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North Korea Expert Weighs In On Trading Of Threats With U.S.


Today President Trump doubled down on his aggressive stance toward North Korea. He said maybe his threat to rain down fire and fury on the country wasn't tough enough.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If North Korea does anything in terms of even thinking about attack of anybody that we love or we represent or our allies or us, they can be very, very nervous. I'll tell you why. And they should be very nervous because things will happen to them like they never thought possible.

CORNISH: This comes after reports that North Korea can miniaturize nuclear weapons to put them on missiles and after the North Koreans threatened to fire missiles into the waters off the U.S. territory of Guam.


Our next guest is a former State Department special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, welcome back to the program.

JOSEPH DETRANI: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You've worked on the U.S.-North Korea relationship for a long time. How does the situation right now compare to what you've seen in the past?

DETRANI: It's very tense. We've had tense periods before in 1993, 2003, but this is extremely tense. I mean, we're talking about a North Korea with nuclear weapons, a North Korea with an ICM capability that touches the whole of the United States, miniaturized nuclear weapons. And indeed, they've claimed also to have a capability of having thermonuclear weapons. So the situation is much different than 2003 and 1993...

SHAPIRO: Two other very tense times in the history of their relationship.

DETRANI: Two other very tense times. And in both instances there, the North Koreans did come to the table and it was defused. Hopefully this will be the same case.

SHAPIRO: You say hopefully. I think many people are asking themselves, how scared should I be? Do you think the threat of war is real and imminent? Or are you confident that this will get resolved as these previous standoffs did?

DETRANI: I'm guardedly confident this will be diffused. And hopefully it'll be diffused quickly. That North Korea - we are giving North Korea an off-ramp, and that off-ramp is come back to negotiations. We're not conditioning those negotiations on denuclearization. We're saying, come back to negotiations. Put your issues on the table. They have security concerns. They have a lot of other issues. But indeed, we do and our allies do when they have - when they have missiles and they're launching these missiles and they're having these nuclear tests. And they're threatening with YouTube explanations also that they will take out the cities of Seoul, Tokyo, New York City with a nuclear weapon. That's going beyond the pale.

SHAPIRO: So with all this tough rhetoric from President Trump, from Kim Jong Un, how do we get to the de-escalation that you're talking about?

DETRANI: I think the key is you have both leaders - and the president has put a marker down. The president has made it clear we are not a paper tiger. He's made it very, very clear. It's coming from the top. I think North Korea - and North Korea knows this. It goes back to the first Gulf War in 1991. Those advisers to Kim Jong Un know what we did to Saddam Hussein in 1991 with the first Gulf War when they went into Kuwait. They saw U.S. capabilities. Well, our capabilities are much greater right now. So there's no question they know what our capabilities are. And North Korea is not suicidal.

SHAPIRO: What role will China play? And what does the U.S. have to do to encourage China to play that role?

DETRANI: China is key. China continues to be key to these issues. China in 2003 brought the U.S. to the table with North Korea. And China was part of it. And that was the beginning of the establishment of the six-party talks, bringing China, North Korea, the U.S. and then South Korea, if you will, Japan and Russia into the equation. That was the beginning. And everything stopped. The escalation stopped for that period of time from 2003 to 2008 when North Korea walked away from the verification and monitoring regime.

SHAPIRO: In this instance, China did vote with the rest of the U.N. to impose sanctions. They've urged calm and diplomacy here. Now there's all of this tough talk. So how does China get involved at this point?

DETRANI: I think China, given the leverage China has over North Korea when you talk about trade, when you talk about, if you will, the crude oil that comes in from China - over 90 percent of their needs come from China. China has the leverage. And again, it goes back to a peace and friendship treaty of 1961 with North Korea to tell Kim Jong Un, come back to negotiations because it's going beyond the pale. And conflict on the Korean Peninsula is not in anyone's interest, and certainly not in China's. The spillover into China would be immense. I personally believe North Korea would listen to China and come back to talks.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Joseph DeTrani. Thank you for joining us once again.

DETRANI: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.