Joe Cirincione Interview

Joe Cirincione has a particularly odd claim to fame in popular culture. During an appearance on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert, he tried to expand the devastating power of a nuclear weapon while the host decided he would convince Joe, through a 45 second reenactment of a nuclear explosion. The comedic relief was welcome to the author of Nuclear Nightmares.

Joe spent time in the U.S. House of Representatives as a staffer of the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Government Operations. He was the Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. He was also the Director for Nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And among other notable positions he served as a member of then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s International Security Advisory Board and the Council on Foreign Relations. Joe is the President of Ploughshares Fund.

AJ: When I found out I was going to have this opportunity, I reached out to former ambassador Michael Mcfaul for advice on what to ask such an important voice on Nuclear weapons (thinking he’d give me a great Russia question). He didn’t. He said, “Ask him about what we need to do about North Korea?”

JC: A lot of National Security exports are concerned about North Korea these days. Not because it has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, in fact, it has the smallest. And it’s not because it could actually hit the United States with a weapon, it can’t, but it’s because they have clearly accelerated their nuclear and missile programs over the last couple of years and have a very determined effort to build a long range ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear weapon to the United States. I believe and other experts agree that it’s very likely that at some time in the next 3-5 years they probably will perfect a long range missile that could attack the United States with a nuclear weapon and that is a huge change in the threat that they represent.

North Korea has enough material for about 15-20 nuclear weapons at this point. It’s unclear if they have actually constructed a nuclear weapon. But they have tested 5 times now and usually when a country has that many tests, they pretty much perfected the nuclear weapons design and even into more advanced designs. So we have to assume that North Korea does have the ability to make a nuclear weapon small enough to put on a missile. Fortunately for us, they only have medium and short range missiles right now. Those can hit South Korea and Japan which is making those countries nervous. But they don’t have one that can span the ocean…that can hit us. They’re working on it. The recent test they did was a missile that went less than 1000 km (621 miles) but it was a new type of missile. A solid fuel which we think is probably the first stage of a longer range missile that they want to build. The danger is that that would give the North Koreans the ability to quickly launch a missile.

“…it’s very likely that at some time in the next 3-5 years [North Korea] probably will perfect a long range missile that could attack the United States with a nuclear weapon…”

Right now all that they have are liquid fuel missiles, you have to put those up on a platform, it’s clearly in the open, it takes a day or more to put the liquid fuel in them, they’re very vulnerable to an interdiction strike, the US could knock them out before they launch. A solid fuel missile could be mobile, it can be hidden in tunnels, it can be quickly erected and launched within hours or even minutes. So it represents a bigger threat to the United States. So that’s why Mike McFaul and people like me are worried about North Korea and you have an increasingly unpredictable and even aggressive regime under Kim Jong Un. A lot of people are very worried about the assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong Un’s half brother Kim Jong Nam, both in the way he was killed, using VX-a nerve agent that is banned by international treaties (most countries that had this kind of weapon have gotten rid of it, and here we have him using it in this assassination attempt. Now think about this, you can kill someone in a lot of different ways. You don’t have to do this.

The fact that [Kim Jong Un] used VX is sending a message. [He’s] trying to tell people something about your capabilities, your ruthlessness, your unpredictability, okay, so this killing of one person makes people very nervous about these other capabilities that he has that could kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. Second, he killed this, his half brother, who was under Chinese protection. So, North Korea’s biggest ally is China. China is protecting this guy. He lives in China, and he’s passing through a Malaysian airport and that’s when they get him. That’s an affront to the Chinese. That’s a slap in the face to the Chinese. And, in fact, North Korea and Chinese relations have sharply deteriorated since this assassination. So you’re worried that this guy (Kim Jong Un) is going to take more provocative actions, that there are joint South Korean and US military exercises coming up in the beginning of March (annual exercises).

Every year the North Koreans protest them. They sometimes take actions like shelling on the border-even shelling into South Korea a couple of years ago. So you’re worried that we now have a situation where there’s an increasingly unpredictable-still relatively untested president in North Korea and a relatively unpredictable-still relatively untested president in the United States at a time of increased tensions between the two. So, you’re worried about, whether they intend to or not, the US and North Korea could stumble into a war-that the bellicose rhetoric could escalate into bellicose action and that could escalate into an all out war including the possibility that it could go nuclear and that South Korean or Japanese could be slaughtered. So yeah, I would agree with Michael McFaul, that is one of the biggest crisis we are facing and almost certainly, it’s very likely, that North Korea will be the first international crisis Mr. Trump will face.

