RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Kim Jong Un has been North Korea's leader since 2011. Since then, he has had no recorded trips outside that country, nor has he met with any other heads of state. That has changed. In the past few months, Kim Jong Un has met with the presidents of China, South Korea and, as of today, the president of the United States.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met in Singapore, where they committed to peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Critics of the summit say just putting Kim Jong Un on the same stage as the president elevates what is a brutal authoritarian regime. Others say this is a historic diplomatic opening. Jean Lee is a Korea expert at the Wilson Center and was The Associated Press's Korean Peninsula bureau chief from 2008 to 2013. She joins us now on the line.
Jean, thanks for being here.
JEAN LEE: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: The first point in this agreement that was signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un is to commit to new U.S.-North Korea relations. What do you think that means?
LEE: That certainly means that they'll establish a channel of communication, which is a good thing. It's a very broad statement with very few details. So we have to see what that actually means. But I do like the fact that it signals a changed relationship after so many years of tension. You know, there was an opening - when I did open the AP bureau in Pyongyang in 2012, what I was piggybacking on was a sign that the North Koreans wanted a different relationship with the United States. But remember, this was at the tail end of Kim Jong Il's, the previous North Korean leader's tenure. He passed away just - actually, two days before I was supposed to open the bureau.
And so I believe that Kim Jong Un took leadership and decided it wasn't time for him to reach out to the U.S., that he needed to build his nuclear program. And we've had these six years of tension as he's ratcheted up the provocations and built his nuclear program. But we really needed to bring that back around to a more peaceful relationship and one that wasn't based on provocation.
MARTIN: So what do you make of the critique that this elevates Kim Jong Un, a man who rules over one of the most - if not the most repressive regime in the world?
LEE: Absolutely. There are so many reasons for why presidents past have resisted sitting down with a North Korean leader. It's because it legitimizes the crimes that he's committed.
Now, one of my concerns - even though I think it's very positive that they're on a better path to a better relationship, I also am concerned that this legitimizes the way he went about it, Kim Jong Un. He had a strategy to use his nuclear weapons to gain stature internationally, not only at home but internationally. He wanted to prove to his people that he could defend them, which he did. And then he wanted to force the world to pay attention to him with bad behavior. And this - by giving him and granting him this summit, we've essentially said that that path is perfectly fine. And I'm very concerned about that and what example that sets for other countries.
MARTIN: So I hear you saying, though, that both things are true for you, that, A, this has created an important diplomatic beginning to this work of denuclearizing North Korea but that, at the same time, it legitimizes Kim Jong Un. You can hold both those ideas in your head at the same time?
LEE: I think so. You know, I'm just recognizing and acknowledging the fact that this plays well for Kim Jong Un back home. It solidifies his standing with his people. They will have something to be proud of. They knew their country is small, very poor. And the fact that their leader could sit down as an equal with the U.S. president is something that gives them a sense of pride. And I'm just wondering if that sense of pride will give Kim Jong Un incentive to perhaps join the international community and refrain from some of this provocative behavior.
We can only hope for the best here because as somebody whose family lives in South Korea, I don't want us to go back to the provocation. So I'm happy if this is a start.
MARTIN: Jean Lee with the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
Thanks for your time.
LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.