How will North Korea react to mixed signals from U.S.?

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Returning to our top story tonight, the threats and counterthreats between Pyongyang and Washington.

Joining me now are Abraham Denmark, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, and Mike Chinoy, a former senior Asia correspondent for CNN. He's visited North Korea 17 times and is now a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's U.S.-China Institute.

And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.

Abraham Denmark, let me start with you.

Given what has happened in the last 24, 48 hours, how do you size up the situation now between the U.S. and North Korea?

ABRAHAM DENMARK, Former Pentagon Official: I think we're at a bit of an inflection point, that both Kim Jong-un and President Trump have elevated the tension in terms of rhetoric between the two sides, yet the policies the two sides have been on have not radically changed.

Kim Jong-un and North Korea have been conducting ballistic missile tests at a relatively regular pace, and the on-the-ground policies that the United States has been pursuing has also been fairly consistent.

The real change here has been changes in the rhetoric, with Kim Jong-un putting out very strong statements, as well as President Trump making his very strong statements. And so the question now is, what happens after these statements have been made?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's what I want to ask you about.

And, just quickly, you follow the region, the East Asia region closely. How is all this being received there?

ABRAHAM DENMARK: There's a great deal of concern.

Amongst our allies, there's concern that the messaging out of the Trump administration has been fairly chaotic, and that different senior officials are speaking about different policy positions, so there's a lot of question about where the United States really is when it comes to North Korea.

And there is also broader concerns and I think deeper concerns about how the United States is going to handle a North Korea that's making very steady progress in developing a robust, credible nuclear capability that is able to reach the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mike Chinoy, again, this is an area you follow so closely. We talked about how many times you visited North Korea, the North Korean mainland.

How do you see this situation right now?

MIKE CHINOY, University of Southern California: I think what the North Koreans are doing has been quite predictable.

They have believed for many years now that the best way to guarantee their security is to have a nuclear and a missile capability that would deter the United States, and this dates back a long, long time. It was reinforced in the early 2000s, when the North Koreans saw the U.S. invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, who didn't have nukes. They saw Libya's Moammar Gadhafi overthrown, and he had voluntarily abandoned his nuclear program.

So the North is really committed to this. They have just accelerated, I think, in the last couple of years the pace at which they're doing it. I think one of the big questions is how the North Koreans are going to respond to the very confusing signals coming from Washington.

Secretary of State Tillerson has mentioned talks, but President Trump is talking in very, very forceful and extreme language. And so I think there is a risk, because I don't think the North is going to change its approach, of a misunderstanding leading to some kind of conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you believe there is a risk of a misunderstanding?

MIKE CHINOY: Well, the North Koreans are sitting there, and they're going to respond to threats from the United States with full speed ahead, because that's just their style. This is not a system or a regime or a leadership that's going to bow to that kind of external pressure.

And if they fear that the very strong language from President Trump means the U.S. might, in fact, be considering some kind of preemptive strike, then it's possible they will calculate that they need to strike first.

But I think there is one other point that gets lost in all of the inflammatory headlines, which is the North Korean position continues to be that they will not give up their nuclear or missile capabilities unless the U.S. abandons what Pyongyang calls Washington's — quote — "hostile policy."

And I think, if you parse the North Korean rhetoric, there might be an opening for some kind of negotiations, but, again, that depends in large part on the very — the extreme level of confusion in the signals from Washington is clarified in way that suggests the U.S. is interested in talks. And, right now, that is not at all clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and as we're sitting here talking ourselves, I'm told by our producer that the wires report that North Korea is now saying that they will have a plan to attack Guam by the middle of August.

They go on to call what President Trump has been saying, in their words, as a load of nonsense, and they're also saying that only absolute force can work with President Trump.

Abe Denmark, what does this tell you about what the United States is dealing with and what our allies in the region are dealing with?

ABRAHAM DENMARK: We're dealing with a country, North Korea, that has a very clear idea of what it wants to do.

It sees the development of a nuclear capability as essential to the preservation of its regime. And it's willing to bear significant costs in the pursuit of that, in terms of diplomatic isolation, severe economic sanctions. They're continuing to make progress on that.

So, the question is, how do we get them off that path? In terms of the threats they have been making about Guam, there's actually quite a few steps that they have and other options that they have between where we are now, with the elevated rhetoric, and actually conducting strikes against the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

ABRAHAM DENMARK: We have seen, in the past, North Korea doing several things, attacks against South Korea on the DMZ, sinking a ship in the Yellow Sea, as you may recall, several years ago, which in the past was able to demonstrate — they were able to demonstrate to their own people that they're strong, that they're able to attack South Korea, but it didn't escalate into a war.

And the question now is, what options is North Korea considering, really considering, beyond this — the threatening rhetoric about Guam? And how will the United States and our allies respond to that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mike Chinoy, the question one hears from a number of people is, are the North Koreans suicidal in their attitude? Because one assumes that, if they were to take any sort of military strike of the kind we're discussing here right now, the threat against Guam, something in the region, that there would be a return strike that would hit directly at the leadership of the North Korean government.

MIKE CHINOY: I don't think the North Koreans are suicidal.

And I think you have to be very careful in assessing North Korean rhetoric, because if you look at the history, going back a long, long time, the North Koreans are masters of incendiary rhetoric. Brinksmanship is the cornerstone of the way they approach the rest of the world.

These kinds of threats keep their adversaries off-balance. They feel it gives them the initiative, but I don't think you can always take it literally. I recall, for example, in the spring of 1994, when tensions were high over the North's then nascent nuclear program, North Korean officials that they would turn Seoul, the South Korean capital, into a sea of fire.

But four months later, after former U.S. President Carter visited North Korea, there would be an agreement for the first ever summit meeting between the North and the South, although it didn't happen because North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung died.

So, I wouldn't — just because the North Koreans talk about attacking Guam, I wouldn't take that literally, although, as a military planner, you obviously have to take all contingencies into account.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MIKE CHINOY: But don't assume that their rhetoric means that they're actually going to do everything they threaten to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we can't know, Abe Denmark, just quickly here, finally, what the Trump administration is going to do.

But if you're in their shoes right now, do you respond in kind of with another — with escalated rhetoric, or do you try to calm things down?

ABRAHAM DENMARK: I think you do two things.

Rhetorically, I would try to calm things down. President Eisenhower would practice this. When Khrushchev's rhetoric would get more and more escalated, his rhetoric would get more and more calm. And that gave a great sense of strength to our allies and to our adversaries.

But I would also do a lot more on the ground in terms of enhancing our ability to deter North Korea and to reassure our allies. We have extremely strong alliances in Japan and South Korea. And there's a lot we can do there to demonstrate to North Korea that we have a great deal of capability and will to act.

And I would also send a message to our allies that we're there for them, that we're reliable and that we're capable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Abe Denmark, Mike Chinoy, we thank you both.

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