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North Korea Says It's Open To Talks With U.S.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Olympics came to a close today, and with that, a possible diplomatic breakthrough. After a meeting between North and South Korea, South Korean president Moon Jae-In said North Korea was willing to hold talks with the United States. Here to help us understand what this could mean is Suzanne DiMaggio. She's a director and senior fellow at New America. Last year, she facilitated the first official discussions between the Trump administration and the North Korean government. Welcome.

SUZANNE DIMAGGIO: Great to be with you.

MCCAMMON: So I'm wondering how serious North Korea is here. Do you see this latest development as a breakthrough or just talk?

DIMAGGIO: It's way too early to tell if it's a breakthrough, but the context's very important. We're coming off a period where they haven't tested a missile in nearly three months. We now have this Olympic pause that has happened, and it seems like the North Koreans are happy with how that went. So I think we're at a stage where they've indicated a willingness to talk to the U.S. I think it presents an important opportunity for the Trump administration. They should grab it quickly and pursue it.

MCCAMMON: And it comes just after the White House announced new sanctions against North Korea. President Trump even threatened quote, "if the sanctions don't work, we'll have to go phase two." Do you take this as a sign that the sanctions and rhetoric are working, at least to some degree?

DIMAGGIO: I'm not so sure about that. I think the North Koreans have had their own timeline, for some time, of what they wanted to accomplish. I think, now, they see that they've made these advancements in their program. They've been able to safeguard themselves from regime change and they also have increased their negotiating position quite significantly. So it doesn't surprise me that they may be ready to come to the table now.

MCCAMMON: President Trump has said in the past that he'd be open to holding talks with North Korea if Pyongyang says it's willing to denuclearize. What will it actually take to get all three of these parties to the table?

DIMAGGIO: Well, I think, first, the - the U.S. and North Korea need to come to the table for what I would call talks about talks. This would be a - not negotiations, but talks to try to map a way forward while testing the North Koreans before we got to negotiations. At that stage, we will be able to raise whether denuclearization could be a goal at the end of a process. There's no way, at this stage, North Koreans are going to agree to denuclearize at the beginning of a process or even close to the beginning. This is something that I think we'll have to work towards. If we come to the table demanding denuclearization upfront. That will be a non-starter.

MCCAMMON: And briefly, if you can, a lot of these discussions are happening surrounding the Olympic Games. How important have the Olympics been as a tool for diplomacy?

DIMAGGIO: Well, I think, certainly, between the North Koreans and South Koreans, it's been important. And we've seen a number of areas where they've been able to make a little bit of progress, most importantly to deescalate. But I think the North Koreans know, at the end of the day, there are some serious issues that require dealing directly with the United States. At this stage, it would be important to have bilateral dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang that works in parallel with the inter-Korean dialogue, but it'll be very important for us to coordinate closely with our South Korean allies. I just wish we had an ambassador in Seoul.

MCCAMMON: Suzanne DiMaggio is a director and senior fellow at the think tank New America. Thanks so much for talking with us today.

DIMAGGIO: It was my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.