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MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, just how big of a threat is North Korea and what should President Obama do about it?
A new unprecedented round of high anxiety over North Korea. The threats from a new, young, and largely known dictator have Washington unnerved?
MR. CHUCK HAGEL (Secretary of Defense): We take those threats seriously. We have to take those threats seriously.
GREGORY: And good Sunday morning. Battles at home and abroad for the president as Congress returns Monday from a two-week Easter recess, it's shaping up to be a spring filled with debate on the budget, immigration and guns. And now, overseas, a brewing crisis in North Korea as the president tries to defuse escalating tensions. At the center of it all, a young, untested leader, Kim Jong-un, who is making increasingly strident warnings about an imminent war with South Korea and the U.S., apparently upset about some new tougher U.N. sanctions and recent joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The escalating rhetoric has U.S. officials quite unnerved. Defense Secretary Hagel announcing this weekend a decision to postpone a long scheduled missile test to avoid making an already tense situation even worse. Secretary of State Kerry left yesterday for the Middle East, but he'll be traveling on to Seoul and Beijing later in the week hoping to get North Korea's closest ally China to help dealing with this growing crisis. That's where I want to begin here this morning. Joining me Republican Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham. Senator, welcome back to the program.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC, Judiciary Committee, Armed Services Committee, Budget Committee): Thank you.
GREGORY: You're just back to the U.S. from being in the Middle East and
SEN. GRAHAM: Yeah.
GREGORY: I want to ask you about Syria as well in just a couple of minutes, but let me start with North Korea and what it is we're dealing with, a couple of headlines in the magazines caught my attention in The Economist and in The Week magazine, "Is Kim Crazy?" "Korean roulette." This war of words escalation-- are we headed toward a conflict with North Korea?
SEN. GRAHAM: I think what bothers me the most is that the tolerance in South Korea for this kind of provocation is greatly-- is-- you know, they're-- they're not going to put up with this anymore. If there were a South Korean naval vessel sunk this year, anytime soon, or a shelling of North-- South Korean Island by North Korea, I think the new president of South Korea would be compelled to act. I think the North Koreans are overplaying their hands. And this administration has acted responsibly. I'm glad we're not doing the ballistic missile test. I'm glad we had the B-2s in the theater where they could see them. I'm glad we're telling our allies South Korea and Japan, we literally have your back. And the North Koreans need to understand if they attack an American interest or an ally of this country, they're going to pay a heavy price.
GREGORY: Let's talk about U.S. interests and they're quite real in the region. Look at the map first of all to give our viewers some perspective. You've got Japan, you have Guam where we had some missile batteries placed, or moving toward North Korea and South Korea. And, of course, in the South and the southern part of that peninsula, you've got over 28,000 U.S. troops, so the danger is real. If some kind of conflict breaks out between the North and the South, we are literally quite there in the middle.
SEN. GRAHAM: We're in the middle. I'm glad we're there with our allies. But the big difference to me is the politics in South Korea are changing by the day regarding North Korea, so if there's some provocation, it won't be business as usual by South Korea. I could see a major war happening if the North Koreans overplay their hand this time because the public in South Korea, the United States, and I think the whole region is fed up with this guy.
GREGORY: But what happens if there is some kind of conflict between the-- the North and the South? That becomes a conflict with United States, doesn't it?
SEN. GRAHAM: The-- the North loses and the South wins with our help, that's what happens.
GREGORY: And what about the rest of the region, you're talking about Japan, you're talking about more nuclear weapons in--
SEN. GRAHAM: People-- well, North-- Japan and South Korea have not gone nuclear unlike the Middle East, because they trust us. As long as South Korea and Japan trust us to be in the fight, they won't go down the nuclear road. It's important that they always believe we have their back, and it's important that North Korea knows what happens if they engage anybody in the region associated with us, including our own troops, they lose.
