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Putting North Korea’s nuclear test into context

September 3, 2017 at 5:15 PM EDT
North Korea on Sunday announced that it had conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date since President Donald Trump took office. In response, Trump wrote in a tweet that North Korea continues to be “very hostile and dangerous” and that the U.S. is considering stopping all trade with countries in business with North Korea. Christopher Hill, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, joins Megan Thompson for more.
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MEGAN THOMPSON, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: To help us understand what this all means, we’re joined from Denver by Christopher Hill, the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Among his many diplomatic posts, Mr. Hill has served as ambassador to South Korea and has headed the U.S. delegation at talks on the North Korean nuclear issue.

Can we first just start off, can you just describe to us the difference between a hydrogen bomb and other nuclear weapons that North Korea has tested in the past? I mean, how much more of a threat is this?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SOUTH KOREA: Well, it’s just a much bigger bomb. It’s something on the order of eight to ten times bigger than anything they have tested before and it’s much bigger than the bombs that were dropped in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So, it speaks to the fact they are deadly serious about this program, they don’t just want some little symbolic deterrent. They have a very serious program toward a serious end, and I think we need to be extremely concerned about it.

THOMPSON: Talk about being concerned, I mean, what kind of destruction could a bomb like this cause and how big is the threat to the United States? I mean, how could weapons like this reach?

HILL: Well, it’s a function, of course, of the missile that it’s used on. And it’s also a function of whether they can marry up a hydrogen bomb to missile. I mean, a so-called deliverable weapon that they have been talking about.

They say they can do it. I don’t think too many experts believe they had the experience yet. It’s very complex. You have to send a missile into near outer space. It has to come down with enormous and still, the war needs to survive and then detonate. So, a lot of questions there.

But no question that they are really moving ahead with this and they are taking aim at the United States. And I think it’s not just to protect themselves against a supposed U.S. attack on North Korea, rather it’s an effort to essentially hold us at risk in the event that we have to go to war to protect South Korea.

THOMPSON: Last week, they launched a ballistic missile over Japan, today, we have this. I mean, do you think that this signals an escalation in the aggression by the North Koreans. And can you talk a little bit more about what their goal is with all of this?

HILL: Well, first of all, it does look like an acceleration and aggressiveness. It can also be a testing program. I mean, a lot of these things are kind of technical in nature. They are testing various delivery systems and weapon systems.

But whatever it is, it’s a very serious program. And the serious program essentially not just sort of a one-off deterrence this notion that if you attack us, we will launch a nuclear weapon at you. It’s pretty clear that they have in mind a capacity such that were they to be in a war with South Korea and were the U.S. to say, OK, South Koreans, we’re at your side, you know, per our requirements in the alliance, the North Koreans would say, not so fast, because we can hit your homeland and we can wipe out a city with one of our hydrogen weapons.

And, of course, the U.S. response would be, well, if you do that, we’ll wipe you out. And the North Koreans kind of go, game on.

So, the issue is really, would the North — could the North Koreans put a U.S. president in position of fulfilling alliance requirements and at the same time, creating a situation where U.S. population centers are at risk. So, this is an extremely serious matter right now.

THOMPSON: Secretary Mattis warn of a massive military response. I mean, what should the U.S. be doing?

HILL: Well, I think the U.S. needs to be doing sort of all the things it’s already doing, you know, ratcheting up sanctions, et cetera. But I think it’s very important that the U.S. have a sort of action plan to see what could be done to retard the North Korean program. And it needs to be done really together with China.

The issue with China not so much the issue of sanctions, although obviously, China needs to do more to uphold the sanctions regime, as they have been doing lately. The issue is really to have an understanding with the Chinese about what our expectations are for them and what their expectations are for us — a kind of deep dive. And I think it’s important to understand that we can’t just give that through tweets in the night or through an occasional phone call. We have to have a in-depth discussion with the Chinese about expectations.

THOMPSON: All right. Ambassador Christopher Hill, thank you so much for joining us.

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