Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Task Force Project Director
Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Threat Initiative; Task Force Co-Chair
President and Chief Executive Officer, MGM Consulting LLC; Task Force Co-Chair
Co-Anchor and Managing Editor, PBS NewsHour
For over forty years, the Korean Peninsula has been trapped in a dangerous cycle of provocation. A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia, the report of a CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force, offers guidance to U.S. leaders in the face of the uniquely challenging threat posed by North Korea. The Task Force finds that current trends will progressively threaten the United States and its allies, and proposes new ideas to expand regional dialogue, restructure negotiations, protect the human rights of North Korea’s citizens, strictly enforce new sanctions authority, and deter and defend against a regime that seems determined to aggress in new and dangerous ways.
Chaired by retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, this bipartisan Task Force is composed of a diverse and distinguished group of experts that includes former government officials, scholars, and others. The project is directed by Adam Mount, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former CFR Stanton Nuclear Security fellow.
Independent Task Force reports are consensus documents that offer analysis and policy prescriptions for major U.S. foreign policy issues facing the United States, developed through private and nonpartisan deliberations among a diverse and distinguished group of experts.
WOODRUFF: Good morning, everyone. I’m Judy Woodruff with the PBS “NewsHour.” I’m really pleased to be here seeing all these bright, shining faces on this Friday morning.
I want to welcome you to today’s launch of the Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored Independent Task Force report. It’s been titled “A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia.”
Today we are so pleased to have—to be joined by the task force co-chairs. You recognize both of them: Admiral Mike Mullen, who is of course the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and, on my right, former Senator Sam Nunn, who is the chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. And joining us is Adam Mount, who has been the project director for this endeavor.
We’re going to ask them to start out by talking about the report. We’ll spend about 30 minutes discussing it, and then we’ll open it up for questions from the members.
I want to extend special thanks to all the task force members and observers who are here, and I’m going to ask you to either raise your hand or stand up. We’d like to see who you are if you played any role in this task force. I’m told some of you are here this morning. Don’t be shy. (Laughter.) Hands up. OK, right here in the middle. Welcome.
NUNN: Mike and I want to clap for you. (Laughter, applause.)
WOODRUFF: That’s where the toughest questions are going to come from.
And I also want to welcome all of the Council—the CFR members who are joining us from New York, and anywhere else they are—where you are watching this meeting via Livestream or on Facebook. And a reminder to everybody, we are on the record.
So let’s get started by talking about this. I want to ask—start by asking Admiral Mullen, why did you—you know, the two you have a lot going on in your lives. Why did you care enough about what’s going on in the Korean Peninsula to get involved in this? Why was this urgent for you?
MULLEN: Well, thank you, Judy. And I, too, would like to thank the task force members. And in particular, if you haven’t had a chance to look at the report itself, it’s dedicated to Stephen Bosworth, who was originally going to co-chair this with me and unfortunately passed away. And the dedication really is to him, who dedicated so much of his life trying to solve this challenge diplomatically. And we are mindful of that, and his contributions have been enormous over the decades.
I haven’t done many of these reports. In fact, this is really the first one. And I—when retired in 2011, I felt then and I feel now that the Korean Peninsula is potentially as explosive a place as there exists in the world, and that it can explode rapidly and dangerously, and it needs to be addressed. And so when Richard Haass was—asked me to do this, not having done much in terms of these kinds of reports or task forces since I retired, I agreed to do it because it’s an enormously complex issue that many administrations have tried to address. It is yet, obviously, not solved.
I was also taken with the participants, the professional members of the task force that Richard was committed to putting together, and certainly being able to co-chair it with someone like Senator Nunn was very special as well.
I’m not sure there is a more relevant problem to try to focus on in terms of its complexity, the near-term danger that it has, and the need to get it—get at it, hopefully peacefully, but certainly with expectations that we could be on a much more dangerous path than a peaceful resolution here. So I thought it was that important, and agreed to co-chair it.
WOODRUFF: Well, let’s plunge into the report. Senator Nunn, let’s talk about—you know, lay out for us, in brief, how is this a departure—if it is, and we know it is in some regards—from current policy? What are the—what to you are the principal points here that you want the membership and the rest of the policy world who pays attention to this part of the world to take away from this report?
NUNN: Well, I recall Winston Churchill once said that no matter how beautiful the strategy, occasionally you have to look at the result. (Laughter.) And looking at the result, we face a grave and I think increasing danger. And when I say “we,” I mean Japan, I mean South Korea, I mean the American personnel in Korea as well as in that—as that region of the world. And, yes, I mean China also, because China’s a very important part of that region.
So how does it differ? The first thing I would say is we had a couple of members of our task force who were very helpful, Gary Samore in particular and Bob Einhorn, in helping clarify exactly what the U.S. policy is right now. I think we should say upfront that we have deterred major war, and that’s an accomplishment. That’s something that has been done. What we haven’t done is changed the North Korean calculus to continue to defy not the United States, but the United Nations. They are defying the United Nations Security Council resolution both on their nuclear programs and on their missile programs, and that intensifies.
So what has changed? I think the main thing I would emphasize here, we have four major steps and a lot of other steps. The report is comprehensive; Adam did a(n) absolutely terrific job of bringing together. But what we emphasize in the op-ed this morning that Mike and I had in The Washington Post is that these steps have to be taken in parallel. This is not sequential. We can’t wait until the sanctions completely work and then basically go to talks. We’ve got to try to get talks going now.