GREGORY: Before I ask you about the-- more-- a little bit more about the U.S. response, who is Kim Jong-un? We put together some facts so people have some sense of him. It was his father Kim Jong-il who ran the country, so he's his son. We don't even know his actual age. He's about 29-years-old. He came to power in December of 2011, educated in-- in the west. I know from talking to people at the White House one of the big fears is miscalculation here. We don't really talk to the North.
SEN. GRAHAM: If you sold this as a movie script, I don't think he'd buy-- buy it. A 30-year-old guy whose father was born out of a mountain, who had nine holes in ones the first time he played golf. This is a surreal place called North Korea and I blame the Chinese more than anybody else. They're afraid of reunification. They don't want a democratic Korea next to China, so they're propping up this crazy regime, and they could determine the fate of North Korea better than anybody on the planet. We are up our game regarding China.
GREGORY: I want to ask you about Syria before we have a-- get some more perspective on-- on North Korea. You met with opposition forces in Syria.
SEN. GRAHAM: Yeah.
GREGORY: You have been talking about more actively helping them, getting the U.S. more involved. Do you have a different view about that now?
SEN. GRAHAM: A bit. The Syrian Opposition Council replaced the Syrian National Council. They want more assistance. I think we should give them more assistance. But there're two things that drive my thinking on Syria. The key to Jordan is going to be a casualty. The worst is yet to come regarding Syria if we don't fix this soon. Jordan is being overrun by Syrian refugees. And before I would arm the rebels, I want a commitment by them that they will allow an international force to secure the 17 chemical weapon sites, enough weapons to kill millions of people, and commit to destroying those weapons. In the new Syria, they will reject owning chemical weapons. If they would do those two things, I told them, I think there would be more involvement by the-- by the Congress, there would be more willingness by the Congress to help them. They've got to commit to destroying those weapons and allowing us-- the international community controlling those weapons. I don't know what they're going to say but if they publicly made those two statements, I think it would be easier for Congress to help them. And the radical elements in the Syrian-free army are growing by the day. They-- the worst is yet to come. We could lose to the king of Jordan. This could be a nightmare in the making with these chemical weapons following into radical Islamists. The number of radical Jihadists on the ground in Syria today is growing everyday this war goes on.
GREGORY: Let me get to more on perspective on North Korea, our lead story this morning. And as I mentioned, Michele Flournoy, Bill Richardson, Andrea Mitchell here. Governor, you've got a lot of experience with North Korea. What is going on here?
FMR. GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-New Mexico): I think Kim Jong-un is playing to three audiences, and this is why he's doing these provocative acts. And by the way, Andrea was with me on one of the eight trips I did. First, he's playing to the North Korean generals. They run the show, the military. He's playing to the Korean workers party, the leadership there. Secondly, he's playing to his own people. He got burned by that missile test that failed, and he feels he has the buttress his domestic standing. And I think the third thing that he's doing is he's testing the new South Korean president. Every years-- every five years or so when a new South Korean president comes in, North Korea does a provocative act so the issue is what do we do about it. I think what we've done in terms of the military posture, the stealth activity makes sense but I think eventually there's going to have to be some diplomacy and the six-party talks I don't think are working. I think China has to be the key. We have to really get them to lean on North Korea. But I think a new diplomatic track is needed. Some out of the box diplomacy involving the U.N., the World Bank, some special envoys outside of government, because I think we need to get to this new young leader who I don't think is calling the show but nonetheless because it's a (Unintelligible), because he is nominally in charge, is probably the key player there.
GREGORY: Michele Flournoy, from a defense point of view, here was-- here was Secretary of Defense Hagel this week underlining how serious this situation was when he talked about the threat.
MR. CHUCK HAGEL (Secretary of Defense): They have nuclear capacity now. They have missile delivery capacity now. And so as they have ratcheted up their bellicose, dangerous rhetoric and some of the actions they've taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger.
