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Transcript: Sue Mi Terry talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

Trump on China, North Korea, Bernie Sanders

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - SUE MI TERRY

CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sue, welcome. You were on the show last June, just before the first Trump/Kim summit in Singapore. And it is great to have you back.

SUE MI TERRY:

Thank you for having me on.

MICHAEL MORELL:

We're just days away now from the second Trump/Kim summit in Vietnam. And that's what I want to focus on today. But before we actually get to that, I wanna start with what I think are three important background questions. And the first-- and I know you're not a technical expert, but I know you read everything that the technical experts write. Can you tell us where you think North Korea is today in its ability to detonate a nuclear device over the continental United States?

SUE MI TERRY:

Well, as you know, North Korea has tested three intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017. They have tested six nuclear weapons, including hydrogen bomb test in 2017. So we know they have nuclear weapons. We also know that they have an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach all of the mainland of the United States.

North Korea, I think, was about one technical step away from perfecting their nuclear arsenal and having ability to hit New York or Washington D.C. with a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. And that technical step was showcasing, successfully showing that they have reentry capability.

So I would say they are about 90%, 95%-- they were there at the end of 2017. All the intelligence, I think, even the intelligence community was saying they were about one technical step away from perfecting their capability.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And that technical step is mating the nuclear device to the missile and having it survive reentry from the atmosphere?

SUE MI TERRY:

That's correct. So that's what we call a successful reentry capability, being able to marry that so you can have or put a nuclear warhead on a missile that could reach the target city. So they have ICBMs, they have nuclear weapons, they were just that one technical step away.

And that's why we thought, by the end of 2017, that North Korea could have just pursued trying to showcase that capability, perhaps even testing a nuclear weapon over the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric nuclear test was what everybody was worried about at the end of 2017.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You know, when he was the director of the C.I.A., Mike Pompeo publicly would say, "They're two months away, they're two months from this step--"

SUE MI TERRY:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--right? And he would say that no matter where he was--

SUE MI TERRY:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--and when he was, right? So that actually said to me that we weren't-- we as an intelligence community weren't exactly sure of whether they had that capability or not. And it was possible that they could test it and it would be successful and they'd be there. And it was also possible they could test it and it wouldn't work quite right. And we might--

SUE MI TERRY:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--assess that they need a little bit more time. So it's a very interesting and obviously a very important question. Sue, the second background question is why do you think Kim Jong-un decided that early 2017 was the time to come to the negotiating table? You know, why now? Why not five years ago, why not five years from now, why now?

SUE MI TERRY:

I think there were a number of factors. First, there was maximum pressure from the United States and maximum pressure was working. Even China was--

MICHAEL MORELL:

These are the sanctions?

SUE MI TERRY:

Yeah, maximum pressure, sanctions. Even China. China, you know, we were always sort of unhappy with China because China was not implementing sanctions in the previous years. But by the fall of 2017, even China was actually implementing sanctions.

So there was actual pressure on the Kim regime. Also that maximum pressure sanctions was accompanied President Trump's fire and fury rhetoric. There was this sense that maybe President Trump was very serious about this bloody nose potential preemptive strike on North Korea.

So I think that maximum pressure was really there. China and South Korea was also very concerned about this potential military strike on North Korea. But also, if you remember, 2017 was a year where Kim Jong-un was doing all these missile tests. Kim Jong-un himself, since coming to power, he did four out of six nuclear tests.

He conducted 90 missile tests, that's double the number that his father and grandfather have tested combined. So North Korea also got to a certain level in their nurse missile capability where I think Kim Jong-un thought, at the end of 2017, that he could negotiate with President Trump from a position of strength. So this is combination of vulnerability, because Kim was facing real pressure, and strength, because North Korea's nuclear missile program did advance to the point where he thought he could sit down with President Trump.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So interesting. Both coming to the table from a position of strength and a bit from a position of weakness.

SUE MI TERRY:

Yes, I think so--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Interesting.

SUE MI TERRY:

--so it's not one factor, but a combination--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah.

SUE MI TERRY:

--of factors.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So why did China change its approach? Why did they toughen up with regard to the north?

SUE MI TERRY:

I do think that both China and South Korea were really spooked by this fire and fury rhetoric coming out of Washington. And I think that is genuine. And so that's one thing. Secondly, China was not happy with Kim Jong-un. If you remember, Xi Jinping has not even met with Kim until the beginning of 2018, when we've decided to engage with Kim in the summitry and diplomacy.

