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Tensions rising, what’s U.S.’s next move on North Korea?

April 28, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the U.N. Security Council that it's time for "painful" new sanctions to make North Korea give up its nuclear and missile programs. His statement comes amid rising tension between the Trump administration and the Asian nation, and word of a ballistic missile test. Judy Woodruff talks with former State Department officials John Merrill and Balbina Hwang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The news that North Korea has carried out another missile test is sure to add to rising tensions with the U.S. Observers also say that the country appears to be preparing to conduct a nuclear test as well.

Meanwhile, for the past two months, the U.S. and South Koreans have been conducting another large-scale military exercise. The United Nations took up the issue today.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: For too long the international community has been reactive in addressing North Korea. Those days must come to an end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The warning from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came at the U.N. Security Council. He said it is time for painful new sanctions to make North Korea give up its nuclear and missile programs.

REX TILLERSON: Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump has pressed China to help rein in the North, tweeting just last week, “If they want to solve the North Korean problem, they will.”

And Tillerson said yesterday that China may impose its own sanctions. Beijing wouldn’t confirm that today. Instead, Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged a return to multination peace talks.

WANG YI, Chinese Foreign Minister (through interpreter): China is not a focal point of the problem on the peninsula. And the key to solving the nuclear issue there doesn’t lie in the hands of China.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tillerson had said in an interview yesterday that the U.S. would be open to direct talks with North Korea, a shift in American policy. Today, he clarified the conditions necessary for that to take place.

REX TILLERSON: North Korea must understand North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can even consider talks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier this week, President Trump’s top advisers said the administration’s first course is diplomacy. And in a Reuters interview the president said he’d love to solve things diplomatically. But he also said it’s very difficult, and added his own warning that:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. has already sent an aircraft carrier group to the Korean Peninsula as a show of force against the North and its leader.

And the Pentagon said today that a U.S. missile defense system, known as THAAD, that it recently sent to South Korea will be operational soon. China, in turn, said it still objects.

WANG YI (through interpreter): I want to reiterate China’s firm opposition against U.S. deployment of a THAAD anti-missile system in the Republic of Korea. It is a move that seriously undermines the strategic security of China and other countries in the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump also suggested in his interview that South Korea should pay for the system, an estimated $1 billion. South Korean officials responded, saying, the United States will bear the cost.

For more on all of this, we get two views.

John Merrill had a 27-year career at the State Department, where, from 2001 to 2014, he was the chief of the Northeast Asia Division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He’s now a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University. And Balbina Hwang served in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. She is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

We were planning to have this discussion before we learned just within the hour, Balbina Hwang, about this latest missile test.

But widen it out for us. What is the state of U.S.-North Korean relations right now? What track are we on?

BALBINA HWANG, Former State Department Official: I actually don’t think it’s nearly as tense as everybody is making it out to be. And I understand why President Trump is saying that there is a potential for a major, major conflict.

But we have to remember there’s always been that potential since 1953, when the Korean War ended essentially in armistice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are we overplaying this, John Merrill?

JOHN MERRILL, Former State Department Official: There might be an element of that, of Mao-Maoing, if you could call it that.

But I think he’s trying to Chinese more energized and he’s trying to convey a sense of imminent possible threat to the North Koreans that there is a military option if all else fails. So, it’s brinkmanship on all sides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that a wise course to be pursuing right now?

BALBINA HWANG: Well, again, I think it’s understandable why. And I agree with John certainly that it’s partially brinkmanship and about signaling.

What I worry about right now is not conflict with North Korea. I actually think that there is going to be trouble with South Korea. And I think we have to focus on this. And really the solution has got to include and has to have the leadership and input of South Koreas on the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How is the relationship with the South more of a worry, a threat?

BALBINA HWANG: Well, because I think part of this brinkmanship is exactly as John said. It is indeed to try to essentially make the North Koreans understand that the U.S. is very serious this time, as we have been for 20 years.

It’s also to get China to listen. But China — and I think, John, China’s reaction to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea is indicative of this. And so I think South Korea is stuck in the middle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And given that, with South Korea stuck in the middle, John Merrill, how does the U.S. — how do you see the U.S. maneuvering from here, from this point forward?

Because the North has been making provocative statements. The Trump administration has been making provocative statements.

JOHN MERRILL: I think people should try to cool the situation to the extent possible.

There’s going to be a new government in Seoul think on the 9th of next month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They have an election coming up.

JOHN MERRILL: Yes. And the president will be installed immediately.

I think it’s a little unseemly to rush a THAAD battery in, in the dead of night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the missile defense system.


JOHN MERRILL: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

And there’s serious questions about whether the thing works. And certainly the new government would like to probably have a chance to review the system before it commits to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that?

BALBINA HWANG: I’m far less concerned about — I don’t think it’s surreptitious. I think these plans were already in place.

What concerns me is that, on the one hand, we’re trying to send the message to China and to North Korea that we’re serious. On the other hand, at the same time this is all happening, and Secretary Tillerson and President Trump are emphasizing the strength of the alliance as the last defense against a major conflict with North Korea, then, unfortunately, President Trump also announces that South Korea should be responsible for paying up to $1 billion for it.

So, I think that’s what sends the mixed signals, and that’s what worries me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn you, John Merrill, to what we have heard from Secretary Tillerson.

He said in the interview, an interview yesterday with NPR, it appeared that he was saying that the U.S., this administration is open to direct talks with North Korea. But then he went on to say that the North would have to have the right policy, so to speak.

Today, he hardened that. It sounded like he was saying there had to be preconditions in place. How important is that discussion about whether there will or won’t be direct talks with the U.S.?

JOHN MERRILL: I think, if there are direct talks, it’s huge. It’s a major development.

Before this, we have always said that we’re only going to talk to them in the context of the six-party talks process. So, if that’s really by the boards, if we’re prepared for direct negotiations, that’s great.

I liked what he said yesterday better than what he said today.


JOHN MERRILL: For the reasons that you mentioned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because he said — it sounded more clear that he was open to direct…

JOHN MERRILL: Yes, exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To direct talks.

What about this?

BALBINA HWANG: I think this whole debate about engagement, not engagement, is it right or wrong, do we need preconditions or no preconditions, I think is a little bit of a red herring.

I think what’s actually very critical is this. All the U.S. presidents have at some point understood that they will try to negotiate with North Korea. First, negotiations take more than one party. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to negotiate.

And North Korea very specifically denied every overture by President Obama for eight years to enter into any kind of talks, number one. Number two, the six-party talks were actually very critical. And Ambassador Christopher Hill, as you know, who led the talks, his point was that it established that multilateral negotiations are the key, and that every regional player has to be involved, and most importantly South Korea.

And I think now what’s happening is, this idea of direct talks basically precludes the role of South Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Merrill, are we talking about a solution here that could lead to the North eventually getting rid of their nuclear weapons, which is what the administration says is their goal?

JOHN MERRILL: That is going a very difficult hill to claim. For the moment, I think the most we can hope for is perhaps a freeze on testing, a freeze on deployment of new systems.

I would just remind Balbina that the United States is responsible for this whole issue. At one time, we had 700 or so tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea down at Kunsan and up along the DMZ.

So, the chickens kind of are coming home to roost now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s certainly gotten all of our attention.

JOHN MERRILL: That’s for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We thank both of you coming in. And I know we’re going to be to continuing to report on it, and you’re going to continue to watch it.

John Merrill, Balbina Hwang, thank you.


JOHN MERRILL: Thank you, Judy.