Bellevue, Wash.: Was the threat of a nuclear test North Korea’s last, greatest bargaining chip? What kind of deterrence do they have left?
Michael O’Hanlon: They can still use military force violently, as they have before, or threaten to export weapons, or to support terrorists. Alas they have many cards left
Washington, D.C.: Do you think we might be jumping the gun a bit, at least before it’s verified that a nuclear event took place? The SecDef was mocked not long ago for noting on Iraqi WMDs that the absence of evidence was not the evidence of absence. Lost in that was the fact that pretty much the whole think tank world had made the same assumptions he had. Is this situation any different? Or does it even really matter what was actually blown up?
Michael O’Hanlon: You’re right, we need clear proof; seismology is pretty good at analyzing the signature of nuclear tests versus large conventional explosions so I would expect this could be resolved fairly conclusively fairly soon
Berkeley, Calif.: Given that most people in the worldwide intelligence communities already believed North Korea had several nuclear weapons, does the fact that they tested one actually change that much? Is it simply a question of perceptions of what the DPRK is willing to do or is there some tangible significant change? (That is, is this just saber rattling?)
Michael O’Hanlon: It changes things in that we know now that their warheads work, and that they admit to having them and want the world to know unambiguously–which presumably also lowers the odds they’d ever give them up. Beyond that, it is itself less significant than the reprocessing of the plutonium in 2003/2004 that lead to the quintupling of their arsenal
Richmond, Va.: What do you think the U.S. should do in response to the DPRK tests? Do you see any evidence of movement on the part of the Chinese or the Russians to participate in ‘containment’ for North Korea?
Michael O’Hanlon: I believe, as Kurt Campbell and I argue in our new book, Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security, that we should try to force North Korea to a choice–reform like Vietnam (not just with weapons of mass destruction, but economics as well, and cut back military forces a lot in the process), and get help to do so, or be squeezed by the international community including Russia, China, and South Korea. But getting the latter countries to agree to such a strategy will be very hard. It’s only even vaguely possible if Pres. Bush is more concrete about the help he would provide if North Korea does the right thing. And of course that’s very hard to imagine now, because any talk of incentives for North Korea is going to be very difficult in the face of this test.
[Regarding the Pyongyang declaration] We should recognize that 13 years ago [North Korea] agreed to far bigger concessions. Kim is trying to turn back the clock and set the terms of what he is willing to talk about. These are minuscule moves on Kim’s part and we should treat them accordingly.
[South Korean President] Moon’s challenge is get something from Kim [Jong-un] that he can then sell to [President] Trump. To judge from Trump’s endless flattery of Kim, this shouldn’t be too hard. The question is whether this game can persist indefinitely without definitive evidence of North Korean actions [as opposed to words] of what Kim has supposedly agreed to.