RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Fire and fury like the world has never seen - that's what President Trump warned would hit North Korea if that country continues to threaten the U.S. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un responded with another threat. The intense back-and-forth follows this report in The Washington Post yesterday that says North Korea is far closer to becoming a nuclear power than was previously believed.
Robert Litwak was director of nonproliferation at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. Now he runs the International Security Studies Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.
ROBERT LITWAK: Thank you.
MARTIN: How do you read this rhetorical back-and-forth between Kim Jong Un and President Trump?
LITWAK: Well, Barbara Tuchman famously wrote "The Guns Of August" about the drift to war in 1914. The hyperbolic statements, rhetoric from both sides coupled with the risk of miscalculation and inadvertent military escalation are quite worrisome.
MARTIN: The administration appears to be sending a couple of different messages when it comes to North Korea. On the one hand, you have the president talking about fire and fury. But on the other hand, you have a secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, talking about the need to keep a door open for dialogue and to use military force only as a last resort. Is there some value in a good-cop-bad-cop approach to this?
LITWAK: Well, perhaps, but I think it also raises the risk of miscalculation. There have been mixed messages from both Washington and Pyongyang about the possibility of launching a diplomatic track. Yesterday's report from the Defense Intelligence Agency determined that - concluded that North Korea had mastered the technology of miniaturization of warheads. It is - it has already demonstrated a long-range ballistic missile capability.
The only component that's really left for them to demonstrate through a test is the re-entry of a warhead. That will take time, additional testing. And what I've argued in my new publication preventing North Korea's nuclear breakout is that this creates space for diplomacy - diplomacy that would focus on constraining or freezing North Korea's nuclear capability, not rolling it back to zero.
MARTIN: So what does that look like - because as you know, this effort to curb North Korea's nuclear program has been going on for decades. So what needs to happen now that hasn't happened in the past?
LITWAK: Well, I think the new - a new component is the possibility of marshaling Chinese support to put meaningful pressure on Pyongyang to accept a freeze. I mean zero is not an option. They're not going to roll back the program currently estimated at 20 warheads to zero. But 20 is better than a hundred, which is the trajectory they're on right now. And within several years, they could master the long-range capability to strike the U.S. homeland. So we're really talking about making the best of a bad situation.
The Chinese have their own interest in preventing this breakout because they would have to live with the adverse strategic consequences of it. A freeze would keep the Kim regime in power and allow them to retain a limited arsenal for a period of time. It's making the best of a bad situation. The U.S. position would be that this is an interim step towards long-term denuclearization.
MARTIN: Let me ask you. Because you worked in the Clinton administration, I mean you've got a long view on this. North Korea was a potential nuclear threat even then. In 1994, the Clinton administration signed this agreement with North Korea meant to keep that country in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It worked for a while, and then it didn't. North Korea reopened their nuclear facilities again. Where has the U.S. continued to go wrong?
LITWAK: Well, there's a complicated, contentious history here. There was a plutonium freeze that was negotiated that you alluded to in 1994. That agreement fell apart in 2002 over charges that North Korea had launched a covert uranium enrichment program, opening kind of an alternate route to acquisition of weapons-usable material. The alternative to breaking - of letting that agreement abrogate or abrogating that agreement would have been to continue the plutonium freeze and to diplomatically engage them on the - their covert uranium enrichment program. But that's history at this point.
They currently have an arsenal in the neighborhood of 20 warheads. The tempo of testing under Kim Jong Un has increased - ballistic missile tests, two nuclear weapons tests last year. There's an urgency to the program now that it didn't have in the past. In the past, it was determined and incremental, but it didn't have the current sense of urgency. This has really become Kim Jong Un's Manhattan Project.
MARTIN: But you say that's history now, and you just - the threat wasn't as bad back then. But there was a recognition that the threat could have been increased. Did the Clinton administration in particular miss a moment? Did - was there not the appropriate pressure applied on the North to stop?
LITWAK: It's - you know, by the time the Clinton administration had arrived, North Korea already had a mature nuclear program. It's scaled up since then. Rolling North Korea back to zero - no nuclear warheads - is a heavy, probably unreachable lift. The reason is that the Kim regime, whose paramount interest is regime security, views nuclear weapons as an - as integral to that objective, viewed as a deterrent, particularly after the regime takedowns in Iraq in 2003...
LITWAK: ...And Libya in 2011. So zero, as long as the Kim regime is in power, is not a reasonable, feasible diplomatic objective.
MARTIN: Let me ask you briefly. Who in the Trump administration is best equipped to pressure China right now? Is it President Trump?
LITWAK: It's hard to say. I mean I think that clarifying the mixed messages from Washington would be very helpful. And we need to engage the Chinese in a dialogue where there's a candid discussion of what the consequences of a North Korean breakout would be.
LITWAK: I mean it's not pressuring China. It's having them realize their own interest in preventing this outcome that would - could affect their interests in the region.
MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. Robert Litwak, former director on the National Security Council, thanks so much.
LITWAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.