RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Terrorism is just one of the big, foreign-policy challenges out there right now, especially when it comes to the U.S. perspective. There's also Russia, climate change. One, though, stands apart, the nuclear threat from North Korea. North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un has continued to develop nuclear weapons and test them, despite warnings from the Trump administration.
The standoff creates real-world, individual consequences. American college student Otto Warmbier remains in a coma since North Korea released him last week. He'd been sentenced to hard labor after authorities accused him of trying to steal a propaganda banner from his hotel last year.
Journalist Mark Bowden has been looking closely at the North Korean threat. And he reports on what options there are to combat it in his new article called "The Worst Problem On Earth." He joins us on Skype. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARK BOWDEN: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So this is a big question, but how imminent could a nuclear attack from North Korea be? This is the big question, right? I mean, there are all these incremental reports about - they're getting closer and closer. But where are we right now?
BOWDEN: Well, they already have nuclear weapons. And, you know, they, as far as we know, lack the capability of building one small enough to fit on top of a missile. But they certainly could deliver a nuclear weapon via a less conventional method almost anywhere in Korea right now. And it's possible, too, that they have missiles that could strike Guam or Japan. Some have speculated that they already could do that with a nuclear device.
MARTIN: In the piece, you accuse President Trump of being - these are your words - ignorant to the long history of North Korea's nuclear proliferation. What do you point to as the evidence of that ignorance?
BOWDEN: Just that, you know, I actually know him. He's a person who has posted to me that he's never read a book in his life. Korea is a fairly esoteric subject matter. Unless you seek out information about it and study it, you wouldn't know - it seems to me - the history of it, other than maybe a brief summary. So, you know, and I've also spoken to, you know, the experts who are in the military and in the National Security Council who are left with trying to figure this out. And I'm not getting any indication that there's been a big learning effort.
MARTIN: So taking that into account, how is that - what you characterize as ignorance - how is that affecting the U.S. options when it comes to combating this threat right now?
BOWDEN: Well, one of the things that President Trump has done is, you know, sort of tweet belligerently about how he can prevent North Korea from building a nuclear weapon or an ICBM. And these kinds of comments are exactly what scare the people who've been trying to deal with the North Korean threat for years because it seems, you know, this is one situation in the world that cries out for patience and kind of strategic poise. And that's been absent so far.
MARTIN: Well, let me ask you - strategic poise - I mean, if that's how you characterize the U.S. policy now for decades, what has it gotten us? I mean, North Korea is still just closer than ever to not only developing the weapon but the systems to deliver it.
BOWDEN: It has gotten us a standoff that has essentially meant that we haven't been at war with North Korea. You know, there've been relatively minor incidents over the past 30 or 40 years. But, given the potential for loss of life on the Korean Peninsula itself, it seems to me that the pre-eminent goal is to prevent hostilities from breaking out.
MARTIN: So you go through four broad approaches, four different options. And we don't have the time to go through all of them. But one, on one extreme, is the idea of just taking out the entire Kim dynasty and all of the weapons and arsenal. Why wouldn't that work?
BOWDEN: It wouldn't work because it couldn't happen fast enough. I mean, we could launch an overwhelming strike. And without question, the United States and South Korea could eliminate the threat of North Korea fairly rapidly. But the problem is that if only one or two of the weapons of mass destruction that they have were to strike Seoul or Japan or any place else - for instance, any of the camps where American troops are based in Korea - you could be looking at a situation where millions of people would be killed. He has chemical and biological weapons in addition to nukes. And Seoul is only 50 miles from the demilitarized zone. So even though - even if you got 99.9 percent of North Korea's arsenal, if only 1 percent were to strike successfully, you'd be looking at one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.
MARTIN: And just very briefly, why do you argue that acceptance is the most reasonable path?
BOWDEN: Because it seems to me, the only sensible thing to do is to prevent that scenario from happening. And the only hope, it seems to me, is to get China to pressure North Korea into renouncing this pursuit of nuclear weapons or hope that situations change in North Korea.
MARTIN: Mark Bowden is national correspondent for The Atlantic. His cover story, "The Worst Problem On Earth," is out today. Thanks so much for your time this morning.
BOWDEN: You're welcome.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, it’s said that North Korea has continued to develop and test nuclear weapons despite warnings from the Trump administration. While North Korea is believed to still be developing nuclear weapons, it has not tested any since President Trump took office.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.