GREGORY: Two things going on there. One, kind of ratcheting up that-- the escalation in words which the administration wanted to tamp down, but Kim Jong-un is saying, look, I'm not talking about losing my nuclear weapons. I won't even get into those discussions. So from a diplomatic point of view, what do you do?
MS. MICHELE FLOURNOY (Former Under Secretary of Defense Policy, Co-Chair of the Board of Directors, Center for a New American Security): I think we have to convince this new, young, inexperienced leader that he's playing a losing hand. That the only way out of the box to-- to get the economic development he wants, to-- to get the progress that he wants is to ratchet back the rhetoric, come back into compliance with the international obligations that North Korea has and to get serious about trying to implement some of the commitments he's made at the negotiating table in the past. I think in the meantime, the U.S. has been right to focus on bolstering deterrents, bolstering defense, standing shoulder to shoulder with our ally, South Korea.
FMR. GOV. RICHARDSON: I would only add this. I think the goal should not just be to calm him down, to cool the rhetoric down. The goal has to be how do we get North Korea back to the negotiating table on nuclear proliferation, on denuclearization. They have to do it because that whole Asian area is a tinderbox and we have enormous interest there. We have thirty thousand American troops. They've got hundreds of missiles. They've got maybe up to five to six nuclear weapons. They've got a belligerent leadership. It's in our national interest to try to diplomatically defuse the situation. But we need a new policy and I think Secretary Kerry is the kind of person that can come up with that.
GREGORY: Andrea, a more basic question. It's very hard to explain to your children how North Korea can exist this way in the 21st century and yet we continue with belligerent leadership, with a starving population, with a country completely isolated from the rest of the world. How is this possible?
MS. ANDREA MITCHELL (Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, NBC News; Host, Andrea Mitchell Reports): And the question for your children and all children, for all of us, who are really children in watching this because it is so inexplicable. It is a cartoon leadership. It has to be done through China. I think the new Chinese President. She is the only leverage that we have. There have been some promising signs and conversations according to Tom Donilon, Secretary Kerry--I'll be with him on this trip next weekend--will be on Sunday morning in China. And the whole hope is that he is finally-- and this new leadership, but this is a critical time. Is China prepared to exert maximum pressure because as Bill Richardson and Senator Graham and Michele Flournoy have said, no one knows really what is motivating him except trying to assert his leadership. Who is the puppeteer really behind the scenes? The military most likely. And is he going to do something irrational or will there be a miscalculation? I've been at the DMZ many times. I've been to Pyongyang a couple of times, once with Bill Richardson. And the proximity, 800,000 forward deployed North Korean troops and the South Korean and our Americans, now Senator Graham is absolutely correct. We will obliterate North Korea. But in that first 24 hours, I think the military game plan is that we would lose enormously. You have got 35 million people living within miles.
GREGORY: How dangerous-- you once said that North Korea was as dangerous as Iraq back-- the last decade. Do you still think they're that dangerous?
SEN. GRAHAM: Crazy people and nuclear weapons who proliferate those weapons throughout the world, who support terrorist organizations are incredibly dangerous. That's why we need to stop Syria from getting chemical-- chemical weapons need to be control in Syria. The Ayatollahs in Iran are just as crazy as this guy in North Korea. But the one thing I'm trying to stress is the politics in South Korea is changed. There will be no more tolerance for sinking South Korean naval vessels or killing civilians in South Korea by North Korea. They need to understand that. That's my biggest fear guys that if there's a provocation, South Korea is not going to take it anymore and the reason they don't have nuclear weapons and Japan doesn't, because they trust us.
SEN. GRAHAM: And so I appreciate what this administration is doing, standing with our allies.
GREGORY: But Michele, what do you do with the South Koreans right now from a military point of view to tell them to trust the United States, as the Senator says, and not act too rashly?
MS. FLOURNOY: I think we hold-- hold them as close as possible. We do as much as we can to reassure them. The fact that we-- we have gone ahead with these annual exercises that we sent B-2 bombers, which is a sign of our extended deterrence, our strategic deterrence to South Korea, all of that is incredibly important. We've also done extensive planning with them on how to deal with various scenarios of provocation and how we would respond together as an alliance so that they don't feel that they have to lash out unilaterally by themselves.
