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North Korea Likely To Overshadow Chinese President's U.S. Visit


As we just heard from Scott, North Korea and its drive for nuclear-armed missiles is high on the agenda at this U.S.-China summit. NPR national security correspondent David Welna has more on possible U.S. responses to this threat.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: President Trump has left no doubt that North Korea is going to be a top issue at the Mar-a-Lago summit. Trump used a White House news conference yesterday to underscore that.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The country of North Korea - we have a big problem. We have somebody that is not doing the right thing, and that's going to be my responsibility.

WELNA: Trump spoke just hours after North Korea test fired yet another medium-range missile toward Japan. U.S. officials say it did not travel far before spinning out of control. But Michael Green, who was the Asia expert on George W. Bush's National Security Council, says that missile launch had at least one clear aim.

MICHAEL GREEN: Rattling Trump and Xi before their meeting in the hope that China actually won't pressure them too much and that they can show they are defiant and unbended in their quest for a deliverable nuclear weapon, one they could put on a missile that could hit the U.S.

WELNA: The likelihood of North Korea hitting the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead came up at a hearing this week of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The sole witness was General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command which controls the nation's nuclear arsenal and missile defense systems. Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan had a pointed question for Hyten.


DAN SULLIVAN: It's when, not if, that North Korea is going to be able to range the continental United States with a intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile. Isn't that correct?

GENERAL JOHN HYTEN: I believe it is, Sir. I think they already have the capability to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile. The question is, when will they be able to mate a nuclear weapon?

SULLIVAN: So it's going to happen.

WELNA: The Trump administration does not want that to happen. Last month in Seoul, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left a door open to preemptive military action.


REX TILLERSON: We're exploring a new range of diplomatic security and economic measures. All options are on the table.

WELNA: But one leading expert doubts there will be war with North Korea.

GARY SAMORE: The military option to destroy their nuclear missile capability is really not practical.

WELNA: Gary Samore heads Harvard's Belfer Center and handled weapons of mass destruction issues for the Obama White House. A preemptive strike against North Korea is unlikely, he says.

SAMORE: Not only because of the technical limits on what we can actually find and destroy but also because of the very high likelihood that that would lead to a general conflict in the region that would of course be very damaging to South Korea and to Japan.

WELNA: Asked at the Senate hearing about military action against North Korea, General Hyten made clear he preferred having China help put the heat on Pyongyang since China supplies most of North Korea's food and fuel.


HYTEN: If there's something that we have to do, I'll provide those military options. So that's my job. But I look at it from a strategic perspective, and I can't see a solution that doesn't involve China.

WELNA: Harvard's Samore says North Korea's nuclear antics have only deepened U.S. military ties with allies in the region, and that, he says, is reason enough for China to try to curtail those provocations.

SAMORE: The Chinese recognize that North Korea's nuclear missile program is hurting China because it's creating openings for the United States to increase our defense footprint in the region, like the deployment is this THAAD Antimissile System.

WELNA: That would be the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Antimissile System which the U.S. has begun constructing in South Korea despite strong opposition from China. Last weekend, Trump signaled a willingness to go it alone in telling the Financial Times, quote, "if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will." Again, Harvard's Samore...

SAMORE: I just don't know what he means. I mean if we could have solved this problem by ourselves, we would have done so long ago.

WELNA: The sad fact is, Samore adds, the last three American presidents all failed to constrain North Korea's nuclear missile buildup. He expects that will be no different for Trump. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.