Weekends With Alex Witt
updated 4/17/2013 2:18:51 PM ET 2013-04-17T18:18:51

Secretary of State John Kerry met with China's top leaders and called for a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear standoff on Saturday during a joint press conference in Beijing.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with China’s top leaders and called for a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear standoff on Saturday during a joint press conference in Beijing.

Kerry’s comments sought to end the “cycle of threats and counter-threats” that has seen North Korean military posturing stiffen ahead of national founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday Monday. The United States, for its part, has proposed moving missile defense systems to Guam and naval missile defense systems into the region.

Alongside China’s top diplomat, State Counsilor Yang Jiechi, Kerry presented the two countries’ efforts as a united front dedicated to the shared goal of “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.” Both Kerry and Yang affirmed  their commitment to the 2005 September Joint Statement of the six-party talks in which representatives of the United States, China, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and Japan agreed to the goal of a “verifiable denuclearization,” and also to provide energy and trade assistance to North Korea.

Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill joined Weekends with Alex Witt to discuss China’s significance in the escalating threat from North Korea. Hill, who served as a U.S. representative to the 2005 six-party talks under President George W. Bush, said he has not seen this current level of tension in nuclear threats from the region before.

“This is pretty unprecedented, there have been pretty low points in the relationship with North Korea…I don’t think we’ve had a moment where the North Koreans are threatening everybody—including us—with nuclear annihilation,” he said.

“The Chinese seem also to be losing their patience…this is a big deal for the Chinese, so I think it’s been very important to get Secretary Kerry there … and turn this issue into a kind of win-win vis a vis the Chinese,” said Hill, adding that Chinese national security interests are at risk not only due to the threat of a full scale-conflict on the peninsula, but by the risks imposed by the beefing up of U.S. missile defense artillery in the region. Despite the reasons for concern, Hill feels that the threats of attack are mostly “bluster,” and that even a test launch should be considered as a display not deserving of military retaliations.

North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un first threatened the U.S. with nuclear warfare in March 2013 after the United Nations Security Council approved a new round of sanctions on the communist dictatorship.

Video: Kerry nudges China to exert pressure on North Korea

  1. Closed captioning of: Kerry nudges China to exert pressure on North Korea

    >>> secretary of state john kerry is in china today where he's meeting with the country's top leaders in an effort to persuade them to pressure north korea to halt its nuclear threats and agree to negotiations. joining me now is former u.s. ambassador to south korea , christopher hill , who served as assistant secretary of state for east asian and pacific affairs under president bush . welcome, ambassador. thank you for joining me.

    >> thank you.

    >> in your capacity at the state department , you headed the nuclear negotiations with north korea . did you find this to be a government willing to negotiate?

    >> well, it was very tough. i mean, what we did though was we had a six-party process. we had china in the chair. and every day we worked together with the chinese and described it as our common endeavor and the purpose would be to get the north koreans to relinquish their nuclear weapons and finally in september, 2005 , they agreed to do so. and since then it's been a heavy slog to try to get them to implement that pledge.

    >> what do you think north korea is looking for here? right now does it simply want concussions on sanctions?

    >> you know, i think the quick answer to that is i don't think they know what they want. they seem to want some sort of security. we put that all on the table, including a peace treaty , but they weren't interested in the end. they seem to want some sort of respect. but every day with this kind of buffoonery, that seems to be more and more elusive. so i don't think they really know what they want and i think that's what makes it so difficult to negotiate with them.

    >> so the level of tension that is apparent right now, is this unprecedented or have you been to this level of brinksmanship before?

    >> this is pretty unprecedented. i mean, there have been real low points in the relationship with north korea . you recall in the 1970s , they ax murdered a couple of our soldiers in the demilitarized zone so there have been hideous moments but i don't think we've had a moment where the north koreans are threatening everything, including us, with nuclear annihilation . i would put it up at the top of the scale.

    >> how concerned are you that the threats of nuclear annihilation are legitimate, that north korea is even capable of doing it or is this just bluster?