MS. MITCHELL: A quick question about diplomacy. It's great to say negotiate with-- with the North, but Bill Clinton's White House tried to. George W. Bush has tried to. They got the deal on blowing up their Yongbyon reactor. And now he says, he's re-starting that reactor. So he seems to take the grain, take the fuel, take the money, and then go right ahead and break agreements or at least this-- this regime does. So diplomacy is really a big challenge with this regime.
FMR. GOV. RICHARDSON: It's a challenge but we have to do it. What's the alternative? I think we have to recognize probably the longer range threat is the spread of nuclear materials, which you don't want, is North Korea selling enriched uranium to-- to Iran. They did it to Syria, Pakistan. That's-- that's-- and I remember asking North Korean leader, I said, are you guys exporting nuclear materials? He said, maybe. If you continue sanctions we've got to get foreign exchange.
FMR. GOV. RICHARDSON: Now, you know, that's pretty devastating. So, look, I think diplomacy has been tried. I think President Clinton probably was the most successful getting an agreement done. President Bush, I think, started to negotiate with him. They're very difficult but I think we need a new negotiating track and I think the key is going to be the United States and China. South Korea is a major player but I think for domestic reasons, they-- they got to be shunned.
GREGORY: I've got a couple minutes left with you, Senator Graham, and I want to turn domestically to negotiations that have to do with other things like immigration and the budget. Let me start with the budget. Do you think that the president's framework that he announced, including Chained CPI, a gradual way to cut Social Security benefits, is a good-faith effort
SEN. GRAHAM: Yes.
GREGORY: on his part? Do you think he can actually win some-- some new revenues as a budget deal by doing it?
SEN. GRAHAM: There are nuggets of his budget that I think are optimistic. It's overall a bad plan for the economy, but when you look at Chained CPI and Medicare reductions, we're beginning to set the stage for the grand bargain. Chained CPI, adjust/harmonize the retirement age of Medicare with Social Security, do some means testing for both programs and in return flattening the tax code, generate about 600 billion dollars of revenue. And if you look at these changes over 30 years, there's four to five trillion dollars in savings. So I'm looking for the biggest spending cut in American history by reforming entitlements, saving those entitlements. And the president is showing a little bit of leg here. This is-- this is somewhat encouraging. His overall budget is not going to make it but he has sort of made a step forward in the entitlement reform process that would allow a guy like me to begin talk about flattening the tax code and generating more revenue.
GREGORY: Do you think a grand bargain is possible by July?
SEN. GRAHAM: I think if you do immigration and the grand bargain this year will dominate the 21st century, yes. The key to the grand bargain is can we solve immigration? If we can in a bipartisan fashion fix a broken immigration system to regain our lost sovereignty, control who comes to the country, who gets a job, a robust temporary worker program and as to Republicans, the politics of self-deportation are behind us. Mitt Romney is a good man. He ran in many ways a good campaign, but it was an impractical solution, quite frankly. It was offensive. Every corner of the Republican Party from libertarians, the RNC, House Republicans and the rank and file Republican Party member is now understanding there has to be an earned pathway to citizenship. That gives us leverage on immigration with our Democratic friends.
GREGORY: I want to follow on that in just a second but I-- I also want to follow up-- you're putting new revenue, as a Republican, you're putting that on the table and you think it ought to be
SEN. GRAHAM: If we do substantial entitlement reform that will save four to five trillion over a 30-year window, I think there's
GREGORY: This is what the president is talking about in your view substantial?
SEN. GRAHAM: Yeah, more than that. This is a step in the right direction, but harmonizing the age for retirement, means testing both programs, CPI adjustments gets you pretty much where you need to go.
GREGORY: Is the Republican leader of the Senate there yet?
