Time to Talk to North Korea - Sam Nunn Interview with Atlanta Public Radio

This interview is the first portion of a two-part interview series with Sam Nunn on Atlanta's NPR station, WABE, that ran on Monday, March 13th 2017. In this portion, Nunn discusses U.S. policy on North Korea and nuclear weapons with WABE's Denis O'Hayer. Click here to read the transcript of the second portion, in which Nunn discusses U.S.-Russia relations.

DENIS O'HAYER, HOST, MORNING EDITION:  Senator Nunn, thanks for having us in your office, and welcome to Morning Edition.

FORMER SENATOR SAM NUNN:  Great.  Thank you, Denis.  Good to be with you.

MR. O'HAYER:  Let's start with North Korea.  Did the latest missile launch, actually several launches, tell us that the North Koreans have more sophisticated missiles now than we knew they had or are they just launching more of the same missiles that we have seen before?

MR. NUNN:  Well, I think that every time they launch a new missile, I think they learn something, even when a missile fails.  That's the nature of testing.  So the more they test, the closer they come to developing a long-range missile that could actually strike the United States, and that's a big danger.  But of course, we already have a big danger because we are pledged to defend our allies, Japan and South Korea, and the missile ranges they have already demonstrated certainly lead one to believe that they could already do tremendous damage to South Korea, where we are pledged to defend that country, as well as Japan.  So this is a very serious threat.  The North Korean threat is a very serious threat, and I think it has to be on the front burner for this administration.

MR. O'HAYER:  Does this mean though that you think the U.S. and South Korea will accelerate the deployment of a missile system to defend South Korea?

MR. NUNN:  Well, we are doing that, and I would agree with that decision.  It makes China very nervous, and we've got to deal with China on South Korea.  So I think we have to have a real dialogue with China and a quiet dialogue, but a very important dialogue, because the Chinese are the ones who can put the squeeze on North Korea and if we're going to get rid of the nuclear program in North Korea over time -- and it will take time -- it's going to have to be with the cooperation of the Chinese, if we're going to do it without a war.  A war with North Korea, which the United States and our allies would win, but it would be a very destructive war that would do great damage to our friends in South Korea.

MR. O'HAYER:  That brings up the question though of what leverage we think the Chinese have with the North Koreans.  China has been pressuring North Korea before and Kim Jong-un and his father and grandfather before him seemed to just say, okay, we're going ahead no matter what.

MR. NUNN:  Well, the Chinese certainly don't control North Korea.  I don't think anybody controls North Korea and what the North Koreans are doing is disturbing to the Chinese.  But on the other hand, the Chinese don't want U.S. forces on their border.  They don't want a collapsed North Korea and they fear a collapsed North Korea as much as they fear a nuclear North Korea.  And that's why we have to have a real dialogue with the Chinese.  We have to give them some assurances about our intentions if North Korea were to collapse, and that is always a possibility.

And China can put more pressure on the North Koreans.  There is a U.N. resolution and one of the things that we, I think, have got to do is to try to get not only China but our friends in Southeast Asia to enforce that resolution which allows inspection of all cargo coming in and out of North Korea to make sure there are no illicit U.N. banned goods on those ships or planes.  That could have an enormous effect on the North Korean economy, if enforced, and one of the things that Admiral Mullen and I recommended in our recent task force --

MR. O'HAYER:  Former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

MR. NUNN:  He was a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and we were the co-chairs of a recent task force on North Korea, and we published our report last September.  One of the things we advocated, in addition to strengthening our alliance with Japan and South Korea and beefing up our defenses, is to enforce the U.N. embargo and to help other countries who may not have the capability to do it, develop that capability.  We also, most importantly, have said that we ought to have a bilateral discussion with the North Koreans, informal and without preconditions, because it's in everybody's interest, including North Korea, to find a way to peacefully resolve this and to make the Korean peninsula nuclear free.

But we also have to remember, Denis, and this is where the tricky part comes, the North Koreans were already a threat to South Korea and the capital city before they developed nuclear weapons.  They have thousands of artillery tubes sitting within 30 miles of Seoul.  So any kind of war, even a conventional war that doesn't go nuclear, is going to be a very devastating affair.  And therefore, we need to do all we can to work with China, South Korea, Japan and also, Russia plays a role here, to try to resolve this peacefully.

