AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For more on this situation, we called on Joseph DeTrani. He's a former U.S. diplomat. He's helped broker past nuclear talks with North Korea. DeTrani told me when he hears the words all options are on the table, a number of non-military steps also come to mind.
JOSEPH DETRANI: Obviously negotiations are part of the equation. But one has to consider what one wants to achieve with negotiations because they've failed in the past. Indeed, if North Korea were willing, as they were in February of 2012, to halt the nuclear and missile programs, that would build the confidence necessary to say, OK, if you're prepared to halt those programs, we're prepared to respond. And that would sort of build some trust between the respective countries. And right now, there is no trust.
And I think that would be the beginning of a phase where North Korea could then look at what their needs are. They need security assurances. They feel vulnerable. And when they speak of a peace treaty, I think they're very sincere about that. We could talk about that. Sanctions that are biting - we could talk about that. But what they have to do in my view is show a willingness to stop the escalation and the provocations and attempts at intimidating. That's not going anywhere any longer.
CORNISH: You know, Secretary of State Tillerson was also critical of U.S. overtures in the past, say, going back to the '90s - famine food aid or fuel support to North Korea. And he says that basically got us nothing in terms of freezing North Korea's nuclear program. And he says the era of strategic patience has ended. What does he mean by that?
DETRANI: Well, I think we will not be patient to North Korea's provocative actions. We will not be patient to additional missile launches, nuclear tests. We will not be patient to them threatening our allies or partners and certainly the United States with preemptive nuclear strikes. We will not be patient.
CORNISH: So before, we let those things kind of go by.
DETRANI: We will not. And indeed in the past, we've worked hard at stopping their programs, and we did in 1994 and 2005. And so we've had partial success. But he is correct, though. In the last 20-plus years, we have failed. North Korea now has greater nuclear and missile capabilities than ever before. So what have we - of all those attempts, what have we gotten - a stronger, more threatening North Korea.
CORNISH: You know, you've said that there should be no light between the U.S. and China on a policy for dealing with North Korea. But is North Korea listening to China?
DETRANI: I think North Korea has no choice but to listen to China. Ninety percent of their trade is with China. Their fuel - literally all of their fuel comes from China. China is vital to the security of North Korea, the ability of the leadership to sustain their governance of North Korea. So China is so important. They have all - they do have the cards.
CORNISH: Has the Trump administration positioned itself to leverage that relationship to get those conversations going?
DETRANI: I think the secretary's visit to Beijing is movement exactly in that direction of letting China know that the High Altitude Area Defense system that's going into South Korea - our intentions are to move forward with that and to enhance missile defense capabilities in the region if North Korea persists what they're doing.
CORNISH: So our own tensions with China you don't think will get in the way of whatever negotiations we want to get going with North Korea?
DETRANI: I'm thinking that our relationship with China would engender a greater willingness on the part of China to do more with North Korea.
CORNISH: How optimistic are you that this administration can make progress where past administrations have not?
DETRANI: That's a very difficult question because over 20 years, we've tried. And as the secretary of state indicated, clearly we failed. But we have to continue to try because North Korea with nuclear weapons and building more of an arsenal is not the path.
CORNISH: Joseph DeTrani was formerly the State Department's special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. He's now president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security. Thank you for coming in to speak with us.
DETRANI: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.