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Vice President Pence Visits DMZ Amid Tensions With North Korea


Vice President Mike Pence is in South Korea, just across the border from a country that has rising tensions with the United States - and I mean just across the border. Pence went this morning to the demilitarized zone, where you can look into North Korea. He spoke afterwards in Seoul, keeping up the tough talk we've been hearing from President Trump. After North Korea carried out a failed missile test, Pence said the United States will not tolerate a nuclear threat from North Korea.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We hope to achieve this objective through peaceful means, but all options are on the table. Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan. North Korea would do well not to test his resolve.

GREENE: I want to ask how serious all of this is. And our next guest knows North Korea well. He negotiated curbs on the country's nuclear program when he was in the State Department where he served under four different presidents. He has been studying North Korea since as a scholar and author. It's Joel Wit. Welcome to the program.

JOEL WIT: Good morning.

GREENE: So is the vice president threatening war here?

WIT: Well, I think what the vice president is doing is exactly what he said, which is showing resolve in the face of a growing North Korean nuclear threat. I don't think he's threatening war. But he's certainly ratcheting up the pressure on the North Koreans.

GREENE: You say growing threat. What exactly is the growing threat right now? How worrisome is this?

WIT: Well, it's very worrisome. And I should add that it's not new. It's been growing for a number of years now, to the point where now North Korea has a small nuclear weapons stockpile. It can put warheads on top of missiles that can at least reach targets in the region. And it's working on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States. And it's working on a hydrogen bomb that, possibly, it could put on top of that.

GREENE: You said this has all been going on already. So why, in these last few weeks, have we suddenly gotten to what feels like a very tense moment? Has this been because President Trump has ratcheted up rhetoric? Is it because U.S. intelligence is suggesting that the threat has suddenly gotten worse? What's happening?

WIT: Well, it's probably a combination of all of the above. First, the threat has been growing for a while, but it's reaching a point where it's a direct threat to the United States. And by that, I mean if they can put a warhead on top of a missile that can reach the United States, that's obviously a direct threat. Secondly, President Trump has a very different approach to North Korea than President Obama, who practiced what was called strategic patience, essentially trying to put pressure on North Korea and hoping it would come back to the negotiating table. But President Trump is really ratcheting up the pressure while still keeping open the possibility of negotiations.

GREENE: You have been in meetings with North Korean officials, I mean, as a scholar, as recently as a few months ago. What window into their thinking can you give us in how they might be responding to President Trump's approach?

WIT: Well, when I met the North Koreans a few months ago, it was just after President Trump was elected. So no one really knew what his policies would be. And the North Koreans were saying they would wait and see. They would bide their time, keep their powder dry to see what the new administration's approach would be.

As to their reaction to his new approach, I think we should not underestimate North Korea's resolve to resist pressure from the United States. From their perspective, they are a small country dealing with the world's only superpower. And to show any weakness is suicide. And that's what they believe. So they are going to react very toughly to what we're doing.

GREENE: A lot of Americans wondering whether to be nervous right now, how nervous to be. Are there signs we can look for in days, weeks, months ahead, that will tell us this is actually getting incredibly serious?

WIT: Well, there could be signs in the weeks and months ahead. One sign, which most Americans won't see, is North Korean preparations for war. I don't think we've seen any of that yet. Secondly, something we will see is that South Koreans may go to the supermarkets - empty the shelves - in preparation for war. And third, we may see a lot of foreigners in South Korea heading for the airports to get out of the country.

GREENE: OK. Well, obviously a story we'll be following very closely. Joel Wit is a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former State Department official. Thanks for the time this morning.

WIT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.