Xi Jinping has not met with Kim Jong-un, even though he met with South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, Lee Myung-bak, and so on. So Xi Jinping was unhappy with Kim for a number of reasons. Kim assassinating his uncle, a number two guy, January Song-thaek, who was a main interlobular with the Chinese, assassinating his brother, half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was under the protection of China.

And all these missile and nuclear tests, Xi Jinping was not happy with Kim. And then the combination effect of President Trump with the fire and fury and genuine concern that Kim's provocations, his missile and nuclear provocations, could lead to a conflict on the Korean peninsula. I think that's why China was actually pressuring Kim and implementing sanctions in the fall of 2017.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sue, the third background question I wanted to get to before we actually look forward to the Vietnam Summit is to talk a little bit about what's happened since the Singapore Summit. Who's gained what, what has changed, what's not changed, kind of a scorecard of where are we.

SUE MI TERRY:

I think Kim has gained more than the United States. Singapore Summit produced this statement, I think most Korea watchers would agree, that it was just kind of a vague aspirational statement. And that since then, we are at an impasse.

Because Singapore Summit produced a statement basically saying, "First, we are going to try to have a better relationship with each other," meaning United States and North Korea. Secondly, there should be some sort of normalization, steps towards normalization.

And then North Korea said that it would work towards denuclearization of the peninsula. But there was not an agreement even on what that means. North Korea means by denuclearization of the Korean peninsula South Korea territory too, right?

That means also end of U.S./South Korea alliance, the troop presence, our U.S. nuclear extended umbrella that we have over South Korea. So North Korea meant denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, literally, when the U.S. meant they're-- North Korea's nuclear program. So we didn't even have an agreed upon definition of denuclearization. We also didn't have an agreed upon agreement on sequencing on what's going to come.

There's no agreement on sequencing. So we are at an impasse. But meanwhile, Kim Jong-un has met with President Moon Jae-in three times. He has met with Xi Jinping four times. And so there is momentum towards normalizing his rule. He looks like a real leader of a normal country. So I think he--

MICHAEL MORELL:

He looks like a reasonable guy.

SUE MI TERRY:

He looks like a reasonable guy. The implementation of sanctions are now loosening on the ground level because China has less incentive to really implement sanctions. So North Korea, without having really have done anything, they look more legitimate, Kim Jong-un looks more legitimate.

He was able to loosen sanctions and the pressure that he was feeling from the international community. Meanwhile, I'm not sure what we have gotten. It's true that they have decommissioned a missile site and so on. But that's sort of an obsolete missile site.

So at least from my perspective, I feel like the North Koreans made cosmetic steps towards the denuclearization. Not anything, you know, concrete. Meanwhile, we gave North Koreans-- we stopped the joint exercises. And so we have not made any kind of real progress towards denuclearization.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So no progress on denuclearization, a relaxation of the implementation of sanctions, largely by China but by others as well? Or just China?

SUE MI TERRY:

By China, Russia. Just by the international community, there is just less incentive to really implement sanctions. But mostly from China, because China is the key in terms of trying to pressure North Korea on the sanctions front.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And a temporary end to U.S. exercises and Kim looks great on the world stage. And we've gotten decommissioning of some old facilities and a continuation of the not testing nuclear weapons and missiles. That's kind of the scorecard.

SUE MI TERRY:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What do you make of the media reports that the intelligence community continues to see work on the ground at missile and nuclear sites?

SUE MI TERRY:

Well, so both the [inaud] from the intelligence community showed that North Korea's working on a nuclear missile program. And even commercial satellite imagery from our own workers, from CSIS, show that all the activities continue.

But some Korea watchers point out that, "Hey, North Korea has never agreed to stop this because Singapore Agreement was not an actual detailed agreement." So I can see that. Why would North Korea actually stop? (LAUGH) There was no agreement on that. And that is the exact criticism of the Singapore Summit. It has not produced an agreement that leads to North Korea actually stopping their work on their nuclear missile program.

MICHAEL MORELL:

In fact, if you're Kim Jong-un, you have an incentive to continue with your program during this period, right? Where nothing's happening before negotiations so that you strengthen your hand.

SUE MI TERRY:

Absolutely. It'll increase your leverage. So the more you have, (LAUGH) the more you--

MICHAEL MORELL:

You can get for it.

