Does U.S. policy toward North Korea need to change?

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A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's fifth nuclear test, in Seoul, South Korea, September 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji - RTX2OR8H

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to our top story: North Korea’s latest nuclear test and its reverberations around the globe.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, begins our coverage.

LISA DESJARDINS: North Korea touted its latest nuclear test as a major breakthrough in deliverability.

WOMAN (through translator): The nuclear test finally examined and confirmed the structure and specific features of movement of a nuclear warhead standardized to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets. This will enable the nation to produce at will and as many as it wants.

LISA DESJARDINS: That claim has yet to be substantiated. But today’s test was the North’s most powerful yet. International observers reported the underground blast had a seismic magnitude larger than any of the four previous tests.

South Korean officials estimate the blast had a yield of 10 kilotons, a sharp increase from the six-kiloton test in January. Just as ominous, North Korea has demonstrated growing success with ballistic missiles.

On Monday, it fired off three medium-range rockets. All flew more than 600 miles before splashing down in Japanese waters. Last month, Pyongyang also successfully launched a submarine-based missile.

Today’s nuclear test drew swift condemnation. In Seoul, South Korea’s president charged North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has gone mad.

PRESIDENT PARK GEUN-HYE, South Korea (through translator): North Korea’s nuclear test can only be seen as a challenge to the international community. And we and the international community have reached the limit of our patience. I think the mental condition of Kim Jong-un is out of control.

LISA DESJARDINS: China, North Korea’s closest ally, warned against further provocations.

HUA CHUNYING, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman (through translator): Any unilateral action that is in the interest of its own will not yield anything. It could only intensify the situation and complicate the issue.

LISA DESJARDINS: And President Obama, who returned from Asia early today, said in a statement the U.S. will never accept North Korea as a nuclear state.

But top Republicans aimed their criticism at the White House. A statement from House Speaker Paul Ryan dismissed the president’s initiatives, saying: “This destabilizing activity is also a consequence of the administration’s failed policy of strategic patience and its hollow pivot to Asia.”

Today’s test marks the latest setback in a campaign to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, going back decades and several presidents. North Korea did agree to halt its nuclear weapons program back in 1994. But the years since then have seen an endless cycle of on-off negotiations, threats, sanctions and ever more advanced tests by the North.

A State Department spokeswoman was asked what happens next.

ELIZABETH TRUDEAU, State Department Spokeswoman: We won’t stop our efforts in working with our international partners to increase pressure on this very opaque regime in reaction to provocative acts like this.

LISA DESJARDINS: In New York, the United Nations Security Council met yet again in emergency session to condemn the North, and weigh its options. But China, which has veto power on the Council, stopped short of saying it would back new sanctions.

That prompted Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to say that Beijing has an important responsibility and needs to do more.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Margaret Warner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more and to explore the world’s options, we turn to Gary Samore. He served on the national security staff during the first term of the Obama administration as the coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. He’s now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. And Greg Thielmann, he was the director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs office at the State Department from 2000-2002. He’s now on the board of directors of the Arms Control Association. It’s a pro-arms-control advocacy group.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

Greg Thielmann, to you first. We just heard this described as the North’s most powerful nuclear test yet. How significant was it?

GREG THIELMANN, Former State Department Official: Well, it’s the latest piece of bad news in terms of North Korea’s continuing evolution of nuclear and missile programs.

It’s the most powerful nuclear test yet, the second this year. And it represents an acceleration of North Korea’s movement in a very bad direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does this say about their nuclear capability, where they can reach, how much destruction they can wreak?

GREG THIELMANN: It’s very hard to answer that question precisely, because we really don’t know how advanced the North Koreans are in being able to miniaturize their nuclear devices, so they fit on top of a ballistic missile.

So, there’s a lot of guesswork involved. But I think it’s fair to say that, at this point, the North Koreans may have the about to put a nuclear warhead on a medium-range ballistic missile, and that missile could hit Japan, it could hit South Korea. And they are probably that far, according to what we hear from South Korea and U.S. intelligence sources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gary Samore, what are the North Koreans trying to say with this test, do you believe?

GARY SAMORE, Former National Security Council official: Well, of course, the specific timing was to celebrate the 68th anniversary of the foundation of North Korea.

But I think, more broadly, I think Kim Jong-un is determined to demonstrate that he is not going to be cowed or deterred by U.N. Security Council injunctions and the threat of sanctions, which are demanding the he halt testing and eventually give up his nuclear weapons program.

