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How North Korea is ‘posturing’ with missile testing amid stalled nuclear talks

North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles Tuesday, marking its second such launch within a week. The action comes as talks between the U.S. and North Korea are at a standstill, with no visible progress since a June promise to restart the stalled dialogue. Nick Schifrin asks Gen. Vincent Brooks about what the recent missile testing means for nuclear talks between the two nations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles yesterday. It's the country's second such launch in less than a week, and comes as talks between the U.S. and North Korea are at a stalemate.

    Nick Schifrin has the latest.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's been more than a month since President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to restart their dialogue. But there's been no movement yet, and North Korea has made very public demonstrations with its military, seemingly in frustration with the U.S. and U.S. ally South Korea.

    What is North Korea saying with the tests, and where do the talks go from here?

    For that, I'm joined by General Vincent Brooks, who retired as the top U.S. general in South Korea in January, and is currently a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University.

    Vincent Brooks, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Vincent Brooks:

    Thanks. Good to be with you again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We saw these two ballistic missile tests yesterday, two more ballistic missile tests last week. And before that, Kim Jong-un made a very public visit to a submarine factory outside of Pyongyang.

    What is North Korea trying to say?

  • Vincent Brooks:

    Well, I suspect they're trying to send messages and trying to get a bit of leverage before the discussions resume.

    And I think that the discussions will resume, and relatively soon. But the idea of creating some sort of pressure, especially on South Korea, is what I think this is all about, a reaction to South Korea receiving F-35-A joint strike fighters. And these types of assets have not been on the Korean Peninsula in more than a year, at least deployed by the United States.

    So this is messaging and posturing, but it helps to actually equalize the table a little bit before they go into discussions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, as you mentioned, F-35s recently deployed to Seoul. North Korea specifically cited those and specifically cited joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.

    You, more than most people, know the capacity of South Korea's military and how the U.S. military and South Korea — how South Korea's military works.

    Do you believe that those arms sales and those joint exercises should be going on?

  • Vincent Brooks:

    These exercises are important for professional militaries to maintain their edge.

    And even in the environment of creating room for diplomacy and postponing some exercises more than a year ago, there's still room for maintaining readiness. And that's been ongoing.

    So now we see the second of two exercises that have begun in the year 2019 called Alliance — that's the name of the exercise — or Dong Maeng in the Korean language. And that's — the second one that's coming up, it's important in this particular case because it is a bit of a certification exercise for the South Koreans, as they prepare to take over the lead for controlling forces in wartime, should that eventuality actually occur.

    So, yes, the exercises need to occur.

    Let me also just mention, if I may, North Korea hasn't changed their exercise program at all, not a bit in five years. We saw a few things that were modifications in terms of what they did in the winter cycle, but, for the most part, their exercises remain at the same scale, at the same timing, twice a year, as they have been for five years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You talked about keeping the room for diplomacy. That is something certainly that President Trump has been trying to maintain.

    And I want to play what he said about the first test last Friday.

    DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States: They are short-ranged missiles. And my relationship is very good with Chairman Kim, and we'll see what happens. But they are short-range missiles, and many people have those missiles.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    "Many people have those missiles."

    Vincent Brooks, has North Korea conditioned President Trump or the U.S. to accept short-range missile tests, and is that OK?

  • Vincent Brooks:

    Well, it's for the administration to decide whether it's OK or not.

    But I will just tell you this. Certainly, there are military aspects of this that's a capability that has been now improved by the North Koreans, a solid fuel rocket motor, for example, the ability to do some maneuvers in flight, particularly at the end of the flight.

    And so it is a matter that must now be contended with by the Republic of Korea and the U.S. alliance in particular, but by others as well who look at this as a test or a demonstration of capability.

    So it's not a matter of whether it's OK or not. It's a matter of recognizing that North Korea still has a formidable arsenal of weapon systems, and they continue to work to modernize those, beyond the nuclear programs, testing in intercontinental ballistic missiles.

    And so that's something that is the reason why forces have to stay ready in Northeast Asia and particularly on the Korean Peninsula.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have laid out a plan to provide incentives to North Korea, including restarting South and North Korean joint programs, and also creating a kind of escrow account, international escrow account, into which donors would put money.

    North Korea could see that money, and they would only get that money if their actions were positive.

    Why do you think it's important to provide North Korea incentives?

  • Vincent Brooks:

    Well, first, North Korea doesn't trust anyone. They don't trust themselves, and they don't trust the international community, including the United States.

    So the first is to demonstrate that there really is something waiting for them at the end of the rainbow, if you will. And there are promises out there as to a great future for North Korea, but there's no money on the table.

    Now, I'm not suggesting that there is a payout for every behavior, but, rather, that there is a visible international fund that donors can contribute to that helps to build the potential for development for North Korea in time.

    And it can be metered. When we see a negative behavior we don't like, like short-range missile launches, money comes back out and goes back to the donor.

    When we see a positive behavior, like a declaration, or an inspection, or the repatriation of remains, or resumption of recovery operations at Arrowhead Hill, then money can flow into the escrow account.

    It shows North Korea there really is movement by the international community and an expectation that Chairman Kim is going to deliver on what he said he would do, which is ultimately a final, fully verified denuclearization.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Vincent Brooks, former U.S. and allied commander in South Korea, thank you very much.

  • Vincent Brooks:

    Thank you.

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