AJ: If the North Koreans built a liquid-fuel missile and the U.S. chose to destroy it as a method of preventing an attack, would they inadvertently cause a nuclear disaster themselves?

There is an international convention against striking other countries’ civilian nuclear facilities, and the reason is that such an attack could lead to mass casualties. If a terrorist were to blow up one of the nuclear reactors in the United States, you could have radioactivity spew over thousands of square miles-even tens of thousands of square miles. You would have a Chernobyl-like disaster that could render parts of the United States permanently uninhabitable. The same is true for the Korean Peninsula. If the US were to try and strike and try to take out their plutonium production reactor-that’s a relatively small reactor-but it could still irradiate large parts of North Korea and depending on how the wind is blowing the radiation cloud would certainly extend to South Korea, Japan and even across the ocean. So you always have to be worried about, you know, the kind of instinct that military men often have which is to take out the target-that such an effort would have these unintended but perfectly predictable consequences.

AJ: Trump says he’d have a conversation with Kim Jong Un. I don’t dismiss it out of hand because you can never dismiss anything he says. What would unilateral communication with the North need to look like? Do you have confidence in a State Department run by the CEO of Exxon [Rexx Tillerson] to be able to handle such sensitive talks?

JC: The way you do this, is you start with informal talks. And just this week the Trump administration cancelled the informal talks between the U.S. and North Korean former officials-an unofficial gathering that was going to take place in New York, between the U.S. and North Korean experts. The State Department had given them, were going to give the North Koreans visas to come into the country then late Friday night they called the organizers of the effort [to tell them], we’re cancelling the visas, we’re not going to give them to them-probably a reaction to the assassination of Kim Jong Nam.

If Trump was able to produce a deal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program,
“It would be a deal that would put him in the history books.”

AJ: There was a break in our tape as Joe explained what the U.S. would be looking to accomplish with bilateral or multilateral talks.

JC: …not the elimination of the North Korean program but a freeze on the North Korean program. Dr. Siegfried Hecker former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory says we have to be heading for the 3 No’s: No new weapons, No better weapons and No export of weapons technology. You could probably get that deal, where the North Koreans agree to stop testing missiles and nuclear weapons, not to build anymore of these weapons and not to export any of these technologies to any other countries or groups. That doesn’t solve the problem but it buys you some breathing time. It prevents the problem from getting worse. And it certainly prevents North Korea from developing the kind of capability that they could have to attack the United States. There are plenty of Republican experts out there ready to advise Donald Trump on how to do it. It’s just a question of whether he chooses to go that route…whether he’s got the, I don’t know, the smarts, the understanding, the will to go reach that kind of agreement with the North Koreans. If he did, it would be a deal that would put him in the history books. emphasis, mine.

AJ: As far as U.S.-China relations, are you concerned with the rocky start or do you think it will work itself out?

JC: We have a lot of tensions with China. We have a competitive relationship with China. It’s not really something that threatens the national integrity of the United States. We’re not worried about China attacking us at this point. Will China help us with North Korea? I think they will. They are increasingly frustrated with this regime. As I say, Chinese-North Korean relations right now are probably at the worst they’ve been in decades. I think the Chinese might be getting fed up with Kim Jong Un and worried about what he’s going to do next. And worried about how that can affect Chinese interest. They’re not going to help us because they like us, or they’re our friend. They’re going to cooperate with us because they would consider this in their security interest.

This does have to be a deal between the United States and North Korea but the Chinese, the Japanese, and the South Koreans all have big stakes in this. So they would feel a whole lot more assured about this if we were having the negotiations together with the North Koreans. That’s why we had the 6-party talks to begin with. That’s not a bad framework for how we should proceed.

AJ: Shifting gears to the Iran Deal: A lot of smack was talked about the Iran deal during the 2016 Campaign. Are you concerned about the sanctions Congress passed to punish Iran for violations of the deal? Seems like there’s questions as to whether or not they violated the deal or not?

JC: The nuclear deal was between 6 countries and Iran was just about the nuclear program. That didn’t address their ballistic missile program, their support for hostile groups in the region, or their human rights record. It did one thing and one thing only; it stopped their nuclear weapons program. That is an extremely important thing to accomplish. No matter what else the Iranians do, they’re not going to be backed up by the threat of a nuclear weapon. This is, by far, the most important security agreement in a generation. It really does solve the problem-at least for the next 15 years. And permanently if we use those years wisely to build on the agreement.