We’ve got to increase the benefits to North Korea if they basically sit down and talk, and in a sincere way move towards getting rid of their nuclear weapons, stopping their missiles tests, and so forth. We’ve to also talk to China in a very frank way. It’s in China’s interest and in our interest. We need to take into account China’s interest, because China has got to be a part of this. Without China, it’s going to be very difficult to solve this peacefully.
The third point I would make is we’ve got to enforce the U.N. Resolution 2270, which is a powerful new resolution. The Obama administration should get credit for pushing this and getting it through the U.N. Security Council. It should be noted that China and Russia both voted for it. And it gives the mandate, not just the right, of all nations to inspect cargo coming in and out—ports, airports, ships, so forth. That’s an enormously important tool if it’s implemented. China’s got to be part of that. But we are recommending that we have a multinational effort led by the United States to equip our allies and friends throughout the region to do their part to enforce the U.N. resolution. That could make a big difference.
And the fourth thing I would point out is the need to increase deterrence and defense while we’re doing all of this other. Mike can speak to that, but there are a number of steps that we are recommending here that our Defense Department undertake with South Korea and with Japan.
So all of these things have to move together. It’s not one or the other; it’s all.
WOODRUFF: Adam Mount, as the project director, let me—let me go right to one of the specifics, and that is that what you’ve recommended, along with the—with the sanctions that the senator has outlined, is in effect a lower set of conditions, in that North Korea would no longer have to completely freeze its nuclear program before the United States would be willing to sit down and talk about the future. Why was the task force recommending this?
MOUNT: The task force does have a recommendation on negotiations. It’s recommendation number two. And the reason is that a long-term solution to the North Korea problem will require a negotiated solution. Unfortunately, there’s no way around that. The only way to denuclearization is through—to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is through talks. So negotiations played a critical part of us. All of the other recommendations aim to coerce North Korea back to talks.
And so the structure of talks is important. On the one hand, the task force believed very strongly that the United States should clarify its negotiating position and offer real incentives to North Korea to reengage in talks, to come back to the table, and to seek a lasting solution to the Korea—to their nuclear problem. We believe that a freeze on the North Korean nuclear program—and we outlined several steps in the report that are required for a verified freeze to be in place—should be on the first item of the agenda for talks. But on the other hand, we do believe that there are other issues that we can include in talks that are beneficial to all parties, including China and all of the six parties that were engaged in talks. This involves regional arms control and eventually discussions on how to end the Korean War, a peace agreement that will finally end the war. So all of these pieces should be part of negotiations.
But what’s important to recognize is that the United States and its allies will never accept a nuclear North Korea, and it shouldn’t; and that, at each step of the way, North Korea does have to demonstrate that they are taking steps on denuclearization.
WOODRUFF: Admiral Mullen, is there—you’ve all stressed the fact that this all has to happen in tandem, theoretically, that it’s all got to be moving forward at the same time. But what’s the—what has to happen first for this to work?
MULLEN: Well, I think, in addition to sort of the simultaneity of all the steps, we also tried to lay out what we thought was, you know, a sequence of events. And in particular, it’s been mentioned that it’s really important for the U.S. and China to take the lead to solve this crisis.
In my own personal experience historically involved in previous crises on the peninsula, China has basically said that they have limits on what they can do, what they can actually get done in North Korea—how much they can control the leadership there, et cetera. And we just think it’s an imperative that they actually lead in this to open the door for a peaceful solution. So that’s—to me, that’s a relatively early test of at least the strategy that we talk about, that it’s got to go through China and it’s got to go through China as quickly as possible.
While all these other things are occurring—and specifically, Sam talked a little bit about the deterrence piece—strengthening the trilateral relationship between the U.S., the South Koreans and the Japanese, getting to a point—and of the things the report calls for is to look at the possibility an attack on one is an attack on all. That’s much easier said than done. These are relationships that have also had their ups and downs. They’re both incredibly important allies to the United States. Strengthening that, looking at conventional capabilities—whether it be anti-submarine warfare or cyber or special operations, strengthening that relationship between the three countries as well.
But in addition, a very strong recommendation to deploy this THAAD, Theater—this missile-defense system, which the United States and South Korea have agreed to, as rapidly as possible to get to a point that, should the North get to a point where they are actually about to cross the threshold, being able to target—being able to nuclearize—miniaturize and nuclearize a warhead that they could hit with the United States with, we can’t let them get to that point. So that any capability—any missile capability which support that, we could actually shoot that down with systems like this, THAAD being one, to prevent that capability from becoming real. And really in the sense that that’s a self-defense capability as opposed to something that would be an attack capability.
WOODRUFF: Well, sticking with China, Senator Nunn, what’s the incentive for the Chinese to be cooperative, to want to make this work, when, you know, we haven’t seen that from them up until now? I mean, it’s—you know, they’ve made it clear they’re not interested in seeing a unified Korea, which is part of the long-range wish of the United States—it’s certainly what you talk about here—and, frankly, with the missile-defense system, which is something the Chinese can’t find attractive. What makes you think the Chinese are ready to jump onboard and do something that’s helpful now?
NUNN: First of all, we’re not—we make it very clear we’re not advocating that the United States or our allies try to induce the collapse of North Korea. In my own personal view, if North Korea does collapse at some point in the future, it’ll be because of the internal problems: the abuse of their own citizens, the human rights problem, the economic mismanagement. That’s the North Koreans’ problem. And the path out of that for North Korea and its citizens is a path of cooperation.
But in terms of China, first of all, China’s interest in the region is huge, and stability of the Korean Peninsula for China is very, very important. And China, I think, does realize, but we make it clear in our report they have to realize what Mike just said: the United States and our allies cannot afford to see this threat continue to grow, particularly against the United States. China has to know that, as well as our allies Japan and South Korea.