SUE MI TERRY:

Yeah, absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So the Vietnam Summit, we're now just days away from it. What do you think both sides are thinking going into the summit? What's the U.S. approach to the summit, do you think, and what's Kim's approach to the summit, do you think?

SUE MI TERRY:

I think both sides are more realistic now. And hopefully they have learned mistakes from the Singapore Summit. So I do think there is gonna be some sort of an interim deal. I don't think it's going to be that satisfying in terms of achieving real concrete steps towards denuclearization.

But I think there's gonna be an interim deal because both sides want some sort of a deal. And that interim deal could look like, you know, where North Korea continues to, you know, promise the continuing halt of testing of their nuclear missiles.

They can say whether they're gonna freeze their nuclear missile program, so they will at least not continue on this front. And then they can say, you know, they might even put Yongbyon nuclear facility on the table for negotiation. But what North Korea is saying is that they need corresponding measures from the United States for them to dismantle Yongbyon.

So that is a real question, what would the United States do? And I think the U.S. is prepared to give North Korea a peace declaration formally announced at the end of the Korean War. I think U.S. is also prepared to open liaison offices to people to people exchanges.

But the key question is the sanctions. Because North Koreans are looking for relaxation of sanctions. And there's some flexibility there, where the United States could still, for example, allow South Korea to go to the United Nations and ask for exemption to reopen the north/south Kaesong complex, to reopen the Kumgang Mountain tourism site. Where United States can say, "You know, we're still maintaining sanctions," but allowing South Korea to do it. So there's some room for an interim deal. I think that's possible.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And how would you feel about that outcome?

SUE MI TERRY:

So very candidly, I have a mixed feeling about this. Because, to be realistic, this is the only outcome that's possible because North Korea is not just going to give up everything when they're not seeing relaxation of sanctions. So if it's an interim deal that's moving towards a real deal down the road, perhaps it's a good thing.

And this is a better scenario than where we were at the end of 2017, where we're talking about a potential conflict with North Korea. But I have deep concerns. I have deep concerns that we're somehow moving towards legitimizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons power.

That we are accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons power and now it's an arms control negotiation. So I have concerns about that. Because North Korea's goal, I don't believe, has changed. Which is to gain international acceptance of North Korea as a responsible nuclear weapons power.

And I'm concerned that we're headed in that direction. So on one hand, I understand why an interim deal might be necessary. But on the other hand, I'm very concerned that we're just heading in the direction where we just accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons power.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sue, what do you make of the debate, I guess, is the right word, with quotes around it, between the IC, which says Kim will never give up his nuclear weapons, and the president, who says, "No, I know him and he will." Right? So what do you think of that? And more importantly, what do you think his intentions are?

Do you think he's in this negotiation with the knowledge that he wants to hang on to some of his program and he's working towards that? Or is he open-minded about what the ultimate outcome looks like? And for the right price, he'd be willing to give everything up. Where are you on that question?

MICHAEL MORELL:

Well, I'm with (LAUGH) the intelligence community on this one. Just having North Korea, followed the North Korean issue for many number of years now, I don't see why Kim would give it up. And there's no reason to even give it up. Because let's say North Korea actually give up nuclear weapons.

How do we even know that? How do we even verify that? So from Kim's perspective, it just doesn't make sense. Now, it makes sense to pretend or act like you might and give up aspects of nuclear program. But it doesn't make sense. And I don't think we need to even necessarily criticize for North Korea.

If you just look at how many nuclear weapons power, how many countries actually give up nuclear weapons. I mean, you can look at South Africa, Ukraine. But that usually requires regime change. I think Kim Jong-un, ultimately, still needs nuclear weapons as a deterrence.

And he doesn't have an incentive to give it up. So if I'm Kim, I would just kind of go along on this negotiation and try to draw just to buy time, and maybe freeze aspects of the program, and even give an aspect of the program, but not entirely give up their nuclear program.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So when you look down the road, where is all this going, where do you think we're gonna end up, and then most importantly, what do you think the implications of that will be for our relationship with North Korea, our relationship with South Korea, our relationship with Japan, and what it means for other countries in the world that might be thinking about going the nuclear route?

