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Is the U.S. prepared to defend against a North Korean missile?

Fear around the North’s missile and nuclear programs have spiked with false alarms in Hawaii over the weekend and Japan on Tuesday. At a Vancouver summit, U.S. officials hope to unite the West to target North Korea economically. Meanwhile, the two Koreas continue their first direct talks in two years. Nick Schifrin talks to retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Japan's public broadcaster sent an urgent news alert today that citizens needed to take shelter from an incoming North Korean missile. It was a mistake, and it was corrected minutes later.

    But it comes just days after Hawaii issued a similar false alarm. The errors underscore tensions that are heightened by North Korea's nuclear program, and a debate over how best to confront it, including today at a U.S.-Canadian summit.

    Here now, special correspondent Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today in Vancouver, the U.S. reunited an old alliance, the countries that waged war against North Korea 60 years ago. The U.S. and Canada are hosting a summit that U.S. officials hope unites the West to target North Korea economically.

    Sec. of State Rex Tillerson: Let me be clear. We will not allow North Korea to drive a wedge through our resolve of our solidarity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. has long said North Korea's missile and nuclear programs are funded mostly by illicit revenue. Washington hopes to cut off that revenue with more effective sanctions.

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said he wants to use allied navies to prevent missile parts from getting to North Korea, also known as the DPRK.

    Sec. of State Rex Tillerson: The great goal of the pressure campaign is to cut off the sources of funding that the DPRK uses to finance its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Back on the Korean Peninsula, the North and South are focused on diplomacy and continuing their first direct talks in two years. The North has restored a military hot line.

    And the two countries will field joint teams in next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, possibly including women's ice hockey. And the North could be allowed to send its best known music group, an all-female pop band whose songs are usually poems of propaganda that call North Korean leader Kim Jong-un Our Glory, Our Happiness.

    Kim, according to some analysts, is using the talks to try and drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. South Korea is trying to prevent history from repeating itself. In 1987, before the last South Korean Olympics, North Korean terrorists blew up a passenger jet and killed 115 people.

    Today, South Korean officials say increased dialogue can decrease tensions and fear. Recently, that fear spiked with false alarms that sent Hawaiians running for shelter this weekend, and a similar one sent mistakenly today in Japan.

  • Gov. David Ige:

    This shouldn't have happened. We are investigating the sequence of events that occurred.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hawaii Governor David Ige said, to prevent further false warnings, two people will have to send alerts. And the state is also making it easier to cancel a false alarm. But given the current tensions, Hawaii knows its warning system must be on a hair trigger.

  • Gov. David Ige:

    Under a missile ballistic missile attack, the time frame allowed for response is very short. And so we have been working at understanding to give to the people as much notice as we can.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on all of this, we turn to retired Admiral Mike Mullen. He was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011. He now has his own consulting company.

    Admiral, Hawaii doesn't have its own missile detection system. The military, of course, has that. How is the coordination between the military and the states supposed to work? And do you have confidence it will work if there is a real North Korean launch?

  • Admiral Mike Mullen (ret.):

    Well, I think this particular incident points out how fragile everybody feels right now with respect to the threat.

    And, certainly, there was a tremendous downside for the Hawaiian people, the American citizens. But it was also a wakeup call, I think, that we all need to be better prepared in case this actually happens.

    And, usually, the interface between the military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is pretty good. I'm sure, as a result of this, it will get better and quicker. And I think it is not just a warning sign or a red flag for the citizens of Hawaii. I think it's a warning sign and a red flag for the citizens of America.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to ask about nuclear weapons in general.

    In response to not only North Korea, but also to increased military capacity by China and Russia, the administration is reportedly considering developing two new nuclear weapons launched by sea, including a small nuclear weapon.

    Do you think the U.S. needs more nuclear weapons? And does it need a small nuclear weapon?

  • Admiral Mike Mullen (ret.):

    Well, I think it's very clear that we need to upgrade our nuclear weapons capability. That's been debated for several years. And it needs to be funded.

    Many of these weapons are very old technology. And they need to be upgraded. That said, I'm not sure we need more weapons, rather than just the ones that we have, to take care and to make sure that that arsenal is in good shape.

    From my perspective, all of this is heading in the wrong direction. We're talking about countries, not just the U.S., of developing more nuclear weapons, more capability, at a time just a few years ago when it was all headed in the other direction. And that's very much tied to the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea.

    I think we need to do all we possibly can to make sure that Kim Jong-un doesn't — is not able to retain those weapons and potentially use them. I'm encouraged by the summit today, that 14 nations would get together. I think the pressure campaign needs to continue, and we need to do everything we possibly can to make sure that there is a diplomatic solution here, and not a combat solution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, you mentioned diplomatic solution. You mentioned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today, who did talk about a pressure campaign, but emphasized diplomacy.

    But, at the same time, reportedly, there are steps that the military is taking to train and possibly to deploy troops in what could be a preparation for a possible war. Do you think the U.S. military is laying the groundwork to attack North Korea?

  • Admiral Mike Mullen (ret.):

    I think the Trump administration is clearly — has clearly taken steps since they have come in to increase the level of readiness, increase the level of training, and certainly recognize that the possibility is here.

    I also think that, from a diplomatic solution standpoint, you need to be able to deal with that from a position of strength. So, that isn't all bad. Our allies out there need to know that we're committed to them. We need to be ready.

    And this is, quite frankly, an area in the nuclear world that we have not dealt with for decades. I mean, as a child of the '50s and the '60s, I can remember the kind of frightening incidents that occurred this weekend, when we were taking cover in the early '60s.

    So, all of this points to something that's very fragile. I don't think there's a lot of margin for error. And it's really incumbent upon world leaders to make sure we get to the right place, including the leadership in China and in Russia, as well as those countries who were in Vancouver today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    South Korea was in Vancouver today. And a lot of what the U.S. military has done in the region, as you mentioned, is to reassure allies, including Japan and South Korea.

    But there seems to be a little bit of divergence. The U.S. is talking about pressure. South Korea is talking directly with North Korea and talking about diplomacy.

    Can the U.S. solve this problem and can the U.S. go to war without South Korea's direct support?

  • Admiral Mike Mullen (ret.):

    I think that we have to stay engaged, and I'm sure we are, with South Korea. I don't have any objection to the North and the South talking right now.

    I think we shouldn't be too exuberant in terms of potential outcomes, but it is a place to start. I really would look at the nuclear aspect of this and be encouraged once Kim Jong-un starts to take steps which moves us away from the brink. And he clearly hasn't done that.

    We're close enough to South Korea that this is not going to get resolved without consultation between us and South Korea. It is difficult to know exactly what combination would work here, which is one of the reasons I'm certainly supportive. But I think we have got a long way to go.

    And I don't want to overstate the steps that have been taken in terms of potentially resolving this crisis. That's an important step, but there is an awful long way to go. And the danger, I don't think, has been reduced at all.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    No, the danger remains quite high.

    Admiral Mullen, thank you very much.

  • Admiral Mike Mullen (ret.):

    Thanks, Nick.

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