So, I believe the North Koreans are trying to make it clear to the Security Council and to the big powers, especially China and the U.S., that they are determined to retain and expand their nuclear weapons capability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Greg Thielmann, does this represent a failure of American policy, policy of the rest the world toward North Korea?

GREG THIELMANN: Well, I think, almost by definition, it represents a failure, since the objective that almost all countries in the world agree to which is not to expand the number of countries that possess nuclear attack capability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — but what’s been wrong about that policy? Has it been too tough? Has it been too weak? How do you size it up?

GREG THIELMANN: Well, of course, U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy has scored some impressive successes, and I think the Iran nuclear agreement of last year is a good example of that.

In the case of North Korea, it’s one of the most difficult of all challenges we have. And there is certainly reason to criticize the North Koreans for being bad negotiating partners, and they have not been willing to carry out some of the obligations to which they have agreed.

But there are also problems on the other side of the table. One of the problems we have right now is, there is no table. We are not talking to the North Koreans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are no negotiations going.

GREG THIELMANN: No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn to Gary Samore.

How do you see this question of flat out that this means what’s been going on until now has failed?

GARY SAMORE: Yes, I think that’s right.

I mean, going back to President Reagan, when we first suspected that North Korea was pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the United States has tried many different ways to slow down or prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, including nuclear diplomacy. We have had three agreements, threats of preemptive war, economic sanctions.

We have tried many different methods, and they have all failed. And I think, as Greg says, it’s an indication of how difficult this problem is. You have a country that is — really feels it has an existential need to have nuclear weapons in order to survive, and the U.S. options, whether they’re diplomatic, or coercive, or military, are very limited.

So the question will be whether or not this test and North Korea’s continuing defiance will create opportunities, in particular for the U.S. and China, to work together, and that will be seen in the U.N., whether or not the Chinese are prepared to support additional sanctions measures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about that, because, up until now, the U.S., as we know, has said there are preconditions. North Korea has to meet certain conditions before the U.S. will sit down at the table and talk.

Should that policy go away? Should there now be talks without preconditions?

GARY SAMORE: Well, just to be clear, the U.S. is prepared to meet with the North Koreans, with the North Korean diplomats without any conditions.

The question is, what are the conditions for nuclear negotiations, for formal negotiation? And, for me, a minimum condition has to be an agreement that the purpose of nuclear negotiations is to achieve eventual disarmament. Nobody expects that to happen in the near-term, but in some kind of sequence, series of steps, and, secondly, that while the talks are going on, North Korean refrain from nuclear and long-range missile testing.

To me, that’s a reasonable minimal requirement, and I think you could get the Chinese and the other major powers involved in the talks to agree to that. Now, the Obama administration has been asking for more. They have been asking for restraints on North Korean fissile material destruction as a precondition — or as a condition for starting negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

GARY SAMORE: I think that hasn’t worked. And I think we have to look at trying to come to an agreement with China on conditions that are more realistic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Greg Thielmann, how do you see that? What do you think needs to happen now?

GREG THIELMANN: I mostly agree with what Gary said, but I think that we could make a mistake in even trying to get North Korea to go back to its previous commitment to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

I think, right now, that’s putting the bar too high. We need to negotiate with the North Koreans. And even if the objective — the only objective we can agree to is a freeze on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile testing, I think that, too, would have value.

And that doesn’t mean we have to abandon our objective to ultimately get rid of all nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula. But to require the North Koreans, before entering negotiation, to accept that as the ultimate objective of the negotiations I think is asking too much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying, what, tell the North Koreans what? We will sit down with you — what?

GREG THIELMANN: We will sit down and negotiate the terms of a freeze on nuclear and ballistic missile testing. And we will make very clear that our objective is to ultimately get rid of all nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula, as the North Koreans had previously agreed to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gary Samore, does that sound like the right path?

GARY SAMORE: Right now, the North Koreans are not prepared to talk about nuclear disarmament, nor are they prepared to accept any restriction on their testing activity.

And unless you establish, it seems to me, a basic premise for the talks, then — or for the negotiations, then you’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t at least with have an agreement on what it’s all about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a moment when a lot of questions are being asked. And we know that it’s — certainly, what North Korea has done has certainly gained everyone’s attention.

Gary Samore, we thank you.

Greg Thielmann, we thank you.

GREG THIELMANN: You’re welcome.

GARY SAMORE: Thank you.

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