    >> yeah. as your question implies, i completely agree that there's a lot of bluster here. yes, they have a missile program. yes, they have a nuclear program . yes, this is absolutely something we need to be concerned about, but i think the real danger here is the problem of miscalculation on the demilitarized zone or offshore, and by the way, the south koreans, they have had to sit -- live next to these people for many decades, and i think they've kind of had enough of this. so i think the real concern is the north koreans would misunderstand the signals they're receiving from the rest of the world . these are people who really don't have a strong sense of how they're coming across, and so the concern would be they try some provocation to make themselves look tough and then the south koreans react and then what would be the reaction to the reaction?

    >> exactly.

    >> that's the real concern here.

    >> but, ambassador, april 15 may come and there may be some sort of a missile launch. it's a significant day there in their history. if that were to happen, is that an attack or just a display?

    >> i would put it in the display category, especially if it is, indeed, a missile test. now, usually when they've done missile tests, they've done mariner's warnings and that sort of thing. they haven't done that kind of stuff but we would know the instant the missile takes off whether it's destined to splash in the water somewhere or whether it's aimed at somebody and we would take appropriate actions.

    >> where does that line fall, sir? at what point would we take appropriate action?

    >> oh, i think if that missile comes anywhere close to land, whether in japan or south korea , i think we would absolutely have to take appropriate actions and do so instantly. so i think we're prepared for that. i think we have some of the highest technology. best technology in the world. one of the effects of all of this bluster from the north koreans with respect to their missiles has been to thicken up our anti- missile defense . this certainly doesn't come as good news for the chinese, and perhaps this is part of the motivation for china to try to tamp this thing down.

    >> the appropriate action that the united states might take, sir, how devastate would go that be for north korea ?

    >> well, i think appropriate action would be to try to defend against the missiles with anti- missile defense . i'm not talking at this point about retaliation. i don't want to speculate on what we would do in retaliation should a north korean missile hit one of our allies except to say that we are treaty-bound to defend those allies a.d an attack on south korea or japan is an attack on us. i think we would do what is absolutely required of us in our treaty relationships. it could be very severe.

    >> i'm sure you've been following secretary kerry on this critical mission in china . what is your sense of how concerned china might be about the situation?

    >> you know what is interesting about china in recent weeks, even months, is that the chinese seem also to be losing their patience. you know, north korea is a complicated problem for them. it's rooted in their history. it's rooted in their system. when north korea is involved, it affects internal chinese politics . chinese politics with respect to their communist system versus their capitalist economy. chinese politics with respect to what north korean refugees could mean in china . so this is a big deal for the chinese. so i think it's been very important to get secretary kerry there to sit with them, to reason with them, to talk about our aspirations for resolving this issue, and to try to turn this terrible issue of north korea into a kind of win/win vis-a-vis the chinese and that's been i think the real task and i hope this is not his first and last visit but rather the first of many and frequent visits to china .

    >> it may be very difficult to get inside the mind of kim jong -un but he is a new and inexperienced north korean leader. has he put himself in a position where he can't back down now? he must perhaps make some sort of military move?

    >> yeah, climbing into his mind is quite a feat, so i'm not sure i can do that, but i do believe that he's kind of, to mix a metaphor, painted himself into a corner here and i don't think he really knows how to get out of it. to be a north korean is to be totally isolated and to have all kinds of misconceptions about how you're coming across in the world. you know, not unlike some individuals that we may work with, they have no idea how they're coming across. i think this is the problem. he doesn't realize perhaps the dimension, the degree to which he's painted himself into this corner and i think that is is what make it is difficult to come out of it. but to me it's very clear, we are not going to be paying north korea to get out of the corner that they've painted themselves into. if they want to come back and talk about their obligations under the 2005 denuclearization agreement, we're prepared to do that but we're not prepared to deal with them as somehow, you know, the world's new nuclear state .

    >> ambassador christopher hill , thank you


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