And we got to make it tougher on North Korea, if they continue to be defiant, but we've got to make it more beneficial to them if they cooperate.  And over a period of time, first, freeze their nuclear program and missile programs and, second, get rid of them.

MR. O'HAYER:  Just pick up on a couple of points there.  You mentioned, of course, getting the Chinese to help us with suppressing the North Korean nuclear development program.  China appears to be asking though in return that the U.S. and South Korea halt the deployment of the missile defense system or upgrade that you just said we ought to go ahead with.  So does China have leverage on us here and do we have to give them something in return for their cooperation?

MR. NUNN:  Well, I think we ought to make it clear to them that the reason we're putting in the missile defenses is to take care of the threat and if they cooperate with us in getting rid of the threat then we will not need those missile defenses.  So you can call it “chicken and egg”, but it's one of those things where we've got to develop a win-win.  Also the Chinese have just suggested that we have a ceasing of our large exercises in exchange for the North Koreans not continuing with their missile tests.  I don't agree with that proposal, but I think it's a seed of real discussion with the Chinese, because if you added some more parts to that basket it's worthy of some real thoughts, because we do the exercises because there is a threat.  And so those things go together and that's what diplomacy is all about, finding a way to fit the interests of both sides together and come out with a better solution for everybody.

MR. O'HAYER:  And you mentioned bilateral talks with the North Koreans.  At what level do we start?  And politically, is that even possible in this country right now?

MR. NUNN:  Well, the last administration did not want to have bilateral talks.  We had six-party talks and for the six-party talks, I would agree there have to be preconditions, but for the bilateral informal talks, and it could be at various levels, it could start at lower levels.  Of course, two things make it a lot harder now.  One is the North Koreans alleged -- and it hadn't been proven, but it certainly looks like a lot of evidence -- that they just conducted an assassination in Malaysia, a very serious problem for everybody and including the use of a deadly chemical weapon and so that's a big problem.  The other is that South Korea is going through considerable turmoil and their president has just been --

MR. O'HAYER:  The president was just impeached.

MR. NUNN:  -- removed by the court and that means the dangers have gone up there.  This is the time where the North Koreans are more likely to be irresponsible with this kind of turmoil.  And the other equation is that the opposition party, which may come into power now, has a different approach to North Korea than the incumbent president.

MR. O'HAYER:  A far less confrontational one, if I understand it correctly.

MR. NUNN:  Yes, less confrontational and so we've got to have some considerable dialogue with the opposition party now.

MR. O'HAYER:  But is the Trump administration staffed and ready to do that?

MR. NUNN:  Well, if this was an easy problem, it would have been solved in the previous administration.  So I don't think anybody could wave a wand and solve it.  But no, they don't have the staff, there is a not a Deputy Secretary of State right now.  I'm sure that Rex Tillerson needs a good bit of help, and the Defense Department is much better organized and so forth, so they're probably going to have to take more of a lead here.  But talking to the North Koreans informally I think is very important.  Right now we're not willing to do it, because of the recent misbehavior of the North Koreans, including the terrible event, the assassination, if they indeed did it.  But at some point, we're going to have to talk to them.

MR. O'HAYER:  It's a political question, but certainly some leading Democrats, even a few Republicans, have questioned whether the President has the temperament to handle all of these difficult military and security questions.  Are you concerned about that?

MR. NUNN:  Well, I think that's an open question, and I think there are an awful a lot of people, including a lot of Republicans, who are very worried about the, you know, some of the tweets that come out in the middle of the night.  It's very difficult if you're a Secretary of State in Mexico and the Commander-in-Chief and President is tweeting back home right in the middle of your discussions.  And it's very tough if you're Secretary of Defense and you're having a tour of Asia and you get the tweets right off the bat and not well thought out.

So I think that President Trump has missed a number of opportunities, and I hope there will be less of that in the future, a lot of opportunities to hold his tongue and hold his tweets.  You know, that's advice he probably doesn't want to hear, but right now, you can't really behave as President of United States as you do as a political candidate.

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March 13, 2017

Part one of a two-part interview series with Sam Nunn on Atlanta's NPR station, WABE. In this portion, Nunn discusses U.S. policy on North Korea and nuclear weapons with WABE's Denis O'Hayer.

Sam Nunn
Sam Nunn

Co-Chair, NTI