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U.S. Navy Makes A Show Of Force Off The Korean Peninsula


The United States Navy is making a show of force off the Korean Peninsula. Three American aircraft carriers are in the waters in range of North Korea. They're taking part in exercises with South Korean and Japanese ships amid the confrontation with North Korea. Retired Admiral James Stavridis has much experience in the Pacific, and he's on the line. Admiral, good morning.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I understand show of force, but really what is the point of performing these exercises?

STAVRIDIS: Well, first of all, these are enormous machines at war. If you turned an aircraft carrier on its side, it's twice the length of Trump Tower, to pick a metaphor. And each of them carry 80 combat aircraft. You put them together, it's 200 jets that can move a thousand miles a day on seven acres each. So these - it's an enormous show of force. And the idea is to convey to Kim Jong Un that he'd better stop being so unpredictable and pay attention to what's going on. And I think it's actually...

INSKEEP: You get analogy credits and pun on Un credits there, Admiral, but let me just follow up on this a little bit because surely the North Koreans understand that the United States can destroy North Korea many times over. There's a deterrent there, and I guess the United States has to worry about the North Korean deterrent at this point, as well. Does it really accomplish anything to have the forces right there?

STAVRIDIS: I think it does when it is coupled with a cooler tone of rhetoric, and unfortunately that's not what we're seeing from the president. And it's more effective when coupled with allies - Japan, South Korea, our other allies in the region. So I think it is a mixed picture, but it is a signal that is not lost also on China because at the end of the day, what China wants to avoid is a war on this peninsula, which will crack their economy. And if we can convince China to lean in on North Korea, we have a far better chance of solving this diplomatically. That's really the intent here.

INSKEEP: And when you talk about rhetoric, of course, President Trump over the weekend tweeted at Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Un, in a statement, had referred to him as an old lunatic. Trump said, I would never refer to him as short and fat, so technically didn't call him short and fat. He said he would never refer to him as...

STAVRIDIS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Short and fat. We're laughing, but this is a potential nuclear war, Admiral. I want to ask you...

STAVRIDIS: I totally...

INSKEEP: I want to ask, are you concerned about North Korea's capabilities? Do they have damage that they can do to an American aircraft carrier?

STAVRIDIS: To an American aircraft carrier, highly unlikely; to our 32,000 troops on the South Korean Peninsula, absolutely. So we've got to pay attention. And of course the big backdrop here, Steve, is the growing capability of Kim Jong Un to deliver a nuclear weapon on a long-range ballistic missile. That's the end game we have to prevent, but we've got to do it diplomatically and using the economic tools.

INSKEEP: Basically a yes-or-no question or a sentence. Do you still presume that North Korea is a rational regime, meaning that they're not going to start a war knowing that it would destroy their country?

STAVRIDIS: I believe that is correct, but what we must guard against is unintended escalation, which can run away from both sides of this conflict.

INSKEEP: Either side could go too far and not realize they're doing it, is what you're saying?

STAVRIDIS: Exactly. And when nuclear weapons are involved, back to your previous statement, we need to get out of the crazy rhetoric and get into diplomatic signaling that gets us to the negotiating table.

INSKEEP: Admiral, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY SEGAL'S "ON MY MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.