SUE MI TERRY:

So I think where we are headed is eventually we're gonna get to a place where we, as an international community, accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons power. Now, whether the U.S. say that as a matter of policy, I think it's gonna take a while for U.S. to acknowledge. We always say, "No, we don't accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons power." But in reality, we are, as--

MICHAEL MORELL:

But if--

SUE MI TERRY:

--we are doing right now.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--if you negotiate with them--

SUE MI TERRY:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--and you cut deals with them--

SUE MI TERRY:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--and you allow them to keep it, you--

SUE MI TERRY:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--have made that--

SUE MI TERRY:

Exactly.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--even if you hadn't said it.

SUE MI TERRY:

Exactly. So beyond this freeze, I think right now we might have a freeze deal. But we are headed towards we might have a deal on intercontinental ballistic missile. Even Secretary Pompeo has hinted at that. He had various interviews when--

MICHAEL MORELL:

What do you mean a deal on--

SUE MI TERRY:

Intercontinental ballistic missile--

MICHAEL MORELL:

--yeah.

SUE MI TERRY:

--where North Koreans agree to give up the intercontinental ballistic missile program or ship out a few. Some of them, not all, but where we are okay for them to just get rid of the intercontinental ballistic missile in exchange for North Korea keeping nuclear warheads and short-range/medium-range missiles that could still target Japan and South Korea. Because--

MICHAEL MORELL:

So we would move to protect ourselves but not our allies in the region?

SUE MI TERRY:

I think it's a real possibility because even Secretary Pompeo I think earlier this month in his interview with Sean Hannity and Fox News, he focused a lot on the goal being protecting the United States mainland. In that particular interview, he didn't even talk about denuclearization, he didn't mention the word denuclearization once.

And he talked a lot about protecting mainland United States. And what that means is intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach United States. But what about 600 missiles that could reach Japan and South Korea? So if you allow this scenario to occur, eventually you can see in the future where the international community is accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons power.

Just like Pakistan. We said, you know, it was an impossible thing for Pakistan but now Pakistan is a nuclear weapons power. So once we accept that, then there is a profound implications of that. South Korea is not always going to be on the progressive governments, such as President Moon.

It could be under a conservative rule. It could be under somebody who thinks this is not acceptable scenario. And they could entertain a possibility of South Korea going nuclear. Then what about Japan? So it's not just inter-Korea, you know, the two Koreas pursuing nuclear weapons, it could be then Japan. So then China and Japan, there's a rivalry of that. So regional proliferation, I think, is a very serious implication. Never mind, like, the message that we send to the rogue actors out there, that all you have to do, just stay on this path and pursue and then you will just eventually get there, where the international community accepts your status as a nuclear weapons power.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You're talking about a major strategic change in East Asia, it sounds to me.

SUE MI TERRY:

Yes. It would completely change the landscape. And if you combine the regional proliferation with U.S. presence, what about is our troops gonna stay in South Korea forever? Once we have this peace declaration and potentially a peace treaty with North Korea, really formally legally ending the Korean War, the justification, the rationale for U.S. troops staying in South Korea would be questioned, I think, by South Koreans, by even potentially Americans. And then what happens when you pull out the troops and then there is regional proliferation? So I think it does have a profound implication for East Asia. And that is my top concern.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So if this happens, sounds to me like you're saying, and I would agree with you, that this would be a major strategic setback for the United States in the region. Who would be responsible for that at the end of the day? Is it just the Trump administration, or does this go all the way back and this is a strategic failure of the United States over multiple administrations? How would you think about that?

SUE MI TERRY:

I would say that I do think it's multiple. It's a failure by everybody. This North Korean problem didn't just come about, (LAUGH) you know, with the Trump administration. Obviously, President Clinton tried to deal with it and we had Bush two terms and Obama two terms. So I think this is just U.S. failure in terms of our policy.

But so it's hard to say who did what wrong exactly because we did try everything in a genuine way. We tried bilateral negotiation with the North Koreans during the Clinton years. We tried multilateral, six party talks. We had multiple agreements with North Korea that didn't work out.

We had President Obama with strategic patience. So, you know, this is not one administration's problem. This is not a Republican problem or a Democrat problem. But, you know, we are where we are. But what I am concerned about with President Trump is I hope that we don't-- he doesn't make a rash decision with alliance equities. Like, I hope he doesn't, you know, sign a peace treaty, for example, with North Korea without having seen something much more concrete coming out of North Korea because, again, it has profound implications.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So what would you advise? Right, given the risks that you see in terms of where this is heading, what would you advise the president to do? What approach would you advise him to take in Vietnam?

