Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press. He regularly offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.
MSNBC: Tim, President George W. Bush is repeating there is a united effort to find a solution to dealing with North Korea. How would you describe the tone regarding this situation?
Tim Russert: Measured and dramatically different than the lead up to the war in Iraq.
Remember, President Bush has referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a tyrant, as a pygmy, as a spoiled child. We heard none of that on Thursday.
Also, the president has repeatedly said, “This is a time for diplomacy. We’re working it hard”, “Diplomacy takes time” “You can’t do things overnight”, “We have to get a consensus amongst the countries in the region”. Compare that to the lead up to Iraq, where it was “Time has run out”, Saddam had his chance”, “If we have to go it alone, we will”.
I talked to Democrats and Republicans all day long Thursday. One loyal Republican said there’s a major difference – North Korea has a nuke and a million man army. Saddam did not have that. That’s why Iraq and North Korea are treated differently.
MSNBC: Is it as simple as that? Just having the nuke?
Russert: Well, it certainly has a profound impact on this whole debate and this whole discussion. The Democrats, obviously, are arguing forcefully that Iraq has limited the options of the president, in terms of the military having gone through what they have in the last three and a half years. The Republicans counter that’s not the case - all options are on the table.
But, when you push both sides, they acknowledge privately the military option is extremely remote.
Obviously, if North Korea were to invade South Korea, where there is an American tripwire, as it’s called – 37,000 American soldiers. Once that wire’s tripped, the United States would respond in a robust military way. But no one expects any type of preemptive strike at this point.
MSNBC: There was a report Thursday night, that one of the North Korean missiles was aimed at Hawaii.
Russert: That’s what the Japanese are saying. Pentagon officials are not confirming that report.
The purpose of the Taepodong-2 missile is to be capable of reaching California or Hawaii or Alaska or Canada. There’s no doubt about it. That’s the reason they’re testing it, to see if they have that reach.
MSNBC: There are some calling for the U.S. to take unilateral action.
Russert: Some urge, “Take out these missiles on the launching pad.” Vice President Dick Cheney responded, “If you fire one missile, you better be prepared to fire a lot more.”
MSNBC: If that’s the case, why is the U.S. opposed to one-on-one talks with North Korea?
Russert: The president said Thursday they didn’t work – they’d been tried before.
The Clinton administration will argue, “We had an agreement with the North Koreans” – and yes, the North Korean’s did cheat, b they add when Bill Clinton left office, North Korea had two nuclear bombs and they now have eight. They insist they had some success in at least slowing down the nuclear development program.
Bush advisors tell me that to yield to one-on-one talks would be a concession to Kim Jong Il’s rocket test and they don’t want to appear weak in that regard.
MSNBC: Who’s the key ally here?
Russert: It’s all China. In effect, North Korea is a wholly-owned subsidiary of China. They get much of their oil and most of their food from China.
The Chinese are in a very difficult position, because they publicly said to North Korea, “Don’t launch this missile.” And North Korea did - in an act of defiance against their patron state.
A ranking vice premier of China is heading to North Korea to have some talks and discussions.
If the Chinese cut off oil and food from North Korea, what happens?
The concern is Kim Jong Il doesn’t really care if his people starve. He’s secure in his palace.
Does he lash out in military way? Would he invade South Korea? No one knows. It’s that unpredictability that has everyone so concerned.
MSNBC: This whole thing is also making Japan consider its own national security. Isn’t that the last thing China wants - a further militarized Japan?
Russert: That’s an important point. This behavior by the North Koreans is really driving Japan to make some very big decisions about how they are going to view future military expenditures. The Japanese have been very outspoken at the United Nations about North Korean’s behavior.
MSNBC: Will you be discussing this on Meet the Press this Sunday?
Russert: We will. It will be a little early this Sunday, because of NBC’s coverage of Wimbledon tennis finals – most markets will be 8am ET or 7am CT. You can find our specific market broadcast times on our web site, www.MTP.MSNBC.com.
We’ll talk with the Bush administration’s Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, with Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and former ambassador to the United Nations. He’s been to North Korea five times – one of the few Americans who has been allowed to visit that nation.
We’ll also talk with Ashton Carter, the assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, who was deeply involved in the formulation of North Korean policy and, in fact, suggested last week that we launch a preemptive military strike to take down that missile that was about to be tested.
All Sunday, on Meet the Press.