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Mullen Worries Failed Talks With North Korea Could Lead To War

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now that the U.S.-North Korea summit is off, what does that mean for the prospect of war between two countries with nuclear weapons? President Trump this morning has suggested in a tweet that the meeting with North Korea might still go ahead on June 12, although his tone was markedly different in his letter to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, yesterday, in which he wrote, quote, "you talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used." A more measured response came from the North last night when it said it's willing to sit face-to-face with the U.S. at any time.

I spoke earlier this morning with Admiral Mike Mullen. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush.

MIKE MULLEN: I do worry about the Korean Peninsula, and have for a long time, about how quickly things could get out of control there. The number of people - the millions that are under the envelope right now of the North Korean weapons and how that could escalate to where millions get killed initially, and then it just goes - gets to a point where there's a possibility that these weapons could be used.

MARTIN: Do you think there's still hope for a diplomatic solution?

MULLEN: Well, I would certainly hope so. I have said for some time - I mean, finding that very narrow window that would somehow result in a diplomatic solution is absolutely critical. You just don't hear, at this point, you know, much about it.

MARTIN: But the president's supporters will say, it may be unconventional. It may be uncomfortable. It may be even risky. But maybe that rhetoric was what opened the window to these talks in the first place.

MULLEN: To the - and I understand that. But also - I think, to be fair, if you look back historically, this is a typical way that the North Korean leadership has acted and responded over time, to get close to a solution in one way or another - this way, at least have the talks - and then walk away from it and continue to advance their system. So I think there is - because of the way President Trump handled this, there certainly is - this is different in that regard. It isn't normal.

That said, the overall behavior of the North Koreans - he's in a pattern. And for instance, I mean, the likelihood, I think, that he was going to totally denuclearize is, you know, very, very slim that he would do that, except over a long period of time. And I think his track record, his family's track record is something we have to pay a lot of attention to.

MARTIN: The Kim family, yeah.

MULLEN: They've all - whenever they've talked about nuclear denuclearization, it's always been over an extended period of time.

MARTIN: Can you walk us through what a military strike on North Korea would actually look like?

MULLEN: Well, it - I mean, there are many, many options. It's been discussed. You could do something very specific and precise to take out some of his facilities he uses to test his ballistic weapon systems.

MARTIN: This is the so-called bloody nose strategy.

MULLEN: Right. But the concern with that is - and the unknown is how he would respond to any strike, whether it's a precise, relatively small, message-sending, bloody-nose kind of strike.

MARTIN: Would you counsel to not engage in that option at all?

MULLEN: You know, I have tremendous confidence in Secretary Mattis and General Joe Dunford, the current chairman, to give the right kind of counsel here in terms of what's going on. And I'm not - I'd be loathe to be specific right now because I'm just not familiar with the details on the ground and the current level of intelligence. I do know, under the best of circumstances - if there is a way to even phrase it that way - that this is an enormously difficult, challenging task and that every single military option is fraught with risk, which has been the case on the peninsula for a long, long time. That just re-emphasizes the need to get to a diplomatic solution, if that's at all possible.

MARTIN: North Korea's closest ally is China. China has maintained for a long time that it thinks the U.S. and North Korea should engage in some kind of direct talks. But where does this leave China right now? Do they win or lose because this summit is off?

MULLEN: Well, I think it's too easy to look at winners and losers when, you know, actually almost nothing has happened. I think that President Trump has moved the Chinese leadership - and President Xi specifically - in a direction that could well possibly result in a diplomatic solution. I've felt for some time now - I think that President Xi in China has to play a big role and has to make things happen.

China has got the key to North Korea because they really control the economy. And if I've seen anything that's impacted North Korea that I could put my finger on so far, it has been when China has clamped down on the sanctions, really had a significant impact on the North Korean economy. So I would hope that President Xi would do that as quickly as possible. Clearly, that's also going to be tied to how President Trump and President Xi both discuss and engage on this now that we've reached this point.

MARTIN: But do you feel that where we are today is better than where we were a year ago when it comes to the North Korean crisis? Has all this been for naught, or has there been some net gain?

MULLEN: No, I think - I can't say it's been for naught because we've learned more, certainly, about the North - and it's a mysterious place - just by virtue of the fact that we've had a couple of visits with the senior leadership. I'm not sure I'd say we're in a better place. We certainly are in a different place. And we understand it a little bit better than we did, which may create an opening for diplomatic solutions - hard to say.

MARTIN: Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "STARTING AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.