The third thing is we’re making it very clear that we ought to have a new-type dialogue with China, and of course China has to be willing to do it. We’re not absolutely sure they will. But we have to talk about what’s in China’s interest, what is in their national security interest, what are they worried about on their borders. How can we talk to them informally about the refugee problem that might occur if there is a collapse of North Korea, whether it’s by any kind of military action they take—North Koreans take—or whether it’s internal? The Chinese have got to be worried about that. Border control, they’ve got to be worried about border control. Their investment in North Korea, they’ve got to be worried about that.
So I think we need to sit down with China and have that kind of frank dialogue about all these issues. They have to take into account our interests and we have to take into account their interests. But the bottom line is, we have to have cooperation. And China has to recognize that, as their leader said, he does not intend to have chaos and war on the Korean Peninsula. It’s going to take all of us working toward that goal. That’s the right goal, but it’s going to take cooperation.
So all of that is, in my view, fundamentally in China’s interest. It’s going to take a new conversation, though.
WOODRUFF: Adam, what would you add to that? I mean, what is—what is it that makes the members of the task force believe that China will find it in its interest to work with the United States on this?
MOUNT: In some ways, this is the very heart of the report. And this is something that I commend Senator Nunn for bringing to our attention and pushing us on it each step of the way.
Each of the recommendations not only sharpens the choice for North Korea, but also provides incentives for China to transition how it thinks about North Korea—to move from seeing it as a buffer against U.S. power in the region to seeing it as a major problem for security and stability in the region. So each one of these steps demonstrates—and the United States administration should be very clear about this—that until the North Korea problem is resolved, the U.S.-China relationship, which is one of the most important in the world, cannot progress. It will restrain the relationship. It will cause tension and strain. And also, each one of these steps demonstrates that the steps that we have to take necessarily, the United States and its allies, to secure themselves against North Korea, will strain China’s interests in the region. So all of them are meant to convey and meant to help encourage China to transition how it sees North Korea, and really to get on the right side of this issue. Because without a resolution of the North Korea problem, as we say very prominently, a stable, prosperous Northeast Asia is unlikely to emerge.
WOODRUFF: Admiral Mullen, in that connection and in other connections, the report includes a mention of revising the number of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, clearly a very sensitive subject. Under what circumstances could that happen, could that number come down?
MULLEN: We really tried to address that issue—and all of us know how sensitive that is—in terms of a tremendous amount of progress in stabilizing the region, denuclearizing the peninsula, and virtually eliminating the threat, so that at some point in time—an aspirational point in time down the road—that the possibility at looking at whether those forces would remain where they—at that level would be part of the discussion.
And that gets back to what Senator Nunn was talking about, which is we really tried to look at how do you incentivize all the parties here. Another way I try to look at somebody like China is, how do you see this problem set from their perspective, not just our perspective? And oftentimes we try to generate solutions just from our perspective, and that’s just not going to work. So, recognizing the sensitivity with troop levels, we tried to characterize in the report—characterize it that way. That’s certainly a long way off, but down the road that is something we should address.
NUNN: Judy, let me echo and say amen to exactly what Mike said.
I’ll add one other feature. We make it clear in the report that that troop discussion, the disposition of American forces, would be something the United States and South Korea and Japan would discuss and agree on together as we put it forward on the table. So this is not simply the United States; this is also the South Koreans and the Japanese were looking at that.
WOODRUFF: Well, in the—in the category of—and if you look at this as, among other things, carrots and sticks, one of the sticks is, Senator Nunn, recommending a role for the United Nations, and moving to suspend North Korea’s credentials at the U.N. if it doesn’t demonstrate real progress on human rights. Why do you think this would be effective?
NUNN: Well, I’m going to do something unusual. I’m going to call on our military man here to talk about human rights, because he feels very keenly about this. And Mary Beth Long played a huge role in this—I think she’s here somewhere—and Mike played a huge role in this. So let me kick that question to Mike.
MULLEN: Well, I just—I mean, my—and Roberta Cohen is here, who also had a huge impact on this aspect of it.
I, for too long, have been involved in executing policy where the discussion about human rights was put in the back row, if you will. Yes, we need to represent that. It is a value for our country. And so one of the things that I felt very strongly about in this report is just we weren’t going to do this, and we weren’t going to do it in any way, shape, or form. So the contributions of those who’ve spent their life doing this and understanding—and in particular Roberta, who’s got particular expertise in North Korea—they’re hugely important. And I just don’t think as a country the United States can try to resolve the military aspect of this without directly approaching it and tying progress to human rights in North Korea because he is so appalling, and because the stuff that he has, and his regime, and his predecessors—his dad and his granddad—had done were just—it’s unconscionable. And I—we couldn’t look in our good conscience at this issue without not making it a major part of the report and recommendation, to include the recommendation to take away the credentials from this country if they don’t make progress.
And that’s—it’s a pretty simple statement, but it’s a very, very controversial both recommendation and execution. And to the degree that North Korea is incentivized—again, and at least we’ve seen them sometimes react to the international perspective, not always. But to the degree that that might create some kind of leverage and impact in human rights, that’s why we—that’s why we recommended what we did.
WOODRUFF: Wouldn’t that serve, though, to further isolate the North Koreans, which has been part of the problem here?
NUNN: Well, of course, the hope is that they will begin to talk about human rights. The hope is they will sit down and have a discussion. The hope is they will begin to work with the United Nations on human rights. That’s the hope. So this business of going to the U.N. and credentials is if nothing else works, and if they don’t come in good faith, and if we don’t make progress. So the report makes that clear.
