Reports suggest North Korea making missile-ready nuclear weapons. What should the U.S. do?

World

JUDY WOODRUFF: North Korea may have taken a fateful step forward on the path towards being a nuclear weapons power. The Washington Post reports that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded the North Korean regime has developed a nuclear warhead small enough to fit inside its missiles, which are believed capable of striking not only South Korea and the immediate region, but also the United States.

Speaking in New Jersey this afternoon, President Trump had tough words for Pyongyang.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

He has been very threatening, beyond a normal statement. And, as I said, they will be met with fire, fury, and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

Thank you. Thank you.

WATCH: Trump warns North Korea of 'fire and fury' if threats continue

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me now to look at today's developments are Wendy Sherman. She served as undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2011 to 2015 under President Obama. She helped to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal. She was also part of the Clinton administration team that negotiated with North Korea over its nuclear program in the 1990s. And Melissa Hanham, she works in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Melissa Hanham, I'm going to start with you because you work on issues like this.

Tell us, what exactly is this capability that it now appears is confirmed that the North Koreans have?

MELISSA HANHAM, Middlebury Institute: Sure.

So, for some time,we have tracked North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons capability in the open source. I work at Middlebury, where we only have access to open source information. That is what's not classified.

But even in the information available to us through photographs, through video, and through public statements, we have been able to see that there's a strong probability that North Korea already had a warhead that could fit on the tip of actually several of its missiles.

We do that first by looking at the images to see if there is any fakery or Photoshop being done, and then by measuring objects inside the photos. The thing we couldn't prove is whether the warhead that North Korea showed off in 2016 in March was real or not, because we can't see into the inside of it.

And while that sort of silver orb had some realistic features, there were other things that were kind of strange. But the fact that the DIA now that says that they have this capability really kind of confirms what we had been expecting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it doesn't like this comes as a complete surprise to you.

If this is the case, if it's confirmed, what does exactly that mean the North can do in terms of striking another country?

MELISSA HANHAM: Well, so, just this past month, they have launched an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile known as Hwasong-14.

And in their test, they used what's called a lofted trajectory, which means they launched the missile very high trajectory and then had it come down not too far from its origin point. But the total distance traveled demonstrates that it could reach most of the U.S. states and it may indeed actually put New York and Washington, D.C., at risk, depending on how heavy its payload was.

So if they can indeed put a kind of compact warhead on the tip of this missile, then probably what they're doing is making a weapon to deter the United States from coming to the aid of its allies in the region, South Korea and Japan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Wendy Sherman, assuming this capability is what it looks like it is, what does that mean from a strategic standpoint?

WENDY SHERMAN, Former State Department Official: Well, it's very concerning, for sure, but not unexpected, Judy, whether the DIA is correct, because this is not a community …

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the Defense Intelligence Agency.

WENDY SHERMAN: Yes, the Defense Intelligence Agency.

It's correct or not, because it's not a community assessment yet, it appears, it doesn't really matter because we knew that sooner or later they would be able to create small warhead. This could go on the ICBM that Melissa talked about. They still have some guidance issues probably of that missile. They probably have a reentry problem with that missile, but they're making progress at quite a rapid pace.

It is right for the U.S. government to be concerned. It is right for Americans to be concerned. It was a very good step that was taken at the U.N. to have a 15-0 unanimous vote of the U.N. Security Council to impose more onerous sanctions on North Korea, but that won't be enough. There are many other pieces to this puzzle to get them to come to a negotiating table in seriousness.

And it will probably take quite a bit for us to get to that point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it possible, Wendy Sherman, to know what the intentions of the North are?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think we have all known that the intention is to survive.

Kim Jong-un wants his regime to survive. They want to deter the United States. They believe the United States is the only country capable of really doing them in, because not only do they have nuclear weapons now, but they also have a very real conventional army and conventional artillery, which could pose catastrophic damage on our ally and partner Seoul — in Seoul in South Korea, and in Japan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Melissa Hanham, back to you.

Is there any sort of consensus in the research community about what the North is prepared to do, what its intentions are?

MELISSA HANHAM: Well, measuring their capabilities is a lot easier than measuring their intent, unfortunately, and intent can change.

One remark that I do find interesting is, in recent KCNA statements, when they discussed the Hwasong-14, the intercontinental ballistic missile …

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is a news agency in the North.

MELISSA HANHAM: … they made a statement — and I'm paraphrasing here — that they would never give up their nuclear weapons or their missiles unless the U.S. stops its threatening behavior and definitely removes the nuclear threat from North Korea.

I may be hanging a lot on that word "unless," but it's possible they're leaving a cracked door open. The U.S. has been responding to North Korea primarily with sticks, sanctions, strategic patience, these kinds of things.

It may be time — and I can say this because I'm an academic, and I can put far out there — I can put ideas out there — but it may be time to give them a small nudge.

I thought Rex Tillerson's statement that the U.S. wasn't out to overthrow the regime might have been a good start, although, with today's Trump remarks, that may all be out the window again. But I would prefer to see them at the negotiating table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's what I was going to ask Ambassador Sherman about.

It was just a few days ago that the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said, we're prepared to sit down and talk to the North. But then you just heard President Trump saying, if they do anything more threatening, they will be met with fire and fury.

WENDY SHERMAN: Right.

I think we don't have a coherent policy here that we're being — we're seeing implemented. We have the sanctions, as Melissa pointed out. It's good to have sticks. It's important, because it won't stop their program, but it might say, you have got a choice to make here. You can either get on the path of negotiating, or you won't be able to survive as a regime because your economy will go to hell in a handbasket, because you will be a pariah in the world, because you will not get what you want out of this, you won't get safety and security.

But that also means you have to signal that you will have an open channel, which Secretary Tillerson did. But, today, the president of the United States' comments have really quite literally blown up that possibility for the moment, because the North will not be able to back down from its position when they hear the president of the United States say, in fact, we do have a hostile action coming your way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Wendy Sherman, I just — I know we have had discussion after discussion on this program about what are the possibilities between the United States and North Korea?

And the question comes now, now that we know they have this capability — or it appears that they have this capability, what are the mechanics even in place for the two sides to have a conversation, to talk to each other, to try to climb down from this place that it appears where we are?

WENDY SHERMAN: Well, I think there is a possibility and a way to get there.

China is certainly a critical player in that, in their conversations with North Korea. That may be true for Russia as well, and I think it was very important that China and Russia were on this U.N. Security Council resolution, that the Chinese foreign minister really implored North Korea to stop its behavior and to get back to the negotiating table, and Prime Minister Lavrov said the same thing.

Judy, we have to use all of our tools at our disposal, the carrots, the sticks, and everything else we can think of, including working very closely with South Korea and Japan, because they are already at risk today in ways that we are not yet at risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going the leave it there, but, of course, everyone is left with many, many more questions, as we sit here this evening.

Wendy Sherman, thank you. Melissa Hanham from the Middlebury Institute, thank you.

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