about possibly losing their jobs because of these American tariffs. And now, Brazil's government is threatening to retaliate, and that could have a major impact on American jobs, particularly in states that voted for President Trump. NPR's Philip Reeves joins us now from Rio de Janeiro to explain this connection and possible fallout. Hey, Phil.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi, how are you doing?
MARTIN: I'm doing well. So let's start out with the tangible effects of these tariffs on Brazil. What's going to happen there?
REEVES: One hundred thousand Brazilians work in the steel industry, and people here are worried for their jobs. The country's also struggling to get out of the worst recession in its history. And it's just now nudging into growth. A 25 percent tariff on a major export, steel, imposed by an ally is not likely to make that recovery any easier. So Brazil's government's saying it's, you know, gravely concerned by the tariffs. The two countries did about just under $90 billion worth of trade last year. And Brazil's arguing, you know, that will be damaged, and they're warning that companies and consumers in both Brazil and the U.S. will suffer.
MARTIN: And Brazil is also the largest importer of American coal, right? Explain this connection and how it could affect American jobs.
REEVES: Well, the type of coal called met coal, that's one area that Brazil has warned of consequences. Last year, it imported a billion dollars' worth of coal from the U.S. This is the met coal, which they use for making steel here.
MARTIN: Wait, so they import American coal to make Brazilian steel to sell back to America.
REEVES: It's the best client - the best foreign client the U.S. has for this stuff, and it's now hinting heavily that it could look to buy this elsewhere. You know, we all know President Trump campaigned on reviving the coal industry in the U.S., and the irony that - in Brazil's view at any rate - this could damage that industry is not being lost on people here.
MARTIN: So what does Brazil do? I mean, do they have any leverage to retaliate against these tariffs?
REEVES: Well, the Brazilian government actually is still hoping to negotiate a path out of this. Officials say that Trump's announcement yesterday seemed to suggest that countries might avoid these tariffs, for instance, by introducing voluntary restrictions. They say it was kind of vague. If that doesn't work out, the Brazilians may well file a case along with other affected countries at the World Trade Organization arguing that these tariffs aren't in line with agreements.
But don't let's forget one thing, though - Brazil is the largest country in Latin America, and it's not an easy country to do business with. There are often many restrictions and an unbelievable amount of red tape. The U.S. has been urging the Brazilians to open up and in fact got a victory this week with an agreement that opens the path to more air travel. And some people here are pointing out that these tariffs play into the hands of those Brazilians who are against liberalizing Brazil's economy, and that's bad for everyone.
MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves from Rio de Janeiro this morning. Hey, Phil, thank you so much for that. We appreciate it.
REEVES: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAMASI WASHINGTON'S "KNOWLEDGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.