We hope they’ll make progress. But if they don’t, I think at some point the family of nations, the U.N., should take action. Suspension is not the same thing as termination of membership. There’s suspension of certain rights. But it is a very strong and powerful step. And, strangely enough, the North Koreans have indicated they have some sensitivity to some of these possible outcomes by the family of nations.
MULLEN: If I could just add, I mean, this is—and Judy, you asked this question before we came out here, is how is our intelligence with respect to North Korea. All of this is done against a backdrop about how—of how little we understand about North Korea in general and the personalities, and certainly this new young leader specifically. And it has been—we’re smarter than we used to be. We know more than we used to. But there’s still a lot we don’t know. So we can speak to this—and what Sam said, I think, is right; it is in hope, because we just—we don’t know how either he or the leadership in North Korea is going to react to these kind of recommendations or possibilities.
That said, without the reaction that we sort of would hope for, the recommendations really focus on increasing the pressure in the human rights area and in—clearly in the nuclear area to try to generate a much better outcome for the region.
NUNN: One other point that Adam made is that we believe that talks are essential here. You don’t know what the North Koreans are going to do until you sit down and talk to them, and sometimes even then you don’t know what they’re going to do. But you’ve got to have communications. And we make it clear—and this is also the administration’s position, and I wasn’t aware of that when we started this effort—but we make it clear that informal discussions between the United States and North Korea can take place right now. We make it clear there are no preconditions to that kind of informal. Now, when you get to the more formal talks, we do think all parties ought to sign up to the 2005 agreement, and there are a couple of conditions—not preconditions. But getting talks going is important.
When Jimmy Carter went to North Korea many years ago, I happened to read the remarkable diary he wrote about his conversation with the grandfather, Kim Il-sung. And some of the things that were discussed there were amazing in terms of the vision that Carter set forth, which in many respects was agreed to.
Now, it didn’t happen. You got to be skeptical. You got to have verification all the way through this. But nevertheless, you don’t know what’s on other people’s minds if you never communicate with them. You’ve got to have talks.
WOODRUFF: But informal. I mean, I think there’s—there is a lack—a little bit of a lack of clarity on what’s—you know, what is the policy now? Is it that informal talks could proceed without any conditions? Or, I mean, it’s been my understanding that North Korea had to agree to freeze its nuclear program before there could be talks. This represents a change from that.
MOUNT: This represents an adjustment from that. But we agree that U.S. policy has not been clear enough on this front. And so, when the next administration takes office, they should do a top-to-bottom review of U.S. policy towards North Korea. That should include preconditions for negotiations. And they should be very clear with the North Koreans, and with the Chinese and other members of the six-party talks, precisely what we expect of them, what we’re prepared to offer, and what we expect to get out of these talks.
NUNN: I want to just say one word about we can’t take a long time to get this going. The clock is not on our side now because of the developments in the North Korean program. They are moving out very strongly with their missile and nuclear program. I would urge my colleagues in the United States Senate, whoever’s elected president, to put on the front burner the confirmation of the people that have got to deal with this problem, and to get discussions going in the administration and with China and with, hopefully, North Korea, and certainly with our allies Japan and South Korea, at the very beginning of the next administration. That needs to be on the front burner.
WOODRUFF: Before I turn to the—to the members for a question, is it clear right now what the response would be if the North were to take further—we’ve seen test after test, but if there were to be a provocative action on the part of the North that the U.S./Japan/South Korea deemed threatening—and I realize it has to do with what direction the missile goes—but is it clear what the U.S. response would be? Would there be a military response? What would it take for there to be a military response? Admiral Mullen?
MULLEN: Senator? Sorry. (Laughter.)
Well, I’m right in the speculation world, which I don’t really like to do. We spent a lot of time on this, and we certainly have capability to respond. But it covers a vast array of potential options. And so it would really depend on what he did. Literally attacking in South Korea or attacking Japan, hitting them with—you know, with some kind of missile system, would I think rapidly destabilize the area. And it’s hard for me to believe—and it’s—you know, part of this is I’m no longer involved, so—but it’s hard for me to believe that there wouldn’t be some kind of pretty severe response. We’ve worked with our allies in the region with respect to that for a—you know, for a long time now. And, back to what I said earlier about, well, we don’t know about the guy, you just don’t know what he’s going to do. You don’t know what drives him. So the likelihood that something like that could happen is certainly out there.
WOODRUFF: Well, we are in the realm of speculation, but do I understand you to say there wouldn’t be a preemptive move? It would—it would be—
MULLEN: No, I actually wouldn’t—I wouldn’t say that at all. I would think that, again, in the array of options, that’s certainly one that’s there.
WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going to now turn to the membership for questions. I’m told to remind you it is on the record. We would ask that you wait for a microphone. There are a couple out there. They’re going to bring it to you. Speak directly into the mic, stand up, tell us your name, your affiliation. Limit yourself to one question.
And let’s just start right over here, this gentleman. Yeah.
WOODRUFF: If you could stand up.
WOODRUFF: David Hamburg, hello. You don’t have to stand up, it’s all right. It’s fine. (Laughter.) We know who you are.
Q: I could stand up.
My memory on this may be hazy, but I was on Bill Perry’s Defense Policy Board at the time of one of the earliest crises. And the old man—the grandfather, I guess you could say; Kim Il-sung, I believe it was—somehow or other, at the time, as the Cold War was ending, made it possible for some of their records to be made available to us. And one of the things that was a surprise to those of us who saw those records was that it took about a year for him to persuade the Russian and Chinese leaders to get into this. They were very much afraid of the American response, and they didn’t want to go to war with America again. So their records showed us. And that was—that was certainly an opening.
