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Ex-Bush Official Weighs In On U.S. Relations With North Korea, China


Can the Trump administration secure China's cooperation on one big issue while battling it on another? We may find out as last week's events unfold further. First there was the U.S. North-Korea summit in Singapore. Afterwards, America's top diplomat briefed Chinese leaders. Then late last week, back-and-forth tariffs on U.S.-China trade. President Trump says it's not really a trade war, or at least not a new one.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The trade war was started many years ago by them, and the United States lost.

STEVE DOOCY: So you're saying we're on the losing end?

TRUMP: There's no trade war. Well, no, there is no trade war. They've taken so much.

MARTIN: All right, Victor Cha joins us now. He was director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the administration of President George W. Bush. Victor, thanks for being back on the program.

VICTOR CHA: Sure. It's my pleasure, Rachel.

MARTIN: Before we get to how the negotiations over North Korea are affecting trade, let's just talk about the merits of the summit first that happened last week. And before we do, we should just note your own nomination to be U.S. ambassador to South Korea was withdrawn by the Trump administration when you disagreed with the idea of limited military strikes on North Korea. But you have come out as someone who has been fairly optimistic about the outcome of this summit. Why? What did it get right?

CHA: Well, I mean, the first thing is it was a historic summit. I mean, no sitting U.S. president has ever met with the North Korean leader. And, you know, in that sense Trump pierced the bubble of this isolated leadership. The optics were very good. Look; there are lots of problems with the results in terms of the joint statement that came out of the meeting. If our goal was denuclearization completely and verifiably, we did not get close to that at least certainly in the written document. In fact, that document was more vague than the previous two agreements.

And it was certainly a lot more vague than the Iran nuclear deal that the Trump administration backed out of just before the summit. So there are still lots of holes in this thing. But at the same time, you know, compared to where we were a year ago where we were talking a lot about military strikes, this is a better place to be. And so we have to see what the process looks like going forward.

MARTIN: So on the whole, you think the summit made us safer as a result. Let's talk about China and its role in all this because even though China didn't have a delegation to this summit, its presence was there, looming over all of this because they are so of course instrumental to getting North Korea to change its behavior. The U.S. needs China. Is the Trump administration at risk of losing China's support on North Korea because of its aggressive trade stance right now?

CHA: Well, I think it certainly makes the situation a lot more complicated. You're absolutely right that China's role is very important. The maximum pressure campaign and sanctions on North Korea that compelled them to come back to the table had a lot to do with Chinese cooperation, particularly in the last quarter of 2017, the beginning of 2018. I mean, there's no denying that China practices unfair trade, particularly on things like intellectual property rights, which these sanctions were about. But at the same time, if Trump really wants to move forward with this issue and this is the No. 1 national security issue, you know, the Chinese are going to link what he's doing on tariffs with China to Chinese cooperation on North Korea.

MARTIN: But even the president has made that connection.

CHA: Yeah. I mean, he's made it a number of times. He's done it on trade with - on a number of other issues with a number of other countries. So it wouldn't surprise me if we saw some sort of linkage. If China's cooperative on North Korea, Trump is going to certainly give them credit for that. And it may make him weaken his sanctions pressure on them with regard to these IPR rights.

MARTIN: What's the next step you think needs to happen in the move to denuclearize North Korea?

CHA: So I think we're actually on a pretty compressed timeline despite the fact there was no timeline in the document. August is when we have to decide whether we're going to resume military exercises.


CHA: September is the U.N. General Assembly where, you know, the North Korean leader is probably going to want to come to that. So we don't have a lot of time to see some tangible results.

MARTIN: Victor Cha - he served in the George W. Bush administration, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much.

CHA: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.