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U.S. needs to stop North Korea before they “perfect” missile capability, McMaster says

President Donald Trump sent Congress his first national security strategy on Monday, laying out his view of American priorities in an unstable world. Judy Woodruff speaks with national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who led the process to devise the new strategy. On North Korea, McMaster said the president has asked his team to continuously refine a military option against the nuclear threat.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump unveiled his first national security strategy this afternoon mandated by Congress.

    The report is an opportunity for Mr. Trump to showcase his view of American priorities and goals in an unstable world.

  • President Donald Trump:

    America is coming back, and America is coming back strong.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president used the speech to again put his America-first stamp on U.S. foreign and military policy.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but we will champion the values without apology. We want strong alliances and partnerships based on cooperation and reciprocity. We will make new partnerships with those who share our goals and make common interests into a common cause.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The new Trump doctrine focuses on four main themes, protecting the homeland, promoting American prosperity, keeping the peace by showing military strength, and advancing America's influence throughout the world.

    Mr. Trump has sought warmer ties with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping. But the doctrine he rolled out today brands both nations as revisionist powers that challenge American influence.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest. But while we seek such opportunities of cooperation, we will stand up for ourselves, and we will stand up for our country like we have never stood up before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    China is described as a strategic competitor, aggressively building up its military and extending its claims in the South China Sea.

    Russia is criticized for using subversive measures, as in the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. But there is no mention of Russian interference in the U.S. election.

    The strategy also cites ongoing threats from the Islamic State and other militant groups. And it calls out rogue regimes like North Korea.

  • President Donald Trump:

    America and its allies will take all necessary steps to achieve a denuclearization and ensure that this regime cannot threaten the world. This situation should have been taken care of long before I got into office, when it was much easier to handle, but it will be taken care of. We have no choice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Trump plan makes little reference to global warming as a risk to national security. That's despite concerns about climate change destabilizing countries, and triggering mass migrations of refugees.

    Now with me is the man who led the process to devise this new strategy, the president's national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster.

    General McMaster, thank you for joining us.

    To the extent this is described as an America-first strategy, how is it different from what came before?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, it's very different, Judy.

    First of all, it's a pleasure to be with you.

    And what the president has done is given clear direction that allows us now to prioritize our efforts very clearly. The first priority is always to protect the homeland and American citizens. And you see what the president's done to move out on that agenda already in terms of improved border security.

    But what the strategy really emphasizes as well is the need to protect our technological and industrial and national security innovation base from really sophisticated forms of aggression, including cyber-espionage and unfair trade and economic practices.

    Under promoting American prosperity, what's different about, I think, this strategy is the very close connection between the need to grow our economy and strengthen our economy and national security and in particular the emphasis on fair and reciprocal trade and economic practices, ending all forms of economic aggression, which involves, for example, transfer of intellectual property based on unfair market access.

    The third key to this is peace through strength, and the president has moved out on this as well, as you can see, with the defense budget and addressing a bow wave of deferred military modernization and reversing the reduction of the size of our force, even as threats to our national security increased.

    And peace through strength is a very important theme that, as you know, goes back to the first national security strategy of President Ronald Reagan.

    And, finally, advancing American influence, the president said it in the clip that you showed. It's cooperation with reciprocity. And what the president wants to do is strengthen our alliances by equitable burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing.

    You see that with his approach to NATO in particular, but you see now more NATO countries contributing more to their defense and also key allies like South Korea and Japan as well bearing more of the burden in our common defense and in our common approach to common problems.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there is so much to ask you, but to the extent this is a more competitive world you describe, does the rest of the world now have more to fear from the United States?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    No, the rest of the world should welcome the United States leading again, competing again.

    And so what we have found is when we looked at some previous approaches, a lot of these strategies in the past have been aspirational. We said, well, we have to really look at the world as it is. And we have to be able to compete effectively across multiple arenas, economic competition, as I mentioned, but security competition, and then also — also new forms of competition that we're seeing using new domains.

    Space is now a competitive domain, cyberspace certainly a new competitive space. And so what this strategy emphasizes is that we need to compete to advance and protect our interests. And we want to do that. We want to do that with like-minded nations and allies and partners, but we will always prioritize the vital interests of the American people, those four pillars you mentioned of the national security strategy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you mentioned dealing with the world as it really is.

    And I know on everyone's lips right now, people want to know, is the U.S. going to go to war with North Korea? You were quoted in an interview just a couple of weeks ago as saying the chance of war increases almost every day. Is it still the case?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    I think it is still the case.

    And the reason for this, Judy, is that we are out of time with this problem, not out of time completely. But we have a very short amount of time to be able to address the problem of North Korea.