SEN. GRAHAM: Well, I can tell you this, that the Republican Party would benefit as well as the Democratic Party from saving the American economy from becoming Greece. If the president will lead on this, and he showed some leadership, no Re-- no Democrat will get to his right. Nobody is going to adjust the age for retirement if the president doesn't embrace it. Nobody is going to adjust CPI if the president doesn't embrace it. So he's showing some signs of leadership that's been lacking. I'm encouraged and that puts the burden on us to do the same thing. I think we will.
GREGORY: On immigration, what stands in the way of a deal?
SEN. GRAHAM: We've got an agreement between labor and business about the Guest Worker Program, but we're revisiting that. We're hoping to get this thing done in the next couple of weeks, is the Guest Worker Program. High skill and low skill labor. How can you access it in an affordable fashion when you can't find an American worker? If we're reasonable with 11 million, if we all give them a pathway to citizenship that's earned and hard and fair, get in the back of the line, pay taxes, learn the English language, then the Democratic Party has to give us the Guest Worker Program to help our economy. That's what we're arguing over.
MS. FLOURNOY: Will Marco Rubio be there for you?
SEN. GRAHAM: Marco Rubio has been a game changer in my party. He will be there only if the Democrats will embrace a Guest Worker Program and a merit-based immigration system to replace the broken one and we'll regain our sovereignty back, securing our borders and having control of jobs through E-Verify. Marco will be there. If we get the 11 million right on our side it puts pressure on the Democrats to come up with a workable guest work-- a practical Guest Worker Program. Marco has been indispensable, 70:30, we get there.
GREGORY: One more political question before you go, and that is-- but you know, before I do that, let me get Governor Richardson just your take on this-- on the immigration fight, where do you think it's going?
FMR. GOV. RICHARDSON: Well, I'm-- I'm very pleased with the work of the Gang of 8. I'm pleased with this labor agreement between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce. Like if they could get together, Republicans and Democrats can get together. But I have some significant worries, and I'm a Hispanic-American. One, the path to citizenship, don't make it too burdensome. Make it achievable. I've seen reports of this 13 years to get there. You know, let's-- let's be reasonable.
GREGORY: The president wants it to be certain, right? He wants it be
FMR. GOV. RICHARDSON: Yeah. And-- and that it not be conditional.
FMR. GOV. RICHARDSON: Number two, tying legalization, the path to citizenship to border security. I was a border governor. You know, there has to be dramatic improvement in border security but tie so many people coming in, then you can legalize, that is unacceptable. And, lastly, have some way-- have some way that the drop dead date as late as possible so that as many of the 12 million that are here can get in. You know, I-- I just think that this Gang of 8 work is important. And I hope it continues, but you know, it's-- it's also recog-- we have to recognize the humanity and the-- and the improvements in the economy of the millions of workers that are here and also the politics. And I think
GREGORY: Right. Let me get a final thought on this before I take a break.
SEN. GRAHAM: Well, we're not being overrun by Canadians but we're being overrun by people who live in poor and corrupt countries who come here to get work. I understand that. But we got to regain our sovereignty, we're going to control our border, and there will be border security tied to the pathway to citizenship. There will be an earned pathway to citizenship. You're not going to break in the line. It will be available to everybody who works hard, pays a fine, passes a background check. But, we are going to secure that border and it will be tied to a pathway to citizenship or there will be no deal.
GREGORY: I want to-- we're going to talk after this break about presidential politics, waiting for Hillary Clinton. If she's the nominee, can Republicans beat her?
SEN. GRAHAM: I think after eight years of Barack Obama, if things don't change the next Democrat running for president will be in trouble. She will be a formidable candidate. I think her time as secretary of state is mixed. Benghazi is yet to be told completely. But anybody who underestimates her on the Republican side would do so at a peril but, yes she can be beaten. Anybody can be beaten in this country.
GREGORY: All right, Senator Graham. Thank you as always. Good to have you here.
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