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Former Acting CIA Director Weighs In On U.S.-North Korea Summit


We're going to hear how one of the country's leading national security experts views the summit in Singapore between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. Mike Morell is former acting director and former deputy director of the CIA. He was with the agency for more than 30 years. He says the meeting between Trump and Kim is historic, but he says what they signed is not since North Korea has promised the same things in the past. Morell told me it's what happens next that matters.

MIKE MORELL: I think what is new - right? - is the meeting with the president, which is an important first step. But there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to see if we can take what happened to the end zone of denuclearization. Maybe we're on the 20-yard line, and, you know, we got 80 yards to go.

CORNISH: I want to talk more about that because among the listed goals in the joint statement is one that says the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Can you parse that sentence for us from an intelligence perspective?

MORELL: So what North Korea means by that sentence is not only would they denuclearize - right? - would they get rid of their nuclear weapons, but there would be no introduction of nuclear weapons onto the peninsula by the United States. There are none there today, but there are ship visits, which we don't acknowledge whether there are nuclear weapons on those ships or not, and there are B-2 and B-52 overflights of the peninsula, and we don't acknowledge whether there's nuclear weapons on those or not. So from North Korea's perspective, it would be within their right given their definition of this to demand an end to ship visits and B-2 and B-52 overflights.

CORNISH: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid a lot of the groundwork for this - right? - made two trips to the region, will be involved going forward. He's the former head of the CIA, where he helped establish the North Korea Mission Center. Is there something to be gained for the U.S. in terms of intelligence - right? - having access to the regime in a way that maybe it didn't before?

MORELL: So anything that puts Americans on the ground in North Korea is helpful from an intelligence perspective. And intelligence, Audie, is going to be extraordinarily important going forward because the intelligence community is going to have to be able to tell the president their level of confidence in ensuring that Kim Jong Un and the North Koreans don't cheat down the road.

CORNISH: Going forward, the CIA is heavily involved in the negotiations with representatives as part of the U.S., I guess, delegation, so to speak. Is that unusual?

MORELL: No, I don't think it's unusual. You know, during the Iran nuclear negotiations, the intelligence community might not have actually been in the room, but they were there providing intelligence support to the U.S. delegation. So that's very, very traditional. I actually think having the CIA in the room in this case makes a lot of sense because in North Korea, the North Koreans believe that the CIA is an extraordinarily powerful entity in Washington, perhaps one of the most powerful entities in Washington. So to have them in the room gives them some confidence that anything they agree to will be delivered.

CORNISH: What's interesting to me is I had been reading that for some time the CIA believed that the North Koreans would never give up their weapons. So has something changed?

MORELL: There was nothing that gives us any real insight into whether North Korea has fundamentally changed on that question. But there is a small group of North Korean experts who are now starting to come to the view that maybe this time is different, that maybe Kim is desperate to show economic success at home. Maybe the fact that he's demonstrated an ability to detonate a nuclear weapon over the United States is enough to convince the West that even if he gives them up, he can always come back to them. So maybe this time is different.

CORNISH: Do you think differently?

MORELL: So I am open-minded now to that question. For a long time, I was convinced that they never would. I think Kim's behavior and the steps he has taken over the last six months raised the possibility that we might be in a different moment, and I'm open-minded to that.

CORNISH: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that verification is the most important or significant part of this process. What are you going to be looking for in terms of that process? What would you like to see? What do you think is necessary to make this work?

MORELL: Audie, if I were in my old job and I were asked by the president what confidence that I could give him that the North Koreans weren't cheating - and that's what we're talking about with regard to verification, right? - I would tell him that if we have traditional IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency, inspections doing things the way they've always done them, then I couldn't give him very high confidence. But if we have intrusive challenge inspections, the kind of inspections we have in Iran, maybe enhanced even more than that in terms of being able to go anywhere, anytime, then I could give him high confidence.

CORNISH: All right, well, Mike Morell, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MORELL: You're welcome. It's great to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: That was Mike Morell, former acting and former deputy director of the CIA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.