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Outlining Prospects, Implications of Hostile Action From North Korea

April 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Simmering tensions between the Koreas raises concerns of what will come next. Margaret Warner talks with Patrick Cronin of Center for a New American Security and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson Jr., a former assistant secretary of defense, about past conflicts with North Korea and how the U.S. might respond in the future.
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Margaret Warner picks up the story from here.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the prospect of hostilities between the two Koreas, and the implications, we turn to retired Marine Lieutenant General Chip Gregson, former commander of U.S. Marine forces in the Pacific and assistant secretary of defense for Asia in President Obama’s first term. He’s now with the Center for the National Interest. And Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Welcome to you both.

Patrick Cronin, what do you make of the DIA report that came out yesterday about the prospect of North Korea having a nuclear warhead that could fit atop a missile, and then the rollback by the head of — the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon?

PATRICK CRONIN, Center for a New American Security: Well, based on the excerpt of the DIA report, it seems that the defense intelligence community is saying it’s reasonable to assume that North Korea has overcome the major hurdles to miniaturizing a warhead so that it can be place atop a missile, but we don’t have evidence of that. We don’t have direct evidence.

And so I think the rollback, the pushback from Secretary Kerry and others today in Seoul was saying, not so fast. Don’t make people think this is a black-and-white issue. We’re making assumptions based on circumstantial evidence. We haven’t yet seen it demonstrated. But we may not until they actually have that capability and they test it. So there is a reason to assume the worst.

MARGARET WARNER: General, one thing, as Jeff’s piece made clear, that the U.S. and South Korea are looking at very intently is whether North Korea launches a missile or a missile test on or around next Monday, which is the founder’s birthday.

What are the possible ranges of responses from either South Korea or the United States if such a thing occurs?

RET. LT. GEN. CHIP GREGSON, Center for the National Interest: That depends on the circumstances that surround the missile launch.

Obviously, if it’s a short-range missile that just goes a few hundred meters and impacts the water, there’s probably — there’s likely not much of a response. If it’s a missile shot at greater distance, and it’s not — it’s gauged or assessed to be not aimed at anything that is important, Japanese territory, South Korea territory, U.S. territory, there might be other responses.

If there is something that is aimed at Japan or South Korea or Guam, we have already stated we’re going to shoot it down.

MARGARET WARNER: So what about the prospect, Patrick Cronin, of a lower level of hostilities, but some sort of strike, some sort of attack by the North that engages the South? At what point, I mean, is the U.S. also obligated to respond militarily?

PATRICK CRONIN: The United States is committed to the defense of South Korea by a mutual security treaty.

That doesn’t mean it’s automatic. But there is a lot of automatic response built into our military training. We have a Combined Forces Command of U.S. and South Korean forces. They train. They’re ready to respond to a provocation. And on two occasions in 2010, North Korea used lethal force against South Korea, and there was no significant, swift, direct, immediate response.

I think this time, it would be different. So even a small use of lethal force, if you can call lethal force small, would receive a pretty dramatic, swift response this time.

MARGARET WARNER: And who from?

PATRICK CRONIN: Well, from the Combined Forces Command.

That is, it could be South Korean forces, but under the leadership of General Thurman, who is the head commander, the U.S. commander.

MARGARET WARNER: But who would make the political and military decision in that case, General? I mean, would it be — the president of South Korea came out, I think, earlier this week and just said, if there is any provocation against South Korea and its people, there should be a strong response in initial combat without any political considerations.

CHIP GREGSON: The national leadership of both countries would be involved.

President Park’s statement said that there shouldn’t be any interference from the national leaders, but that doesn’t mean that the national leadership is giving up their command. The national leadership, the elected leadership, will remain in command.

MARGARET WARNER: But does it — is it ultimately South Korea’s discussion, as a sovereign nation, if it feels — if it’s been attacked, let’s say there is some sort of attack on a disputed territory, something like that, as happened in 2010, is it ultimately South Korea’s decision?

CHIP GREGSON: South Korea would have a key role in a decision, but it would be done as an alliance in consultation.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that always work, Patrick Cronin? Is there ever tension between what the South Koreans might want to do and what the U.S. thinks is prudent?

PATRICK CRONIN: There’s a tight alliance. It’s professional and disciplined.

But we have to recognize that South Korea does have sovereignty over South Korea. And the South Korean forces are not all under the command of General Thurman. Some of them are under different command. They are not supposed to respond, necessarily, but who is to say that they wouldn’t if they saw a local provocation?

MARGARET WARNER: And then does that the U.S. would be automatically — you said it’s not automatic — but sucked in?

PATRICK CRONIN: Well, we are there. We’re there to deter conflict. We’re there to try to preserve peace and to try to find a diplomatic path forward.

North Korea is making that very difficult. We are there together. We have to work on this closely together. General Thurman and his Korean counterpart, the deputy commander of the Combined Forces Command, have lead responsibility, but it will be the president of South Korea and the president of the United States who have to make the big call.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, General, as we know, there have been no, like, massive movements of forces near the border or anything like that by the North Koreans. But what form might a provocative strike take? I mean, what — what are the U.S. and South Korea prepared for?

CHIP GREGSON: The advantage for the provocation lies with North Korea. They have the luxury of studying U.S. and Korean habits, movement, preparations, patterns of deployments, any number of things, and choosing the moment and the method to attack.

The incidents before, the sinking of the Cheonan …

MARGARET WARNER: The submarine.

CHIP GREGSON: … there is no doubt that they tracked the movements of those ships and that they knew where the ship was likely to be.

The shelling of YPdo, Yeonpyeongdo, that was a planned provocation and it was done in a manner when they judged that the South Koreans would not be prepared to do it. In the past, we have had a number of other provocations, the attack on the Blue House, their equivalent of our White House, the assassination of the first President Park, the current President Park’s father, any number of things.

So they are capable of egregious actions and provocations. And, as Patrick mentioned, South Korea has sovereignty. Every nation has got the right to defend itself. So South Korea has every right to react quickly if something like that happens. Now, whether they deem it in their judgment the best thing to do is a matter of the circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: And brief final word from you, Patrick Cronin. What is the danger of escalation? If you just had a tit-for-tat attack, the North shells a disputed island, the South shells where that shot came from, does it end there?

PATRICK CRONIN: Well, escalation is not likely, but it’s increasingly possible.

Risk is growing. North Korea is closing in on the capability of having nuclear-tipped missiles. That means governments are going to act maybe with more risk than they would have before.

MARGARET WARNER: And the U.S. will be involved.

All right, Patrick Cronin and General Gregson, thank you both.

PATRICK CRONIN: Thank you.

CHIP GREGSON: Thank you.