How Uncertainty In The Korean Peninsula Could Be A 'Recipe for Disaster' : Parallels President-elect Trump's statements on North Korea have reflected contradictory aims. Political turmoil in South Korea and Pyongyang's nuclear capability make for a mix that worries Korea-watchers.
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How Uncertainty In The Korean Peninsula Could Be A 'Recipe for Disaster'

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How Uncertainty In The Korean Peninsula Could Be A 'Recipe for Disaster'

How Uncertainty In The Korean Peninsula Could Be A 'Recipe for Disaster'

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There's a lot of confusion about how a Trump administration would deal with North Korea. And given North Korea's growing nuclear capability, there is not much time to work it out. NPR's Elise Hu reports on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues for the incoming president.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The assessment you're about to hear isn't uplifting. It comes from former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, speaking in Seoul a week after the U.S. election.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

WILLIAM PERRY: The danger of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War. Let me repeat that. I feel very strongly on this point. The danger of a nuclear war today is greater than it was during the Cold War.

HU: Perry shares his fear with audiences around the world that nations will bluster and blunder into catastrophe.

PERRY: The bluster creates this very dangerous context that makes it an accidental nuclear war or a war by miscalculation from a very, very low probability to not such a low probability.

HU: Perry is especially concerned about North Korea's growing nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang twice this year tested nuclear devices and launched missiles dozens of times. It's the only nation in the world to have tested nuclear weapons at all in this century.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to changing Pyongyang's behavior, it's tough.

HU: In September, President Barack Obama acknowledged the fruitlessness so far of efforts to stop or slow North Korea during his time in office.

OBAMA: It is entirely fair to say that they have continued to engage in the development of their nuclear program and these ballistic missile tests. And so we are constantly examining other strategies that we can take.

HU: That examination is about to be passed off to America's new leader, whose statements about North Korea have run the gamut. Donald Trump has gone from saying he would sit down with Kim Jong Un over a burger to suggesting American allies South Korea and Japan should develop their own nuclear weapons.

BRUCE KLINGNER: Key words I think are uncertainty and anxiety.

HU: Bruce Klingner is a North Korea specialist for the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.

KLINGNER: If he goes against sanctions or fails to implement them more fully, if he seeks a bilateral summit without close coordination with our allies, he'll run into strong congressional resistance.

HU: Klingner favors tougher sanctions. The United Nations Security Council ordered stricter ones on Pyongyang in the spring, but by the time of North Korea's second nuclear test of the year, it was clear the measures didn't accomplish much. And James Kim of Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute says time is critical.

JAMES KIM: The further we go in time, they will get better at doing what they intend to do, which is to have a deterrence capability that has the ability to reach the United States. So this is a matter that I think should be a concern for everyone.

HU: Even if North Korea has no intention of using its nuclear weapons, Former Defense Secretary Perry worries it could sell a bomb to a terror group, for example. So a lot is at stake in the region, and nothing's coming easy. In South Korea, a domestic political scandal has crippled the president. Her administration is besieged by protests and calls for her to resign, which only raises the anxiety in this part of the world, Klingner says.

KLINGNER: Having uncertain Asia policy by Trump, having the uncertainty of the domestic political crisis in South Korea and then the uncertainty of what Kim Jong Un would do, it could be a recipe for disaster.

HU: That's not anywhere close to uplifting either. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

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