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North Korea's Nuclear Threat Is Real And Present, Rice Says


According to President Trump's tweets, problem solved. Shortly after returning from his summit with North Korea's leader, President Trump wrote, quote, "there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea." That's his claim after North Korea's Kim Jong Un approved a statement repeating a past general wish to work toward denuclearization. Susan Rice is our next guest. She served as national security adviser and United Nations ambassador under President Obama. Ambassador, welcome back to the program.

SUSAN RICE: Thanks, Steve. Great to be with you.

INSKEEP: How would you describe the nuclear threat from North Korea today?

RICE: Real and present, and unabated. Steve, it's a rather preposterous claim for the president to tweet that there's no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea. Worse still, I think it's quite concerning because it suggests one of two things, either that he views this summit as all show and for political purposes rather than to address the substantive problem of North Korea's nuclear capacity and missile capacity, or that he really doesn't understand at all how grave and how pernicious the North Korean nuclear threat really is and therefore is not in a position to lead and guide a very serious long-term negotiation to eradicate it.

INSKEEP: Now, he did make some other statements, and people around him have made some other statements indicating they do understand this is at best the beginning of a very long process. But he said to Sean Hannity last night, we got a lot more done than I ever thought possible. Did something, in your view, get done here?

RICE: Well, what got done is that the two leaders met, and that was unprecedented. And for the first time, there is now dialogue at the highest levels. That is a good thing. However, in substance, very, very little positive happened. The statement that we saw issued jointly entailed a very vague commitment by the North Koreans. And, Steve, to quote it, it says that "the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization." It doesn't even commit to denuclearization, but to work toward. That is far short of what North Korean leaders have committed to in past agreements with the United States, going back to 1994. So it's a very, very vague statement. And, unfortunately, in exchange for this very vague statement that is less than we've received in the past, President Trump seems to have given up something very, very important to our South Korean allies and to the U.S. military, which is the continuation of our joint military exercises which he disparaged as war games.

INSKEEP: OK. So help us figure this out because the president said he's going to stop the war games, these joint exercises. But Vice President Pence apparently has told a Republican senator, Cory Gardner, something else, saying, wait a minute. Some exercises are going to continue. Readiness exercises are going to continue. Is there room for them to be saying the same thing, that some exercises might stop but others continue?

RICE: Well, first of all, whatever Vice President Pence said is now in dispute because Senator Gardner came out and said he thought he heard readiness exercises might continue but war games would end. And, frankly, we don't make such a distinction. We don't believe they're war games, typically. We believe they're all readiness exercises. But having said that, then Vice President Pence's spokesperson disputed that Vice President Pence said that. So I think we have to go, frankly, as usual with what the president of the United States said repeatedly in his press conference yesterday, that he considers all these exercises war games, that in his view they are inappropriate and provocative and ought to end, which is upending decades of orthodoxy on what is necessary to protect the United States and South Korea from the North Korean threat, which is unabated. And, in fact, if we were to give up these exercises which we conduct multiple times a year, in the event that something dangerous did happen on the Korean Peninsula, we would not be nearly as ready as we would need to be to respond...

INSKEEP: Two quick questions.

RICE: ...Security and that of our allies.

INSKEEP: Two quick questions, Ambassador, about President Trump's view of what went on here in his effort to do North Korea - to approach North Korea differently than other administrations, including the one you were in. He told Sean Hannity on Fox last night that he was right to at one point speak very harshly of Kim Jong Un, call him Little Rocket Man and so forth. Let's listen.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Other administrations, I don't want to get specific on that, but, they had a policy of silence. If they said something very bad and very threatening and horrible, just don't answer. That's not the answer. That's not what you have to do. So I think the rhetoric - I hated to do it. Sometimes I felt foolish doing it. But we had no choice.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, did that rhetoric work?

RICE: Steve, I don't think the rhetoric was key. I think in fact it escalated tensions at a time when you had two leaders whose actions could have led to a very dangerous situation. So, no. I think what changed was two things, really. One, Kim Jong Un achieved what he set out to achieve, which was perfecting his nuclear and missile capacities so he could come to a table as an equal, as President Trump granted him. And secondly, the election of the South Korean president, President Moon, who played a very crucial role in helping to bring this together. And I should add, also, the sanctions which we have ratcheted up over the years, going back 10 years now, and which have become stronger still.

INSKEEP: Which we're still discussing. And, just in a sentence or two, President Trump has made it clear that he's wanted all along to get U.S. troops out of South Korea. He even alluded to it after the summit. That's not really even a concession for him. It's a goal. Although the U.S. isn't doing it now. Could the U.S. safely pull troops out of South Korea?

RICE: Not anytime soon, not in the absence of complete denuclearization. Not in the absence, arguably, of reunification. And certainly not without the assent of our South Korean allies. That would be a huge win for China and for North Korea, and a huge loss for us in our standing in Asia.

INSKEEP: Susan Rice, pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

RICE: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: She served as national security adviser and United Nations ambassador to President Obama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.