N. Korea flexes nuclear power amid regional arms race, wants U.S. to end ‘hostile policy’

With the many crises both domestic and global facing the Biden White House, one key challenge — North Korea — has decided to make its presence known. Surrounded by missiles and other weaponry, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un put his nuclear-armed state front and center. Nick Schifrin explains.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the U.S. and South Korean national security advisers are meeting in Washington to discuss North Korea.

    It was earlier today when North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, surrounded by missiles and other weaponry, put his nuclear-armed state front and center, and the Biden administration on notice.

    Nick Schifrin explains.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The stars were out on Pyongyang's red carpet, intercontinental ballistic missiles, a new surface-to-air missile, a new hypersonic glide vehicle, and, behind Kim Jong-un himself, what North Korea calls new-type gigantic rocket, a flashy flaunting of years of North Korean military and nuclear advancement, and outside, human weapons, demonstrations of tae kwon do and North Korean soldiers' toughness.

    Fighters flying by, to the delight of Kim and a sea of military leaders, the audience for the weapons exhibition both global and local, says Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Ankit Panda, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Kim has been quite open about the fact that these are not good times for North Korea.

    But, despite all of this, their national defense program continues. Their defense scientists continue to be innovative. That's really the message here for the internal audience, that Kim Jong-un continues to ensure that North Korea will sustain its autonomy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    These weapons are the highlights of North Korea's missile and nuclear program so far, but they're also previews of future weapons that are today still untested.

  • Ankit Panda:

    I think Kim is trying to really indicate that he is working his way through a long list of military modernization objectives.

    This is about leverage for the next time the North Koreans come back to the diplomatic table. And Kim really wants the U.S. to appreciate what they're capable of doing and what they have been capable of doing over the last few years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last month alone, Pyongyang conducted three tests, including the hypersonic missile, the new cruise missile, and a train-based ballistic missile, all designed to improve North Korean missile and nuclear survivability and responsiveness.

  • Ankit Panda:

    By placing these missiles on rail cars, they can be placed in tunnels. They can simply be rolled out, erected, and launched, and so that enhances the survivability in principle, and similarly with responsiveness.

    Unlike truck-based missile launchers, which need to be driven around the countryside on — sometimes going off-road, rail mobility is quite stable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The North isn't the only one advancing its missiles. Last month, South Korea tested its own missile launched from a submarine and watched by President Moon Jae-in.

    The regional arms race isn't new, but it comes after a may summit in which the U.S. lifted decades-old missile restrictions. Meanwhile, South Korea is trying to upgrade inter-Korean communications. The two sides recently reopened a liaison office that last year North Korea blew up.

    But ever since Kim and President Trump met in Hanoi in 2019, U.S.-North Korean diplomacy has been stalled. The Biden administration wants direct diplomacy with North Korea, officially known as the DPRK

  • Ned Price, Spokesperson, State Department:

    We remain prepared to meet with the DPRK Without preconditions any time, anywhere.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But North Korea says it won't meet with the U.S. while the U.S. continues to hold training exercises with South Korea, including this one in August, and maintains sanctions, what the North calls the U.S.' — quote — "hostile policy."

    For more on North Korea and the South Korean and the United States' national security advisers meeting today, we turn to Frank Jannuzi. He was a State Department analyst, where he focused on North Korea. He's now president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving relations among countries in Asia and with the United States.

    Frank Jannuzi, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    As we just reported, North Korea says the U.S. has a — quote — "hostile policy" that it needs to give up. For North Korea, what does that mean?

    Frank Jannuzi, President and CEO, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation: Well, they define it usually, Nick, to refer to sanctions, as well as the criticism of their human rights record, the fact that the United States maintains forces on the Korean Peninsula and nuclear armaments, which the North Koreans consider to be a threat.

    But the North Koreans have long desired the United States to lift this so-called hostile policy. And, in recent weeks, they have been turning more and more to addressing the state of war on the peninsula and a desire to see that state of war ended as one of the measurements by which they would evaluate whether or not the United States had lifted its hostile policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So that's what North Korea wants.

    South Korea is here in Washington today. What does it want the U.S. to do?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Suh Hoon, the national security adviser, has met with the North Koreans more than almost any other South Korean diplomat.

    And what he's looking to try to get out of the Biden administration is a willingness for the Biden administration to put something new on the table in order to get dialogue with North Korea started, perhaps sanctions relief, perhaps an end-of-war declaration.

    The Moon administration is in its final months in office. They're really desperate to get something going with North and South diplomacy and the U.S.-North Korea diplomacy before that term expires.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so you have the North Koreans and the South Koreans actually both wanting the U.S. to consider lifting sanctions and consider the end, official end of the Korean War.

    Where's the Biden administration? Is it willing to listen to those requests?

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, the Biden administration has pursued what I call a Goldilocks approach to the North Korea policy, not too hard, not too soft, trying to strive for something in the middle, just right.

    But the problem for Biden is, is that policy lacks a degree of creativity necessary to really command North Korea's attention. The Biden administration hoped that, by offering talks without preconditions, that they could lower the North Koreans into dialogue.

    But, unfortunately, the North Koreans essentially are demanding that the Biden administration move first, move first on sanctions relief, move first on aid, move first on a end-of-war declaration. And, frankly, I don't see any appetite in the Biden administration for those kinds of concessions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There are some analysts who would say the Biden administration should not give concessions to North Korea, because North Korea, as it has in the past, would pocket them, and not actually take steps to denuclearize.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Well, indeed.

    There's every reason for the Biden administration to be mistrustful of the DPRK's intentions. At the same time, I would hope that Biden would remember the attitude which he adopted in 2001 when Kim Jong-un's predecessor, his father, Kim Jong Il, made some overtures to the South and to the United States.

    And at that point in his Senate career, Senator Biden said that it was vital for the United States to test North Korea's intentions through dialogue. And so, one way or the other, the Biden administration needs to find a formula by which they can engage with the DPRK to test whether or not North Korea is prepared to take meaningful steps toward peace and denuclearization.

    And if they can't do it through sanctions relief — and, probably, they shouldn't — then they need to find some other mechanism.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, meanwhile, we are seeing a very confident speech by Kim Jong-un last night and a display of years of military modernization.

    I was struck by the fact that Kim Jong-un is approaching his 10th year in office as leader of North Korea. And this is a more confident Kim, one who's willing both to admit the failings of his domestic economic development programs, at the same time that he celebrates what has been meaningful progress in the development of nuclear weapons, more advanced weaponry, and delivery systems for nuclear weapons that can now reach the region, if not all the way to the United States.

    So, Kim Jong-un is perhaps less desperate for dialogue with the United States than he might have been five or six years ago. And I think this is one of the reasons why he has set the bar higher, in terms of conditions on dialogue.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Frank Jannuzi, thank you very much.

  • Frank Jannuzi:

    Thanks, Nick.

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