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Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon On Korea

Friday, April 5, 2013

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HH: Joined now by Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Michael, welcome back.

MO’H: Thank you.

HH: I am curious if you think the president of the United States has done all that needs to be done to warn off North Korea about additional aggressive steps.

MO’H: Well, we can never say we’ve done enough. I mean, this is an ongoing crisis, and we’ve got to keep brainstorming. You know, I think there are some pretty tough dilemmas ahead of us, and the crisis is by no means over yet, as you’re well aware. And saying whether he’s done enough or not is not necessarily the only question for me. In fact, I actually argued after that third North Korean nuclear test a few weeks back that we ought to consider a slightly different approach than we had been using, or than we actually did use. What I favored was putting temporary additional sanctions on North Korea, keeping all the old sanctions in place, but putting any new sanctions in place in a way that would automatically sunset after two to three years if they did not test nuclear weapons again, or did not attack anybody again. And my reasoning was first, we’ve got to get the Chinese aboard. We’ve got to give the Chinese some way to really be enthusiastic in support of these sanctions, so that they will be a partner with us going forward. Secondly, we want to give this guy, Kim Jong Un, the new leader, two messages. One, we’ll be firm and we’ll be tough in the face of any provocation. But two, we’re also looking down the road to a day when we hope that he may come to his sense and realize that he’s got to begin to reform the place. And if he does so, we’re willing to envision a process that would gradually incentivize that kind of positive behavior. So I was in favor of temporary sanctions. And so in that sense, in the spirit of your question, I could almost say that President Obama went too far with a classic hard line approach. You probably don’t agree with me, but I’m just trying to brainstorm, because the North Koreans…

HH: That’s actually very interesting. That might have made a lot of sense if they’d done it before this latest series of crazy things, Michael O’Hanlon, and it might make sense again in the future. I am mostly curious if you believe that enough lines have been drawn in the sand about major, major aggression, because it seems to me that he is spiraling, and we’re getting to a point where he could back himself into a corner of having to do something really stupid.

MO’H: Well, it’s a great question, and you know, I agree with you that we have to worry about things getting worse. And we shouldn’t just treat this as the same old, same old. It feels a little different, and a little more dangerous. I don’t want to overreact, but I also don’t want to convey any sense of underpreparedness. My sense is overall that we are very robust in our deterrence. We have 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, we’ve got tens of thousands of more Americans living there. It’s not a repeat of 1950. There’s no danger, as you recall, the famous time when Secretary of State Acheson basically said South Korea was not of great concern to us, was not within our security perimeter, and that sort of helped invite the North Korean aggression 60 years ago. I’m not too worried about that. To be honest with you, what I worry most about is how we handle the North Korean nuclear program. And if they restart that reactor, I think we have a very tough decision about whether we tolerate that. And that’s where most of my energies are going now.

HH: That’s interesting. That’s interesting, because Dan Poneman, who you probably know, is a very good friend of mine, Dan wrote a book that in 1996, when they considered taking out the reactor, one of the scenarios was there will be millions of casualties. The North will not abide that. Do you agree with that assessment today, Michael O’Hanlon?

MO’H: Well, I don’t think there would be millions of casualties from a preemptive strike against a nuclear reactor.

HH: No, but the response.

MO’H: But if the North Koreans were to go to all-out war, then yes, I think you could be looking in that realm. And you know, I would do it with the utmost of reservation and trepidation. But I haven’t ruled out that option in my own mind that just as we haven’t ruled out the possibility of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, we may not want to go along with this notion of the North Koreans having an industrial scale capability to produce dozens of bombs a year. That’s what led to the 1994 showdown, as you know, when the Clinton administration basically threatened and cajoled the North Koreans simultaneously into the agreed framework. That was a flawed agreement, and it was not fully abided by, by the North, but it was still better than the alternative of a working nuclear reactor or two. And so that’s what really concerns me. Now this research reactor that they’ve got now doesn’t have the capacity to build dozens of bombs’ worth of plutonium a year, or to create that much. But it’s still worrisome, and that’s what I’m following most closely.

HH: Michael O’Hanlon, thanks for joining us. We’ll continue to go over to www.brookings.org and check out what you are writing on this, because I don’t think anyone’s paying near enough attention to it. But you are, and you’re one of the people that are, and I appreciate you taking the time to update us today.

End of interview.

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