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North Korea is making progress developing weapons. What can the U.S. do about it?

July 4, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
North Korea claims it successfully fired off a new long-range missile, which someday could put the United States within range of its weapons. What options remain for the Trump administration? William Brangham speaks with Mark Bowden of The Atlantic and Christopher Hill, former chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We return now to North Korea and its recent missile launch.

Today, the United States called for a closed-door United Nations Security Council meeting to address the threat.

So, what exactly are the Trump administration’s options, and how might it respond?

For that, we turn to Ambassador Christopher Hill. He was the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005 until 2009, and served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea. And by Mark Bowden. He’s a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, and he recently wrote a comprehensive cover story titled “Can North Korea Be Stopped?”

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Ambassador Hill, I would like to start with you first.

Can you just give me your initial reaction to this most recent launch?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, Former Chief U.S. Negotiator with North Korea: I think it’s a very serious matter. It’s pretty clear they have made progress on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

From what I can understand, if you sent it at a different pitch, it could actually exceed the 5,000 miles that qualifies it as an intercontinental ballistic missile. So it’s a pretty serious matter.

And we also understand they made progress on miniaturization, so it’s not farfetched to assume that in the next two or three years, they will have a deliverable nuclear weapon aimed at the United States. And the real question is, how is the president going to explain that to the American people? And, perhaps more immediately, what is he going to do about it?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mark Bowden, just as Ambassador Hill is saying, President Trump has said he will not allow a nuclear-armed missile to be able to be developed in North Korea. But this certainly seems like a very large step in that direction.

MARK BOWDEN, The Atlantic: It does.

And in addition to shrinking a nuclear weapon to go on top of a missile like that, they already have chemical and biological weapons that are capable of mass casualties. So, this is a really serious development. And it’s easy to say you’re going to stop them from doing it, but it’s not a very easy thing to accomplish.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ambassador, I wonder if you could give me a sense of, what is your understanding of what Kim Jong-un actually wants with this nuclear program?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, you know, opinions differ on this. There are some who believe this is a poor, beleaguered country surrounded by larger hostile states who want to do it harm, and so why not allow the North Koreans to defend themselves?

But I think it’s actually a much more aggressive purpose they have in mind. I think what they’re hoping is that to hold American civilians at risk, that is, to have a deliverable nuclear weapon that is deliverable to the U.S. mainland, they can convince the United States not to exercise their responsibilities in the treaty with South Korea.

And I think being North Korean is to believe that, somehow, if they can get the U.S. out of the equation, they could reunite the peninsula on their own terms.

This is — seems farfetched, but to be a North Korean is not necessarily to believe in the conventional wisdom. I think there are a lot of North Koreans who feel there is a lot of pro-North Korean sentiment in South Korea, and if only they could get the U.S. out of the equation, they could do it.

So I think it’s is a very serious moment and, frankly, a very dangerous moment.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mark Bowden, what do you make of that? Is this really primarily a development of an offensive weapon for the potential keeping the U.S. and others at bay while it retakes South Korea?

MARK BOWDEN: I do think — and I agree with Ambassador Hill that is the primary reason for having this weapon, but it also gives North Korea a lot more leverage in that region and certainly in dealing with South Korea.

It’s conceivable, given the overtures that the new South Korean president has made to reopen negotiations with North Korea, that he could — Kim Jong-un could use the possession of a weapon like this to pressure that those negotiations take place without the United States.

And I think his goal may well be to get the United States to withdraw from the Korean Peninsula.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ambassador Hill, help me understand this a little bit more, though, because we are always told that, while this regime may be a despotic regime, that they’re not out of their minds, they’re not irrational actors. And the idea that somehow the U.S. would allow them to invade South Korea just seems unbelievably farfetched.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I mean, if you look at the kind of weaponry, which tends to be very offensive, tends to be right up there in the front, when you look at, as Mark pointed out, their capacities in chemical weapons and biological weapons, if you look at the fact that they have some 14,000 artillery tubes right up there in the front pointing right at the South Korean civilian populations, it looks to be a kind of offensively minded force.

And I think, for a long time, they have been dedicated to the proposition that they have to kind of decouple the U.S. from the Korean Peninsula and then a lot of things will fall their way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mark Bowden, your piece in The Atlantic laid out what you describe as the four main options for the Trump administration to respond. And you imply obviously that these are largely bad options.

Can you sort of explain what suite of options that the administration has?

MARK BOWDEN: Well, the obvious one, people Always bring this up whenever I’m interviewed on the subject, is that, well, why don’t we just attack North Korea and take out their military and eliminate the threat?

And that’s certainly doable, but the consequences of that would be horrific, as the ambassador just pointed out. Even the conventional weapons that North Korea has could level Seoul, a city of 26 million people. And when you add, you know, chemical weapons and biological weapons and potentially nuclear weapons, you have possibly one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.

The other possibility is to sort of turn up the screws, a series of small-scale military attacks that would kind of ramp up the pressure on North Korea, something that could rapidly descend into an all-out conflict.

Another possibility is to target Kim Jong-un himself and try and eliminate him and replace him. And then the last bad option is just to accept the fact that we can’t stop North Korea from building these weapons. And, you know, deterrents are — you know, in this case, it would just be assured destruction — we can hope might prevent them from using them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ambassador, last question to you.

The president seemed to imply in his tweet that it’s really upon China to handle this situation. But we have had now three administrations that have tried to persuade China to act with regards to North Korea.

Why hasn’t that happened yet?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I think the Chinese are split.

I think there’s some Chinese who feel that the demise of North Korea would be perceived in their country — that is, in China — as a victory for America and a defeat for China. And they worry about the perception of that within China, that is, it’s a domestic issue within China.

So, there are a lot of people who want to go with reforms much faster than Xi Jinping does. And if North Korea were to go away, perhaps those people would be in the ascendancy. So, a lot of party types, security types in China don’t like to see something that results in something that looks like a U.S. victory.

That said, I think those three administrations are absolutely correct. We need to work more with China. I think the problem is President Trump has more of an outsourcing notion, that, somehow, OK, over to you, China, you sort this out. We will support you, and, by the way, we will stop calling you a currency manipulator and all the other bad things that you don’t like.

Well, China is not going to be able to do this alone. I would keep the door open for negotiation, not that the North Koreans have shown any interest in negotiation. But having done it for a number of years, I think it was the right way to keep our relations with Japan and South Korea together, and having taken a lot of criticism from people who thought, how can you think negotiation is the right answer?

It has to be a factor in it if you’re going to keep others together with you on the issue.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Former Ambassador Christopher Hill, Mark Bowden of The Atlantic magazine, thank you both very much.

MARK BOWDEN: You’re welcome.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you.

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