Now, I should back up and say—well, it was my opinion then that we simply had to send a person of great stature, like Senator Nunn or Admiral Mullen, over there. You have to keep in mind face—you know, maintaining face, stature. We’re important in the world. So if you’re going to send somebody, don’t send an assistant secretary, however able he may be. Send somebody that has the ability, but also the recognition and stature in the world.
So it happened that I knew at the time two people who had been asked by him to come over if they wished. One was the secretary-general of the U.N.—the Egyptian, now passed away—and the other was President Carter. And my suggestion was, knowing presidents as I did, I thought none of them would like to have that done; you don’t want to be undercut by somebody who seems to have more knowledge of the subject than you do. If there’s anybody who’s going to do it, you’ll do it. Well, they weren’t going to—that wasn’t the way it was going to work, and it doesn’t usually work that way very often.
So I said, why not say—I said to Perry, who said to Carter—or, rather, to Clinton, I guess it was—why not just say we are not inviting anybody to go, but nor will we stand in the way? If there’s somebody of sufficient stature, we will step aside and let him come.
WOODRUFF: So your point is that someone of a high standing needs to be—needs to make that—
Q: And Carter did go, and Carter got an agreement.
WOODRUFF: OK. Well, let’s ask—what about that? I mean, how high does the representative of the United States need to be who’s involved in these negotiations? Does it need to be the president himself? Can it be—
NUNN: Well, I think it has to be up to the president to decide that. Any suggestion David Hamburg makes based on his experience and his tremendous contribution to humanity I would take seriously. I would hope the president, whoever the president is, would take that one seriously. But I think that’s a presidential call.
MULLEN: I’d just add, and we alluded to this, that this regime has a pretty robust history, and the report kind of lays out this cycle that we’ve all been in for many, many years—decades now. But there certainly is meant to present in the report a sense of urgency and a very specific statement that the next president, whoever he or she may be, is going to get tested very early with this capability. And part of the idea of this was to propose at least a framework that might be used as a new administration takes over. We’re not the only ones in town doing that, by the way.
WOODRUFF: All right. No hands on this side of the room, so I’m going to go to the gentleman there and then we’ll come forward.
Q: Stanley Roth, unaffiliated but formerly one of the humble assistant secretaries of state just referenced. (Laughter.) But I happen to agree about the utility of higher-level representatives if there’s a message.
I ask my question from the disadvantage of not having read the report yet, which I’ll remedy tonight. But does the report address Kim Jong-un’s concept of deterrence and whether he gets it? Thinking specifically of a scenario that’s very worrisome in South Korea when you go and talk to them about him using his nuclear umbrella now, what he feels his deterrent, to feel he can take conventional action with impunity. And this has led to debate about whether there should be either a South Korean nuclear weapon or reintroduction of U.S. nuclear weapons. Do you address that in the report?
MOUNT: I’d say that this is the core of recommendation five, which is the deterrence and defense suggestion. As North Korean nuclear capabilities and missile capabilities develop, he may believe, mistakenly, that he is able to aggress at sub-conventional and conventional levels, and cover that with his nuclear arms—a nuclear blackmail scenario. Our recommendations are explicitly designed to dissuade him of that false impression.
We propose, as Admiral Mullen mentioned, new abilities in anti-submarine warfare, counter special operations forces activities. The mantra of the 28,500 men and women of U.S. Forces Command—U.S. Forces Korea and the Combined Forces Command with the ROK is that they need to be ready to fight tonight, and that’s absolutely true. And that might require, we say in the report, not only defensive action, but also proactive action. It may also require strikes into Korea itself if we are aggressed against with a sufficient magnitude. That may be required to dissuade him of this notion.
But it’s important to recognize that we do not enjoy a condition of mutual assured destruction with Kim Jong-un, and we will not consent to that arrangement.
WOODRUFF: All right. We have a question from New York. Would you stand up, and tell us your name and affiliation?
Q: Herbert Levin, America-China Society.
When the United States has been confronted with this kind of thing in the past, we negotiated our way out of it. First of all, we were free to negotiate very early on when faced with it, which has not been the case here because of opposition within administrations and with the Congress. We went after—sounds funny now—but serious threats in Argentina and Brazil, and we talked them out of it, the Treaty of Tlatelolco. We managed to get the South Africans to stop. We then had Israel, India, Pakistan, Iran. And in every case, negotiations achieved a lessening of the threat.
Now, when it comes to North Korea, we have tried, as the senator knows, to do some serious negotiations. Negotiations have failed most of the time because the North Koreans failed to fulfill. At least twice it failed because we did not fulfill. So this is a negotiating situation.
In the negotiating situation, what are our minimum criteria? Well, it’s not come out with your hands up and agree to get rid of your nuclear weapons manufacturing capability. That’s not an initial negotiating stipulation. You have to start with no advance criteria, and then you have to look at what it is the North Koreans are after. They’re paranoid. Remember, we invaded North Korea when we were defending South Korea. They’re paranoid. We can get rid of these absurd military exercises, which obviously threaten them, these conventional exercises.
WOODRUFF: Did you have a question you wanted to tack on to that?
Q: Yes. We can start—we can start by recognizing them as a country, offering to send an ambassador in there, maybe Mr. Trump after the election, and get started dealing with them as a serious country, not simply as the threat. Thank you.
WOODRUFF: You want to comment on that?
