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What's To Be Done About North Korea's Nuclear Program?


China's called on the United States and North Korea to tone it down. In a phone call with President Trump last night, China's President Xi Jinping urged Mr. Trump to avoid statements that heightened tension. And he called on the leadership of North Korea to stop threats against the U.S. territory of Guam. Yesterday, President Trump warned North Korea that it would be in quote, "big, big trouble," if it takes action against Guam. After he tweeted, the U.S. military was, quote again, "locked and loaded."

Joined by David Albright, he's president of the Institute for Science and International Security, speaking with us from Germany. Mr. Albright, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Glad to be here.

SIMON: We're a weekly show, so let let's go back a few days. Before North Korea said it would fire test missiles near Guam, before President Trump said the U.S. is locked and loaded or vowed fire and fury, there was the news that North Korean had figured out how to put a nuclear bomb on a missile. Now, that's despite talks under the Bush administration or the 1994 deal with the Clinton administration. What's to be done?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think one is that I think there's time. I mean, the goal, I think, of everybody is to get negotiations going that can lead to denuclearization. People don't want North Korea to have nuclear weapons. It's just too dangerous, and it could cause further proliferation in the region and just constantly create instability that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. So I think the goal is clear. How to get there is very difficult. And the Washington Post story kind of created a shock that somehow we don't have the time, that we're already in the bull's-eye of North Korea's nuclear weapons. As we sit in Seattle or...

SIMON: The story that said they - that North Korea had miniaturized the nuclear weapon and it could sit on top of a missile.

ALBRIGHT: That's right - and that the most troubling part was that it could be put on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States. And so I think - but I think we're actually not there. I don't - I think that it's a very difficult engineering problem to put a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile; have that missile reach the right distance; the re-entry vehicle penetrate the atmosphere and survive; and the warhead, which is composed of high explosives and other dangerous materials, actually work and not just have the conventional explosives blow up.

SIMON: But let me - and people have been asking this for years - so what if it's two years from now or 18 months or three years from now? This - can we keep kicking the can down the road?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think one of the things the Trump administration has made clear is it's not going to kick the can down the road. And that's what's leading to this - partly at least, leading to this escalation. And so I think they are determined to try to solve this problem and that they've accused all the previous administrations of failing to solve it but they're going to solve it and get to a solution with North Korea. And they've bet on China and Russia as the key players to help them. And so I think that we'll see how that happens, if President Trump may suffer the same fate as President Obama. He had a - he was close to a deal in 2011 - 2012, and it fell apart. So I mean, it's a very tricky subject. And - but the Trump administration appears determined to try to solve this.

SIMON: Well, but - Mr. Albright, do deals mean anything with the North Korean leadership? I mean, this has been going on for 30 years. What if they just want a nuclear bomb because they feel that's what they need to be safe, that the regime needs that?

ALBRIGHT: Well, if that's the outcome, then I think the U.S. policy should be - and really has been - that we're not going to accept their nuclear weapons. It's just going to be more pressure brought to bear. And there's a lot of room to bring pressure. I mean, we do a lot of work at - my institute's following North Korea's practices of acquiring equipment and other goods for its nuclear program. And China hasn't really done much. I mean, it has laws, sanctions. But there's a lot of room to put pressure on North Korea to stop imports by North Korea, a lot of pressure that can be brought to bear on their financial activities. But I think...

SIMON: And a lot of room short of military options is what you're suggesting.

ALBRIGHT: That's right. And I think - obviously, military option is the last one, and I think this current situation needs to be de-escalated. But the political pressure, the economic pressure that can be brought to bear on North Korea is just really starting. And it hasn't reached anywhere near the level of the pressure that was brought to bear on Iran to convince it to start negotiations on its nuclear program.

SIMON: David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, thanks so much.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.