SUE MI TERRY:

Well, unfortunately, I think, you know, I wish that President Trump didn't meet with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. So it's just too late to walk that back. I'm not against top level engagement because we tried everything else. But I felt that President Trump met with Kim Jong-un too early. That maximum pressure-- I didn't like fire and fury. But maximum pressure and sanctions were working.

I was just talking about how China was actually implementing sanctions. We should have let that go on for just at least some period of time because it was just working. In Iran, it took three years before-- three years of sanctions, real sanctions being implemented before Iran came to the negotiating table.

But here we are. And we're having yet another second summit. And I hope that we don't just too easily take the sanctions off because I do think we need to continue the pressure on the Kim regime. Obviously, this is what Kim wants very desperately is sanctions relief, sanctions relaxation.

So, you know, I'm not happy with just, you know, North Korea agreeing to, let's say, dismantle sort of aging site. We need to get somehow North Koreans to give us a couple things, concrete things like [a] declaration of their inventory. That would be a good start. Get them to agree on a roadmap and a timeline for actual steps. So I'm not naïve to think that North Korea will give up all of it.

But if they can at least-- we can maintain the pressure and they keep some nuclear missile program, but at least they are saying that they're going to give it up. So they didn't really necessarily get to use it or test, right? So I just hope that he listen-- and I think Secretary Pompeo and Biegun and all those administration officials are--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Steve Biegun, the--

SUE MI TERRY:

The North Korea envoy--

MICHAEL MORELL:

--State Department envoy, yes.

SUE MI TERRY:

I think they know all this. And so I hope that President Trump actually listens to his advisors and not, you know, agree with Kim or put things on the table like alliance equities or a peace treaty or U.S. troops without North Korea really taking these concrete steps. And concrete steps by, what I think are concrete steps are those things like declaration and agreed timeline and so on. Not just, you know, saying, "We're gonna, you know, disable an aging site."

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sue, so let me try this approach out on you and get your reaction to it. So the president says to Kim in Vietnam, "Let me tell you again what North Korea could look like if you denuclearize. You can look like China, you can look like Vietnam. You can have great economic success. But if we don't start moving in that direction, if we don't start negotiations, and here's what that means, declaration, regular meetings, a roadmap to get to denuclearization, a timetable. If we don't get that, I'm not gonna meet with you anymore." What about that kind of approach, as opposed to the one you fear?

SUE MI TERRY:

Well, that would be very sound (LAUGH) advice, I think. I think that would be great. This is my point about prematurely meeting with Kim or just allowing Kim to sit down with President Trump. I mean, this is a big deal for a North Korean leader to get to meet with U.S. president. North Korea's always wanted that.

President Trump was the first and the only person, only U.S. president that allowed that. I do think, you know, I think that might we should try that. But I doubt that President Trump will do that. I think President Trump is the one who, I mean, he wanted to meet with Kim. He wanted to meet with Kim now a second time.

And clearly, when he met with-- when President Trump met with Kim in Singapore, they were not ready because they got nothing out of North Korea. I mean, I absolutely think that would be a wonderful idea if President Trump actually sat down with Kim and said those words.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So one more question. You've been terrific with your time with us. One more question. Do you think that Kim Jong-un's regime can survive an opening to the world? Right, if we have a peace deal, a peace treaty, there's sanctions relief, there's more economic interaction particularly with South Korea and China, do you think the regime can survive that? Is that something that Kim worries about, has to think about?

SUE MI TERRY:

I think Kim worries about that a lot. That's why I genuinely question, you know, can North Korea truly pursue economic reform the way you just described, not just tinkering with it because what about the human rights front? Because with economic reform and opening, you have to open up the country to information.

We forget that North Korean citizens don't have access to internet. They don't have passports. They cannot leave their country. They have to get a permit to go from a city to a city. There's political prison camps that has 220,000 people in them. Is he gonna just completely change the entire country, the system?

And North Korea is different still from China and Vietnam. This is a hereditary dynasty. It's a Confucian, communist, hereditary dynasty. There's no country like North Korea in the world. Will Kim risk dynastic succession, his own regime of power? I'm not sure if he's this kind of person. I really question, is he this kind of transformative leader? I don't see any indication of that. So that is why, for me, I question which North Korea can genuinely reform and open up and transform itself as a normal country.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sue, thank you for taking the time to be with us.

SUE MI TERRY:

Thank you.

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