Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'Be Persistent And Keep Trying' To Talk To North Korea, Expert Says


Let's ask how serious North Korea might be about launching an intercontinental ballistic missile. A spokesman says the country could launch a long range missile anytime it wants from anywhere it wants in the country. This is of interest to many people, not least of them Joel Wit, a former U.S. diplomat and visitor to North Korea. He's now at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he's come by our studios this morning. Good morning, sir.

JOEL WIT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Can we start with the evidence? Because North Korea makes claims all the time. What is the evidence that they have an effective missile that they could launch any moment?

WIT: Well, North Korea has been working on this missile for a number of years, and recently, we've seen it in military parades in North Korea, so we know it exists. And secondly, they've recently conducted tests of rocket engines, large rocket engines, that could be used for this weapon. And third, of course, they launched satellites into space.

INSKEEP: So they've got some - they've got some...

WIT: They've got a lot of technology they've been working on.

INSKEEP: But of course, the thing that Americans would worry about most, I suppose, is a missile that hypothetically would be launched at - what? - Anchorage, Alaska, Los Angeles. What could this missile hypothetically do?

WIT: Well, it's very interesting because the recent test of this large rocket engine has led experts to believe that North Korea can not only reach Hawaii or Alaska or the West Coast but now can also reach the east coast of the United States.

INSKEEP: Can they fire a missile that would carry a nuclear warhead?

WIT: Once again, they've conducted five nuclear tests. They're certainly working on putting a warhead on top of this long range missile, and I believe they will eventually succeed.

INSKEEP: But I guess we should say you have to be able not only to have a nuclear device that works, but you have to miniaturize it to get it on top of the missile, right? They can do that?

WIT: Exactly. And that's part of what they've been doing with these five nuclear tests. That's one of the objectives, I'm sure, although I don't - you know, I'm not there. I'm not observing the tests, but it's certainly one of the objectives of these tests that they've been conducting.

INSKEEP: So this is not saber-rattling necessarily or missile-rattling. This is a serious thing you think.

WIT: It's a serious thing. It's not going to happen overnight. They're not going to be deploying operational missiles overnight. So experts like myself think by 2020, but they're going to have to start testing them soon in order to deploy them in 2020.

INSKEEP: Now, let's remember the sequence of events. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, said something about this missile test on the new year. Is this right?

WIT: Yeah. The North Korean leader gives an annual New Year's speech, and so it was part of that speech he gave.

INSKEEP: And then President-elect Donald Trump said on Twitter this is not going to happen.

WIT: Right, right.

INSKEEP: And now North Korea has said actually we can do this anytime we want. I can fire a missile anytime I want.

WIT: Right. So there's this kind of very superficial exchange, and no one really knows how President Trump is going to stop this from happening. And that's, of course, the million-dollar question for everyone.

INSKEEP: How could you stop this from happening?

WIT: Well, there's a lot of speculation about how you might do this, ranging from launching a preemptive attack, destroying the missile when it's being - before it's being tested, shooting it down with anti-ballistic missile systems that we might have based in Asia, to starting some sort of serious dialogue with the North Koreans and trying to head off this possibility before it happens.

INSKEEP: OK. Let me ask about that because people have tried for decades to engage this regime. You've been involved in that during the Clinton administration in the 1990s. How's that work?

WIT: You know, it's kind of hard for me to reduce 20 years of diplomatic interchange to a few seconds. But the bottom line is people - one of the myths about dealing with North Korea is that you can't talk to them. And my experience during the 1990s when I was in the State Department was you can reach agreements, and the agreements can have a real impact on what they're doing. So what I would say is we just need to be persistent and keep trying because the alternatives are really horrible.

INSKEEP: Such as a war.

WIT: Such as a war. If we try to launch a preemptive attack against a missile that's about to be launched, it's very likely the North Koreans will respond militarily.

INSKEEP: But let's be real here. Twenty years of talks, and during that time, North Korea has continued developing nuclear weapons, has conducted multiple tests of nuclear weapons and is now saying that they're on the verge of testing the delivery system.

WIT: Actually, you're right. But for 10 years of that time, North Korea was not doing anything really. And they actually cut back their programs because of an agreement we reached in 1994. I'm not saying that we can do that again. But I'm saying it's certainly worth a try. And we should forget about these myths and focus on what might work and move forward with it.

INSKEEP: Should the U.S. goal - in just a few seconds - then, in your view, be to buy time and hope that eventually the regime changes or something else happens a few years from now?

WIT: Well, you know, people have been thinking that the regime was going to change since the Soviet Union collapsed. And that ain't going to happen. So I think what we really need to do is dig in our heels and try a serious diplomatic effort, and if that doesn't work, then we can move on to much tougher measures.

INSKEEP: Joel Wit, thanks for coming by this morning, really appreciate it.

WIT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He's a former U.S. diplomat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.