NUNN: Well, we make it clear that negotiation with North Korea is one of our top goals. I’ve said this morning that communication is enormously important. And we also made it clear in the report that we recommend that we have informal discussions with them. We do believe that you can’t sit down and negotiate with them while they’re continuing to test nuclear weapons and missiles. I mean, that—we have to have a freeze at some point. That ought to be the aim of the negotiation. But we can sit down and start talking to them if they basically make it clear they’ll sign up in principle, like all the other parties will have to, to the 2005 Framework, which they agreed to once. And then we can discuss all of these things. And we make it clear in the report that we’re willing to talk about force dispositions. I’ve said that this morning. We’re willing to talk about also exercises. That’s in the report. We’re willing to talk about conventional arms control, at least that’s the recommendation of the report.
I think we all have to remember that the North Koreans have a huge threat against our ally, South Korea and the city of Seoul before they ever had a nuclear program. There’s a severe threat on the conventional side. So all of those things can be put on the table, and should be put on the table. But you have to get to the table first. And you have to get to the table with some hope of achieving a freeze on some of these very dangerous developments.
WOODRUFF: All right. We have a question over here. The gentleman standing—sitting there in the—
Q: Good morning, CFR. Thanks for the invitation. J.J. Green, national security correspondent WTOP radio.
There are those who think North Korea already has achieved miniaturization of a weapon. And we see they continue to test delivery systems. And while the concern about the possibility of a deployment of a nuclear weapon on top of a missile at some point is a great concern, I wonder what your thoughts are about the test phase, which is if they do have a miniaturized weapon, when they get to the point where they start testing, because that’s a huge risk. Anything could go wrong, as with something that they’ve already tested and deployed later. But that’s a lot closer to use now than them perfecting something and launching it later. So I wonder what the panel thinks about where we are now in the process and what your thoughts would be on preparing for the possibility and perhaps some idea on what to do.
WOODRUFF: Thank you.
MULLEN: Thanks, J.J. Actually, I’ve looked at North Korea as almost not having a test phase, in terms of the way they have developed their systems typically is basically operational. And they’re very content with putting a system out there, firing it and having it fail, but learning each time. And you can see, just as we’ve observed, the progress that they’ve made. And I would agree, although I don’t know, that certainly they’re making progress with respect to miniaturization. The submarine launches recently are indicative of progress there as well.
All of that is what greatly motivated the task force to focus on the urgency with which this is required to be addressed, and the likelihood in the very near future that he’s going to have this capability. And he won’t go through a test phase. From my perspective, I would treat it all as operational right now, and be able to address it from a threat perspective as he—as he continues to go through these, quote, unquote, “tests,” because they can be—they are and they can be very, very threatening.
WOODRUFF: OK. Front row? Yes, right here.
Q: I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.
I’m a social science—I’m an anthropologist by training, so I look at this from a human standpoint. And one of the changes that I’ve observed—I came to the Pentagon 40 years ago, when the Admiral was, I think, a lieutenant. (Laughter.) I met him at the Naval Academy. He was my guy.
MULLEN: Yes, Mitzi. Come on, ask the question. (Laughter.) Don’t go through our history.
Q: What I’m struck by is a slow change of language in the Defense Department, where both the vice president and the secretary of defense last spring used the word “relationships.” And I think this whole question of trying to build relationships—rather than going in and saying, well, we’ve got all this strength, how are you going to deal with it—it’s a real shift, if we’re going to move into recognizing how important relationships are. And the question I would have is, how do you start putting that in military education so that you don’t have this sense that if you’re in the military you fight and if you’re in the State Department you try to work it out?
WOODRUFF: Sounds like a good question to me. Admiral Mullen?
MULLEN: You think that’s a good question? (Laughter.)
WOODRUFF: She knew you were when you were a lieutenant. (Laughs.)
MULLEN: Actually, I would say, certainly from my perspective, what I’ve observed—and again, I’m a few years removed now—but in my time, particularly as a senior officer, there were an extraordinary number of people in the military, in the Pentagon, working on the relationship aspect of this. The strong preference from the military is we would rather not fight. We certainly can, but that’s—you know, our preference would be to have a peaceful outcome, to be led by astute policy and doctrine, and even astute politics, so that we don’t get to a point where we have to use the weapons.
And I think the military in the last—certainly in the last several decades has moved to an understanding of the criticality of relationships. Not that it’s moved away from the ability to fight, but the importance of having that, Mitzi. So we’re in a much different place than we were a few years ago. And this is a great example. I believe the most important relationship in the 21st century is the one between U.S. and China, driven principally by the fact that they’re the two biggest economies in the world. We’re going to have to figure out how to make this work. And if this region destabilizes, our economies go back very, very quickly. It’s got four of the five largest economies in the world in this region. That’s compelling motivation to try to get this right.
And so part of this is our relationship with China, which is enormously complex. You can’t just pull one piece out and say: Do this. That’s why I think what Senator Nunn said earlier is so important. We need to understand this from the Chinese perspective. What are their priorities? What are their incentives? What are they worried about, in addition to what we historically have thought they were worried about, as the world continues to evolve? That said, we cannot get to a point where this young leader puts a nuclear weapon on top of a missile and puts the United States and our people under its threat envelope. That is a line in the sand that cannot be crossed.
