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How Trump Has Tried To Scale Back Nuclear Programs In North Korea And Iran


President Trump came into office saying he wanted to scale back, if not end, the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. With North Korea, he's tried carrots. With Iran, he's tried sticks. Yet neither approach seems to be working. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to take stock. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Remind us what the plan was, what President Trump said he was going to do about the nuclear programs in each of these countries.

MYRE: Right. He really made that a top priority right as he came in. And even though there was this nuclear agreement with Iran that was in place, had been there since 2015, he withdrew in 2018. He said it wasn't tough enough. It didn't do enough in the long term to prevent Iran. We've heard that consistently right up to the present. I mean, just last week, as he was addressing the crisis on Iran, the first words out of his mouth when he gave his big speech was, as long as I am president of the U.S., Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. Good morning.

KELLY: Right.

MYRE: So even before the pleasantries...

KELLY: Yeah.

MYRE: Straight to the point. With North Korea, he also started with a very tough rhetoric. He talked about being locked and loaded and unleashing fire and fury. As one wag put, it sounded like he was promoting a Vin Diesel film festival. Now, there was a change in tone. And then he started meeting with Kim Jung-un, who is - who he's met with three times and talked about these love letters, but there's been no results. And I spoke about this with Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

MARK FITZPATRICK: President Trump did the right thing in prioritizing Iran and North Korea as potential nuclear threats, but he hasn't been able to make any progress with either of them. And in fact, with Iran in particular, things have gone much worse.

KELLY: Much worse. Greg, he's talking - what? - about the unraveling of the nuclear deal?

MYRE: Right, with Iran in particular. And so Iran, in the - since last spring, has been taking another step away from the deal every 60 days. And the latest was just last week when you were in Iran, as you well know. And Iran said it would no longer abide by these enrichment limits. Now, this is very incremental. They're not racing to a nuke. There are still international inspectors there, but it's moving steadily beyond the lines of the deal. Trump's pressure campaign is squeezing Iran, but the developments of the past week - including the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the prominent general - has really eliminated any prospects for negotiations at this point.

KELLY: All right. Meanwhile, North Korea - bring us up to speed with where that stands.

MYRE: Right. So North Korea hit two important milestones during Trump's first year in office in 2017. North Korea detonated a hydrogen bomb, which improved its nuclear capabilities. And it says it successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that's believed capable of hitting the U.S. So at that point, the North Korean leader said the nuclear program was complete, and he imposed his own moratorium. But these meetings haven't gone anywhere, and there's still been a few more short-range nuclear tests. And in December, North Korea promised a Christmas present that it hasn't delivered, but it points to the deteriorating climate.

KELLY: Now, President Trump has said that the path forward, as he sees, it is negotiations, that he's going to talk to these countries and they're going to sort out their nuclear programs that way. Is that realistic, at least in the near term?

MYRE: Highly unlikely this year. Both countries are deeply skeptical and felt that they deserved greater rewards. Iran says it was abiding by the nuclear deal, which was then - we saw the U.S. pull out. North Korea imposed this moratorium on itself. Instead, both of them have faced tougher sanctions. So I spoke about this with Kelsey Davenport at the Arms Control Association, and one of her points was that Trump has really overused sanctions, in her opinion.

KELSEY DAVENPORT: Trump missed opportunities with both Iran and North Korea by insisting on maximalist positions and having an inflexible approach to negotiations.

KELLY: Greg, is there any good news here? What are you going to be watching for this year?

MYRE: Not a lot on the horizon. The North Korean watchers say they're really looking for a provocation rather than a concession, and Iran could take additional steps. And given the U.S. calendar, both countries are likely to wait and see what happens in November.

KELLY: All right - November elections, where many things will be answered. That is NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.