North Korean nuclear threat more pressing than Iran's?

Panel: Many layers to North Korean threat
Richard Haass, Danielle Pletka, David Sanger and David Rohde on North Korea and the President's upcoming trip to Israel.

(CBS News) The problem the United States faces amid North Korea's decision to void the armistice that ended the Korean War and threat to launch a nuclear attack is "not new," The New York Times' David Sanger said today on "Face the Nation."

"The armistice was signed 60 years ago and it's been an on and off thing ever since with violations and so forth," Sanger said.

What is new, he continued, is an alarming capability: "They've now conducted a third nuclear test, and by all the early indications, this time it really worked," Sanger said. "They have sent a missile as far as the Philippines. If you do the math on that, they're about halfway to being able to hit the Continental United States."

As the Pentagon prepares to invest $1 billion in interceptors to a missile defense program to counter North Korea's faster-than-anticipated progress on nuclear weapons and missiles, Sanger said, the idea is to not only create deterrents for North Korea, but to catalyze action from China. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass said if any country has the capacity "not to control North Korea, but to influence North Korea," it's China.

"This is a dangerous ally for China to have, and the more Chinese can pressure them and put the economic screws on them, the better it will be for everybody," Haass said. "We ought to make clear to everybody that the next Korean war, if one were ever to happen, is going to be the last Korean war. Because it's going to end with a unified peninsula and it's going to be under Seoul not Pyongyang. And that hopefully will make the North Korean leadership think twice."

Though the Pentagon doesn't expect North Korea to be able to strike the United States for several years, Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the government "needs to be doing a great deal more."

"The problem for us is we've been disinvesting in missile defense, we've been disinvesting in the military," she said. "And just because a missile can't reach the United States doesn't mean that it can't reach our allies in Asia who look to us for their security are increasingly concerned that we're not going to be there for them in the event of a North Korean breakout or, frankly, a conflict with China."

Should North Korea launch an offensive against South Korea, Haass said, "we still have 28,000 Americans in South Korea. So initially it would be a conventional war." Though he said the United States would not immediately retaliate with a nuclear weapon, "we would make it clear to North Koreans that if there were any threat, or use of nuclear weapons, that yes - everything is on the table."

But there's a U.S. reticence on engaging the threat that's rooted in "this sort of post-Iraq and Afghanistan hangover," said David Rohde of The Atlantic. But, he added, "the North Koreans are not giving us a sort of timeout to sort out our domestic issues... and this is just the latest example of, I think, the administration [needing] to step up its game, generally speaking, in foreign policy."

One concern the United States should weigh, Sanger said, is that Iran, which has long pursued the attainment of a nuclear weapon, sees North Korea's behavior as a model for its own. Unconfirmed reports initially said Iranians were present for North Korea's nuclear tests.

"Even if they weren't at it, they look at the North Korean model and what do they see?" Sanger said. But while North Korea's threat, he continued, "is certainly more immediate [than Iran's] in that the North Koreans have conducted three nuclear tests, they've got the missile capability," he qualified that what the United States doesn't yet know is "that they have the ability to take a nuclear weapon and shrink it down and put it on a missile."

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