Former U.S. Diplomat Outlines Increasing North Korean Nuclear Threat NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Ambassador Joseph DeTrani about North Korea's nuclear program, how close the country is to launching a nuclear attack on the United States, and what can be done about it.

Former U.S. Diplomat Outlines Increasing North Korean Nuclear Threat

Former U.S. Diplomat Outlines Increasing North Korean Nuclear Threat

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NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Ambassador Joseph DeTrani about North Korea's nuclear program, how close the country is to launching a nuclear attack on the United States, and what can be done about it.


North Korea has a history of testing nuclear weapons, and now that danger may be increasing. In his New Year's address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claims the country will soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile. That could put the U.S. within range of attack. This has been a top national security concern for the Obama administration, and Donald Trump has tweeted, it won't happen.

To talk about this, I'm joined by Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, who's worked on U.S. policy towards North Korea. Welcome to the program.

JOSEPH DETRANI: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

SHAPIRO: How far do you think North Korea is from developing a nuclear weapon that could reach the U.S.?

DETRANI: I think they're very close to having an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States.

SHAPIRO: Very close meaning weeks, months, years?

DETRANI: Well, I would think in 2017. And as the - Kim Jong-un said in his New Year's presentation, 2017 is a likely year that they will test launch an ICBM.

SHAPIRO: Is that based on actual knowledge or guesswork? How do we know what we know about North Korea?

DETRANI: Well, I mean we spend a lot of time looking at North Korea's nuclear capabilities but also the missile capabilities and how far they've gone. And they've been spending a lot of time. And we watch what they do with their shorter range ballistic missiles - the Scuds, the Nodongs.

Most recently, they had a successful Musudan, which is 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers. And they've always talked about the KN-08. The KN-08 is their intercontinental ballistic missile. And we're talking about 7,000 to 9,000 kilometers. That touches the whole - most of the United States.

SHAPIRO: Do they have the capability to combine a nuclear warhead with an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile?

DETRANI: Ari, the assessment from some - and I'm one of them - is that North Korea has been able to miniaturize their nuclear weapons. The next step, as you correctly stated, is to now make those nuclear weapons to a missile delivery system. I believe they're working on doing exactly that.

SHAPIRO: What can the U.S. do about that if North Korea has this capability?

DETRANI: Look; we need to sit down with the North Koreans. We need to sit down with the North Koreans and tell them, this is not where you want to go. If you launch an ICBM - a test launch of an ICBM is a threat to the United States. As we speak now, the nuclear threat to the region is great. They have it. They have a capability of touching certainly South Korea, Japan. With the recent Musudan launch, we're talking about going as far as Guam.

SHAPIRO: Is sitting down with North Koreans and saying, this is not the direction you want to go, persuasive?

DETRANI: Well, we haven't been successful so far. There's no question about that. The fact is in 2005 - September 2005, we did get an agreement from Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, that said they would halt their programs and they would look at dismantling their programs.

But they have a number of requests on their part. They're looking for a peace treaty. They're looking for other issues. They're talking about the - if you will, the joint military exercises we have with South Korea. They're concerned that we're interested in regime change. They're talking about sanctions. They're very concerned about security. So when they talk about a nuclear weapon, they talk about a nuclear deterrence. They're saying, we have this nuclear weapon because it's deterring you from effecting regime change.

SHAPIRO: There are certain similarities between Iran and North Korea, but while the Obama administration decided to engage very directly in talks with Iran, it never really did that with North Korea. Do you think that was a strategic mistake?

DETRANI: I do believe in negotiations with North Korea. I really do believe we need to come back to negotiation. We need to try.

SHAPIRO: But, boy, after the criticism from Republicans of the deal with Iran, it's sort of hard to imagine a Republican administration doing a similar kind of negotiation with North Korea.

DETRANI: Iran was a full-court press. We had - we never gave North Korea the same full-court press that we gave Iran. Let me just be very blunt about that. I think if we put that same effort and time into North Korea, I think we can come up to a resolution.

SHAPIRO: You were part of talks with North Koreans this past fall. Did you come away from those talks feeling that things are worse or better than the general public might perceive?

DETRANI: I think things are very bad. I think that things are very bad. I think the situation - look; for the last eight years, we're talking about four nuclear tests. We're talking about over - wow, my goodness, I - the number of missile launches goes over 50 missile launches and so forth. The ability to sit down with the North Koreans over the last eight years has been literally nil. So the situation has become very, very tense. I would say it's quite dire.

SHAPIRO: I'm just imagining somebody sitting in their car in traffic in Los Angeles listening to this conversation, wondering if they should be watching the skies for a missile coming over from North Korea.

DETRANI: I hope that never happens.

SHAPIRO: Well, everybody hopes it never happens. But you're the expert. Should they fear it happening?

DETRANI: I think, as we work hard on this issue here, we will work hard to ensure that it never happens - prevent from happening. And it can be prevented from happening.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is a former State Department envoy and senior adviser to the director of national intelligence expert on North Korea. Thanks for joining us.

DETRANI: Thank you so much, Ari.


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