WOODRUFF: Next question? We invite task force members to join in the questions, comments if you want. Let’s go to the back of the room, there’s a hand—
NUNN: Judy, could I add one thing to that other point that was just made? Mike Mullen has said over and over again that the most important security challenge America faces is our economy and our fiscal problem. I mean, that is a military leader saying that. Bob Gates said at least on two occasion that he would take money out of the Defense budget to beef up the State Department if he had the ability to do it. So I don’t think the type of the military wanting to fight and the State Department wanting to make a deal, I don’t think that plays—I don’t think that’s correct on either count. But that is common perception. And I think it’s wrong.
WOODRUFF: All right. Question in the back of the room. There was a hand over here? Yeah. Please stand up so we can see you and give us your name.
Q: Rachel Oswald, reporter with Congressional Quarterly.
Mr. Mullen, when you talk about a potential preemptive military strike, would that be envisioned as strikes on North Korea’s launch sites, recognizing that it is now developing mobile missiles, or would these be—these be tests that you alluded to—or, strikes that you alluded to earlier to destroy missiles launched in the sky? And if that’s the case, are you talking about developing new types of missile defense capabilities beyond THAAD?
MULLEN: We address this from a standpoint, actually—and I’m not overly fond of the word “preemptive,” really from a self-defense perspective. Meaning, if we believe that they’re very close to developing this capability, which can threaten us, it will—it is important for us to develop the capability to defend ourselves, which could theoretically take out launch capabilities on the launch pad or take them out once they’re launched.
Certainly THAAD is a part of that, the missile defense capabilities that actually we have deployed in the region on our U.S. Navy ships are a part of that, as well as the Japanese Self-Defense Force, Maritime Self-Defense Force. And so we also urge the continuing evolution of those regional self-defense, if you will, capabilities to neutralize that. But it is to prevent that threat from actually being effective, either before it’s launched or after it's launched. And we’re very clear in the report, that certainly—and Adam said this earlier—could include, you know, attacks in North Korea.
WOODRUFF: OK. There’s a hand right here at the second table. Yes, sir.
Q: Hi. Gilbert Rozman from the Asan Forum.
My question is there hasn’t been a single word mentioned about Russia, and there’s been no mention of China, with its weak implementation of the March 2nd U.N. agreement. If Russia and China are not amenable to these actions, what besides defense and deterrence is intended to make it clear to them that the U.S. takes this situation very seriously? Are there further steps expected?
WOODRUFF: Senator Nunn or Adam, do you want—
NUNN: Well, the U.N.—the U.N. resolution we have alluded to, and it is one of the pillars of our report in terms of enforcing it strictly, was voted on and for by Russia and China. We mention Russia throughout the report. Russia’s part of the five-party talks that we recommend. Russia would be part of the six-party talks, if North Korea joins. We have made it clear that Russia has to be part of this, and it is clear that that was the feeling of the panel. I don’t think anybody has any question about that.
MOUNT: Let me also say a word on U.S. sanctions policy. It’s often said that U.S. sanctions policy ought to be integrated into the broader levers of American power, that it ought to be reflective of a broader strategy. Sanctions alone are not sufficient to solve this problem. And so I’d commend to you Juan Zarate’s contribution to the task force on sanctions, which was very clear that enforcement of 2270 strictly, which China has signed on to, should be a priority, and we hope that China will join with us in that. But if they don’t, a standing regional mechanism that can enforce these—what we are obliged to do under U.N. obligations is important.
But there are also other pillars to U.S. sanctions policy. So, for example, this is an area where U.S. and Chinese interests overlap: in shutting down North Korea’s illicit networks of illegal and destabilizing activity that happens in China, that happens in Southeast Asia, that happens to confront our allies in the region. These are areas where we should devote considerable attention to try to get China on the right side of this.
And then, lastly, if—and after these two steps we need to be prepared to enforce or exert—put in place new U.S. unilateral sanctions; hopefully in concert with our allies, but if necessary these are steps that the United States should take. It’s often said that the DPRK does not face as strict sanctions as Iran did, and that’s not acceptable. They really—we really do need to be able to ratchet up pressure on North Korea in order to coerce them back to negotiations.
MULLEN: The other thing I’d add just quickly is if you have been involved in sanctions, you know how hard it is. And if you haven’t, it may seem like it is just simple. I mean, Juan is a great example. The whole financial sanction world, which we thought we knew something about in 2006 and (200)7—and we’re at—we’re at a level now that we couldn’t even have imagined back then. The same is true with these—with the 2270 sanctions. These are enormously complex.
There are countries in the world addressed in the report who are ignoring those sanctions. But the physical aspect that sanctioning and keeping this material out of or it from flowing out of a country like North Korea, particularly on the Chinese border, where China has not been as active as we would like them to be in enforcement of these sanctions, even though they signed up for them when the U.N. voted on them.
WOODRUFF: Right. Back against the wall. The gentleman’s had his hand up for a while. Right there. Yes, thank you.
Q: Yes. I’m Jonathan Pollack from Brookings.
My query is more in the context—and this is not to fault the Council, but by my count this is either the fourth or the fifth study group that the Council has undertaken related to North Korea over a number of years. Obviously, this is a problem that eludes easy solution. But my query is this, and I want you to connect the dots if you can. It’s already been alluded to the fact that, you know, the goal is not a change of regime. And yet, when I think about what in essence the study group is urging North Korea to do, the only way I can conceive of this is either the end of the regime as we know it or, alternatively, a transformation in the internal structure of the regime and leadership of the regime that is almost unimaginable in the context of a dynasty now of 70 years’ standing. So is it appropriate, therefore, to pose the issue of whether or not by design in the report, but that the ultimate outcome here would presume the end of North Korea as we know it?
MOUNT: Thank you for that question. I just mentioned that when I—when I was asked to start this project, the first book that I picked up was Dr. Pollack’s “No Exit,” which is magisterial.
