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North Korea keeps building better missiles. How should the U.S. respond?

July 31, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday that experts said could strike at least half of the continental U.S. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports on the response by the U.S. and allies and William Brangham examines options for dealing with the North with Robert Gallucci of Georgetown University and Michael Pillsbury of the Hudson Institute.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Today, President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke by phone about the growing threat posed by North Korea. The two agreed on the importance of further action in the wake of North Korea’s second major missile test this month.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, begins our coverage.

MARGARET WARNER: North Korean state television hailed Friday’s launch as a national triumph.

WOMAN (through interpreter): The supreme leader proudly said that this test demonstrates our ability to attack at any time from any place, proving that all parts of the U.S. territory are within our firing range.

MARGARET WARNER: The intercontinental ballistic missile traveled for 620 miles, reaching a height of over 2,000 miles before landing off the coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. If its trajectory were flattened, experts said, it could strike at least the western half, if not all of the continental U.S.

Scientist Siegfried Hecker has visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities. He believes North Korea is still quite a way from being able to launch a nuclear weapon on an ICBM.

SIEGFRIED HECKER, Scientist: It goes up into space. The temperatures are very, very cold, and then it goes through reentry, and again it has enormous mechanical stresses, and very, very high temperatures. To withstand all of that, that’s a very, very, very difficult process.

MARGARET WARNER: Over the weekend, the U.S. and South Korea responded with a joint show of strength. U.S. bombers streaked over the Korean Peninsula, and the U.S. military said a Sunday test of its THAAD interceptor shot down a medium-range missile over the Pacific.

But a South Korean government spokesman said the door is still open for talks.

BAIK TAE-HYUN, Government Spokesman, South Korea (through interpreter): We are maintaining our original stance in firmly dealing with the provocations, but also combining both sanctions and dialogue at the same time.

MARGARET WARNER: China said it opposed North Korea’s missile launch, but Beijing directed harsher criticism at South Korea for bolstering its defenses. It said the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system could escalate tensions on the peninsula.

On Sunday, President Trump took to Twitter: “I am very disappointed in China. They do nothing for us with North Korea. China could easily solve this problem.”

China’s U.N. ambassador shrugged off the blame, saying the conflict was between North Korea and the U.S.

But time may be running out. The Washington Post reported last week that the Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded North Korea’s ICBMs could be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead by next year.

Siegfried Hecker, who thinks that long-range capability is still four to five years away, says he believes the North can already put a nuclear device on shorter-range missiles.

SIEGFRIED HECKER: I believe the North Koreans have already developed the capabilities to reach all of South Korea, all of Japan. And those nuclear weapons are in the hands of a leader and in the hands of a military about whom we know nothing.

READ MORE: How close is North Korea to launching a nuclear missile?

MARGARET WARNER: President Trump insisted today that his administration is in control.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will handle North Korea. We’re going to be able to handle them. It will be — it will be handled. We handle everything.

MARGARET WARNER: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, what are the U.S.’ options for dealing with North Korea?

For that, I’m joined now by two men who’ve thought long and hard about this.

Michael Pillsbury is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he directs the Center for Chinese Strategy. He was also an adviser to the Trump transition. And Robert Gallucci is a professor at Georgetown University and chair of the U.S./Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. He was also the chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis.

Welcome to you both.

So, Michael Pillsbury, I would like to start with you first.

As we saw in Margaret’s report, the North Koreans keep building better and better missiles, able to get closer and closer now, well into the mainland of the U.S. Obviously, there is still this question as to whether they could put a nuclear weapon on those missiles, but still pretty alarming developments.

I understand you have been thinking about what we ought to do in response. And I wonder — tell us about that.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY, Hudson Institute: It seems to me we need to think about several factors.

First of all, it’s not going back to the old six-party talks or the agreed framework. A new framework, a new round of talks that has a better mix, frankly, of more sticks, as well as carrots, it seems to me, is a vague outline of the way ahead.

Secondly, they should think ahead one year. We have President Trump planning to visit China in early November. So between now and then, we have time to start super sanctions, that is, much tougher sanctions, including on Chinese banks, and other ways that North Korea has access to the international financial system.

