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As tensions mount between the U.S. and North Korea, so does the number of unanswered questions.
Would the U.S. launch a pre-emptive strike?
Would North Korea really attack Guam?
What role will China play?
How did we get to this point?
In this show, we’re taking all questions, big and small, on North Korea.
- Keith Luse Executive director, National Committee on North Korea; he served as the Republican East Asia policy adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2003 until 2013
- Sheila Smith Senior fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; author of "Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China"; @SheilaSmithCFR
- Jon Wolfsthal Nonresident scholar with the Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; he served in the Obama administration as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council
How we got here
Sheila Smith: “It’s a long story in some ways. It’s a two decade old story of the North Koreans deciding they wanted to pursue nuclear missile proliferation. They wanted a significant nuclear arsenal. They wanted to deter the United States from any kind of aggression, but they also wanted to make a statement about their own security. The other piece of the puzzle is, of course, that they’ve acquired these capabilities. They now of technological capabilities of delivering weapons at a distance, and you see not only they can Seoul, which they’ve always been able to hit Seoul, now they can hit Japan effectively, not only with conventional weapons as well as weapons of mass destruction, and they’re on their way to trying to be able to have the capacity to hit the United States. We have tried in those two decades as well to engage the North Koreans in a conversation about a different decision: denuclearizing, not pursuing a nuclear path. And instead, negotiating with us and their neighbors for a regional assessment of what they need to assure their security, but also what their neighbors need as well.
On the background of nuclear weapons in North Korea
Jon Wolfsthal: So the nuclear program in North Korea actually began in the 1950’s, getting a lot of assistance from the former Soviet Union, just as we were training our allies to benefit from peaceful nuclear technology. The Russians and the Soviets are doing the same to their client states. To date, North Korea has conducted five nuclear weapons tests. That’s not debated. It’s been verified from a distance by the comprehensive test ban treaty organization, the international organization that monitors nuclear testing. And they have conducted a series of ballistic missile tests, starting decades ago with very short range missiles, 200, 300 miles. It could reach South Korea, growing longer over time. But over the last three months we’ve seen North Korea really advance their program, including two systems that could potentially deliver nuclear weapons all the way to the continental United States. What we don’t know is whether those systems are reliable, would they work every time. We don’t know that North Korea has successfully shrunk a nuclear war head down to a size that can fit on those missiles, and work reliably. And so while we still have questions, there’s no doubt that North Korea has crossed a number of thresholds, and not presents a significant challenge for the United States and our allies.
The challenge for the future of preventing countries to have nuclear weapons
Wolfsthal: In the case of Libya, where we convinced Gadhafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction program, he was later invaded and killed. In the case of Iraq, they bluffed that they had weapons of mass destruction, they didn’t, but they were still invaded. And so, is there an incentive now for countries to get nuclear weapons to deter the United States? And North Korea clearly felt that the best way to prevent the United States from dictating to it, or from invading it, was to develop a nuclear deterrent. The question is then, what do they do with it, and I think this gets to the underlying reality in the Korean Peninsula, which is that the United States has deterred North Korea from an attack for 50 years, and North Korea has deterred us from an attack for 50 years. So we have a deterrent relationship with them already. It works. It’s messy. It is dangerous at times, but it is something that we can sustain if we are thoughtful and calm about it.
On the prospect of diplomatic talks
Smith: I think the hard part here is A: can we get them to the table. And if we do, then what? What is it that we want from them? And I do think it’s very difficult. Everybody seems to be quite skeptical that Pyongyang and Kim Jong-Un in particular is really willing to give up his nuclear weapons and that gets us back to the earlier conversation, but there seem to be quiet meetings going on even as we speak between our government and the North Koreans. The question is will they come to the table.
Keith Luse: At the end of the day, we’re talking about a massive trust deficit between the United States and North Korea. If you’re in the Congress of the United States, or if you’re in the White House in the executive branch, over the years, you’ve tired of North Korea’s missile provocations, nuclear tests, followed by, often on the part of the north, a willingness or interest to engage in negotiations. If you’re in North Korea, you are skeptical about reaching any agreement with the President of the United States because you’re not certain that the Congress would, in fact, support that agreement. Secondly, you’re not convinced that the President of the United States would be able to, in fact, enforce discipline in his or her administration to implement an agreement or a policy toward North Korea that had changed. So, we’re now at a point of immense rhetoric on both sides, on the part of Kim Jong-Un, on the part of President Trump. We are where we are, but we have to be considering an exit ramp. We have to be considering ways of in fact deemphasizing the crisis that’s before us. And this ultimately gets back to looking at the tap root. And that is a lack of trust that’s built up over the years. And in some shape or form, this has to be addressed.
On the shifting U.S. message to North Korea
Wolfsthal: While a number of people have said, “Well, the Trump administration’s still new, they’re still getting their sea legs,” the fact of the matter is you have different parts of the administration saying strikingly different things. The President saying “fire and fury,” Secretary Tillerson saying let’s talk, Mike Pompeo, head of the CIA saying that our goal is regime change, and we want to separate Kim Jong-Un from his weapons of mass destruction. And so I think North Korea can be forgiven for not knowing who speaks for the U.S. government and not trusting that the United States’ intentions are in fact peaceful.
On the divil defense in case of nuclear attack on the U.S.
Jon: From the earliest days of the nuclear age, it was clear that there is no civil defense to nuclear weapons going off on U.S. soil. Recovery after a nuclear explosion is something you measure in years, not in days or weeks.
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