You also mentioned that there have been previous task force reports, many of which have done some serious work. But I want to reemphasize the flexibility, and the consideration, and dedication of our task force group. They were remarkably engaged, remarkably unified in the need for a progressive and serious report, and so we think this is an important case study for how U.S. policy on North Korea ought to be made.
With respect to regime change, the position of the report is that we do not now take steps that intentionally cause the collapse of the regime, which is most likely to incur for—which is most likely to occur for internal reasons. That having been said, if this new ultimatum—if this new proposal is insufficient—if they continue to defy their U.N. obligations, if they don’t make progress on these steps—the next presidential administration is going to have to take a serious look at that. We’re going to have to take a new look at policy review. And that includes questions that do undermine the viability of the regime because, as Mike said, it’s not permissible to allow a North Korean regime to exist that can threaten the continental United States with ballistic nuclear missiles.
WOODRUFF: Well, that necessarily would entail military force, wouldn’t it, what you’re saying?
MOUNT: So there’s—that’s part of the toolkit, but there is also, for example, persistent concern that new sanctions could undermine the economic viability of the regime and lead to collapse.
Now, one thing that we mentioned in the report is that the North Korean economy is diversifying. There are—there is marketization cropping up in various areas, both licit and illicit markets that are increasing the resiliency of the regime to sanctions pressure and forcing them to have—or and allowing them new ways to circumvent the sanctions regime. And so I think it’s important to recognize that, as the regime has adapted, the sanctions regime has to adapt as well. And that will involve new pressure, and new attention, and new relationships.
WOODRUFF: Question on the front row. Yes.
NUNN: Could I add one more thing?
NUNN: Getting to the point of the implication of the question of having to use military force and regime change and that sort of thing, it’s very clear in the report that we are—that’s the last, last resort. But, as Mike said, we’re not going to sit here and see a threat develop against the United States that puts our own people in danger and puts our allies in danger. That’s the last resort.
But if that happens, if we get to that point, this strategy has failed. It fits under Churchill’s definition. But the China strategy has failed, too, and it goes against exactly what the leader of China said he was not going to permit to happen. It goes against the interest of South Korea, so their policy would have failed. It goes against the interest of Japan, so their policy would have failed. And for goodness’ sakes, a war is going to be devastating for North Korea, so that would have failed. So I don’t think this one ought to become the front-burner option. This is the last resort. This is a devastating thing with huge number of lives lost, and we all have to understand that. And we all have to understand the risk, but North Korea’s got to understand the biggest risk is to North Korea.
MULLEN: They only other thing I’d add to that is—and maybe it’s a modern phenomena, because throughout history, certainly, regimes have changed—but regime change lately hasn’t been working that well. (Laughter.) So I’m a little sensitive—I think we’re a little sensitive to, quote/unquote, “advocating” for that, even though there certainly—and it’s in the report—some discussion about what could be—what from just a common-sense standpoint would logically get you to a point where you’d have a transformation in that regime.
As we’re trying to figure out what this regime represents, he has executed more people, he has conducted more missile and weapons tests in five years than his father did in 18. You don’t know what’s going on in his head, but the actions certainly start to paint a strategy that’s pretty destructive to the region and potentially to his own regime from our perspective; maybe not from his.
WOODRUFF: Right. Last—oh, and go ahead.
MOUNT: Excuse me. And then, lastly, I’d commend to you some of the additional views in the back of the report, which we do feel strengthens the report. And so, for example, General Skip Sharp, Mary Beth Long, and Nick Eberstadt do discuss that consideration in depth, and I’d encourage you to take a look at those.
WOODRUFF: Last question, front row. Yes, right here.
Q: Hi. Thank you. Oriana Skylar Mastro. I work on China, DPRK, nuclear issues this year here as the Stanton Nuclear Security fellow.
And even though I’m a China expert, I actually have a question on talks. It seems like from the discussion there that there was maybe a consensus in the discussions that an increased pressure would lead the DPRK back to the negotiating table. I just spent an embarrassingly large proportion of my adult life working on a dissertation and a book on this precise question of how to get enemies to talk to each other during conflicts. And the bottom line is that the United States seems to think that escalating will get the other side to the table, but in fact this undermines efforts because the other side is worried about giving in under the guise of coercion. It makes them look weak and they’re worried about encouraging further coercion in the future—a standard compellence problem.
So my question is, given that there seems to be consensus, I’m just curious to know in the discussions were there any voices that talked about, perhaps, how the increased pressure could reduce the probability that North Korea would be willing to talk to the United States, or was there a general consensus that this strategy would work? Thank you.
WOODRUFF: Thank you. Easy last question. (Laughs.)
MOUNT: It’s a tough last question.
MULLEN: I mean, I think there was a general consensus that this approach would work in a very, very difficult problem that’s enormously complex. So we’ve had members of this task force who have negotiated in the Clinton administration, negotiated this issue in the Bush administration, negotiated it in the Obama administration. And it just speaks to the difficulty. What is changing is the technological development, if you will, of the system which how very directly is coming into the horizon of threatening U.S. citizens and U.S.—you know, literally U.S.—the continental United States. And we just cannot see ourselves seeing to accepting that in any way, shape or form. And maybe that changes the view of how this should be negotiated in the future.
WOODRUFF: With that, let’s take Admiral Mike Mullen, Senator Sam Nunn, Adam Mount, the project director, the task force members and observers. (Applause.) And I want to thank New York for moderating the questions from New York. Thank you all. Good morning.
This is an uncorrected transcript.