    As you know, they have continued — the North Korean regime has continued its testing, its nuclear testing and its missile testing, in a way that threatens the whole world. And failed agreements of the past had assumed that, we have more time to really cope with this problem set and to reach denuclearization.

    So what we really want to do is do everything we can now, with everyone across the world, with allies and partners and China and Russia, to take all the diplomatic action, all the economic action we can to convince Kim Jong-un this is a dead end.

    And the reason why this is so important is because it poses such a grave threat to the world. I mean, this is a regime, the last regime on Earth you would trust with a nuclear weapon, and his intentions likely involve nuclear blackmail as well. And it could lead to the breakdown of the nonproliferation regime in Northeast Asia in a way that could see other countries arming with the most destructive weapons on Earth.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds as if, from your — the administration's definition, that North Korea already poses the worst kind of threat to the region, to South Korea, to Japan, to U.S. territories in the Pacific.

    What more is it that the U.S. is waiting for the North to do, if the U.S. is prepared to take preemptive action?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, as you know, these are programs that are continued — continuing to develop.

    The nuclear tests that they have conducted and the missile tests allow them to get better and to begin to perfect this intercontinental long-range ballistic missile capability and then marry that to a nuclear device in a way that does pose a threat to the entire world.

    And so what we need to do is act urgently to make sure the regime, first of all, doesn't have the resources it needs to continue this program, as well as to continue to support its military.

    You can't fire missiles without fuel, for example. So it's time to not only enforce the existing U.N. sanctions, but for us to do much, much more.

    And you have heard the president call all nations — on all nations to cut off all trade with North Korea, make it clear to this regime that, unless he denuclearizes, there's no way that North Korea can succeed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But most people, I think, believe that the North Korean leader is not at all prepared to denuclearize.

    And, again, my question is, isn't the North — isn't North Korea already posing an unacceptable threat to the region and the U.S.? And if that's the case, what is the U.S. waiting for?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, you could argue that North Korea has posed a threat to the region since 1950.

    And, as you know, since the end of the armistice that ended the open conflict between North Korea and South Korea, that North Korea has held portions of the South Korean population at risk with large conventional capabilities, artillery and rockets and missiles.

    And — but as this regime continues to perfect its long-range nuclear capabilities, it's just a risk that the world cannot tolerate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to try to stick with this just with one more question on — just on that specific point, and that is — because I have people asking this question in my presence all the time.

    How does the U.S. know that it could strike North Korea without running the risk of a retaliatory strike on South Korea, Japan and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of civilians in that area?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, I don't want to get into the specifics of military plans and estimates.

    But I will tell you that the president has asked us to continue to refine a military option, should we have to use it. And, of course, we're working on that very closely with our very close ally South Korea, who is the closest to this danger, and with Japan.

    But what we have to do is everything we can now to resolve this short of war. And the grave danger is not just the direct threat that North Korea poses any nation, but it's also the threat that's posed by the breakdown of that nonproliferation regime.

    And we should point out, I mean, everybody should be aware that this regime has never met a weapon that it didn't try to sell, that it didn't proliferate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But aren't they already — pardon me.

    Aren't they already able, though, to sell, to proliferate what they have already developed?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, this is why we have to move out with a high degree of urgency.

    And, as you know, this is a regime that has very destructive chemical weapons, that used a banned nerve agent to murder his brother in a public airport in Malaysia.

    So, this is a regime that is dangerous on a number of levels, and that's why I think the international community has come together behind the president's leadership to confront this regime, and really make a dramatic shift.

    These are the most severe sanctions that have been put in place. And what you have seen is, is China recognize this is not an issue between the United States and North Korea, this is an issue between North Korea and the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last question, General McMaster.

    You are known as a scholar of military history, especially Vietnam. You have written about that. Are there lessons from Vietnam about the United States not getting sucked into a conflict when diplomacy could be the better answer?

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Well, the lesson, I think, from Vietnam and what I wrote about previously is the importance of bringing all options to a president and to make sure you consider, as you're alluding to, I think, the long-term cost and consequences of every decision.

    What we have done with this national security strategy is try to regain our strategic competence as a nation. And what we're going to do and what we are already doing is view national security challenges through the lens of those four vital interests, craft clearly understandable goals and objectives, and then explore options with a clear-eyed view to the advantages and disadvantages of options and a recognition of what the potential costs and consequences of decisions might be.

    That's what we owe the president. That's what we give the president are options, and then, once he makes a decision, we help drive the implementation of his decisions, always to advance and protect the vital interests of the American people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    General H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser, thank you very much.

  • H.R. McMaster:

    Thank you, Judy. A pleasure to be with you.

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