At the same time, before he goes to China, the United States can begin a program that appears it’s already started of show of force activities, flying bombers, having South Korean and Japanese jet fighters join them, a whole series of things that suggests that what many presidents have said, including President Obama, that everything is on the table, drawing attention to some of the ways force could be used.

And, frankly, if you look in Wikipedia, you will find a list of 14 missile sites and nuclear production facilities that would be the heart of a strike on North Korean facilities. They’re, generally speaking, in the far north of the country, so common sense tell us that Beijing and Moscow should be involved.

At the minimum, Beijing and Moscow should not oppose strikes on North Korea. Ideally, they’d join us or at least warn North Korea in advance, a sort of last-chance kind of dialogue with them, convey a message that this time the Americans may use force.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You believe that we ought to, if necessary, do a preemptive strike on the North Korean facilities?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, yes.

I’m inspired by an op-ed piece written by Ash Carter and Bill Perry about — revealed years later the way the agreed framework came about is that they went ahead with not only a war plan, a concept, but also preparations to have a strike on North Korea.

In my view, that’s what produced the agreed framework, which, for the time, was a great step forward.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Bob Gallucci, you heard this. This is the super sanctions, leaning on the Chinese to increase pressure, but also the possibility of a surgical strike against the North Koreans.

What do you make of that?

ROBERT GALLUCCI, Georgetown University: For me, the idea that would use force before we fully explored the possibility of negotiating an outcome is nutty and irresponsible.

And I’m not saying that’s what Mike was saying. He can speak for himself. But I do believe that there is a negotiation option that, at least in terms of what’s available to me as a member of the public, I am unaware of having been pursued by this administration, and it ought to be.

That — excuse me — one other thing, if I might, and that is here we have the three options we have always had. The first one we have been talking about really is containment. That is where we try to use sanctions, alliance work. We do military exercises, lots of things to tell the North Koreans we are serious, but we don’t actually do anything to them. It’s containment, right?

The second is negotiation.

And the third is use of something kinetic, as they say these days, a military strike.

What I am concerned about here is that we really don’t give the negotiation option a chance, that, when we see something we don’t like which isn’t fixed by containment — and that’s what happened in 1994 — we were driven to negotiations then, and that worked out pretty well, I would argue.

Right now, it’s something we don’t simply want to contain. We want to stop. They are about to have an intercontinental ballistic missile capability to reach us. And we would like to stop that from emerging.

And containment won’t do it. So the question is, is a military option the only option, or can we, in fact, live with it through deterrence, or, finally, can we enter a negotiation that stops it?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What do you make of that? Don’t you think that there might be diplomatic moves that perhaps — I know the North Koreans would love it if we dialed back our military exercises. Perhaps we send a special envoy for more high-level talks with the North Koreans.

What I’m trying to get at is, is there a diplomatic way to stop what we all argue is a — what many argue is a dangerous development in North Korea, absent us attacking them?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Yes, there is.

And I agree with Bob. Negotiations come first. Ideally, it’s even a broader set of negotiations that works out some sort of settlement for the entire peninsula, an end to the Korean War, recognition, U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang.

President Trump has already tweeted — I think he was serious when he did — about a meeting with Kim Jong-un. Whether they have hamburgers or some Korean (INAUDIBLE) could be a part of the negotiations.

But I see a framework for settlement of the entire peninsula issue as being the goal. I think we can probably have a bigger package, if you will, of carrots. The notion that Kim Jong-un and President Trump could meet somewhere, and legitimacy be given to his regime, that’s a huge carrot.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Lastly, Bob Gallucci, what do you think the North Koreans actually want? What would work for them?

ROBERT GALLUCCI: They certainly want a treaty of peace to end the Korean War and replace the armistice.

After that, the North Koreans now want something they didn’t want a long time ago. They want recognition as a nuclear weapons state. And that’s something I would argue we shouldn’t give them. That’s going to be a sticking point. That’s a second thing.

The third thing is the kind of thing we put into the agreed framework those 25 years ago, which at the time were two light water reactors, 1,000-megawatt reactors, which ultimately escalated in cost to about $6 billion.

So think, to substitute for that, substantial economic assistance. But, fundamentally, they want a nuclear weapons program at least in order that they could be sure to prevent the United States from attempting regime change. They may want it for more than that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Certainly a very tough pill for the administration to swallow.

Bob Gallucci, Michael Pillsbury, thank you both very much.

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