The sanctions that were placed on Iran by the president and the Congress in response to their missile test were appropriate. They should not be testing more medium range missiles. They don’t have a weapon that could hit Europe yet-most of Europe. And they don’t have a weapon that could reach the United States and, frankly, it doesn’t look like they’re really trying to build that anymore. It looks like they’re concentrating on taking their short and medium range missiles that can hit their regional rivals and make them more accurate, which would indicate that they’re pretty happy to stick with the conventional missile weapon for their immediate deterrent needs and not trying to develop a long range weapon that can carry a nuclear bomb. But still, they are not supposed to be testing these ballistic missiles. Sanctions were appropriate. The danger is that there are people in the Congress who want to use the missile program or their other actions in the region to try and increase pressure on Iran that will destabilize and topple the government-that’s the agenda some members of Congress, some ideologues here in the United States who want to continue the strategy of the Iraq war. They believe that you can solve these problems by regime change-that you get rid of bad actors by force, economic force or military force if necessary. So I think we’re at a real risk right now of having hard line opponents in the United States kill the Iran agreement by 1000 cuts. More sanctions. More pressures. Perhaps military confrontations with Iran in the Persian Gulf. This is one of the biggest problems I think we face right now, is trying to keep the nuclear deal alive and try to prevent hard liners in both countries from pushing us toward a new conflict.

AJ: Is there anyone in the current administration you trust to give Trump advice you’d be supportive of?

JC: I think Secretary Mattis could be a terrific Secretary of Defense. He’s very tough on Iran but he doesn’t want to go to war with Iran. As a former general, he has a lot of credibility in that regard. I think Secretary of State Tillersen as an oil & gas man, has got the desire to have improved relations with Iran simply, if for no other reason, to do business with them as an oil & gas producer. I don’t really have much respect or trust in the officials in the National Security Council at this point. The National Security adviser, McMaster is still a relatively unknown, don’t know what he’s doing, but the danger is he’s brought in a bunch of ideologues to work on these issues like Miller and Gorka and a few others who still have this neocon regime change mentality. And couple that with fierce Islamophobia that see all of the Islamic countries as threats to the United States. Well, in the region, the biggest Islamic country is Iran-70 million people. They’re more affected by this travel ban than all of the other countries combined. So, yeah, I think there is a strategy to or desire to, by some of the people on the National Security Council to take out Iran. And if that leads to a military conflict they’re perfectly comfortable with it. So one of the biggest dangers with war with Iran is not what the Iranians do, it’s what we do.

AJ: If the goal of removing nuclear weapons from the face of the earth, are we losing the deterrent that’s largely kept us away from hot war with Russia, keep other states from taking a military shot at the US?

JC: Nuclear weapons do have some deterrent value. I think nuclear countries have been deterred from waging large scale war against each other in part because it could escalate into a nuclear war. But there are a lot of other reasons why we haven’t gone to war with each other that had nothing to do with nuclear weapons. A large scale conventional war in Europe would be immensely destructive, obviously, so conventional capabilities also provide a deterrent. Interlocking economic interests are preventing wars between great powers. I think there are reasons there hasn’t been a great powers conflict since World War II that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. And, of course, nuclear weapons have not prevented other wars. The U.S. wars in Korea, in Vietnam, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the conflicts in Africa in the 70’s: the Angola and Mozambique etc.; all were incredibly destructive wars hundreds of thousands to millions of people died in these wars, not just military casualties but civilians casualties. Nuclear weapons did not deter those wars [and others] from happening. So, nuclear weapons are a deterrent factor but they’re not magic. They don’t prevent war. If all nuclear weapons disappeared tomorrow, I think, the United States, China and Russia would still not be going to war with each other. There’re a whole lot of reasons major powers don’t go to war now. Nuclear weapons are clearly a factor but I don’t believe they’re the dominant factor. I don’t think they’re the magic solution to ending wars. Go look at other parts of the world where there are no nuclear weapons and see if advanced industrial countries are going to war with each other. They’re not. They’re not doing that in Japan, not in Asia or South America.They’re not doing that in Europe. There’s reasons France and Germany aren’t going to war against each other and it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons.The deterrent quality of nuclear weapons has become vastly overblown. It’s become a mythology and it’s used to justify the nuclear complex that exists. When you look at this, it’s very hard to find someone who is in favor of the massive number of nuclear weapons we have right now that is not connected to the nuclear weapons complex. It’s no longer strategic or ideological reasons that we hold up the nuclear weapons infrastructure. It’s more about money. It’s more about positions. People who directly benefit financially or organizationally or politically from the nuclear weapons are the primary champions of these weapons. It’s hard to find supporters of the large nuclear weapons that we have outside of these financial, organizational or political considerations and that’s a big change from during the Cold War where you had many, many academics supporting and advocating for the nuclear weapons arsenal. And by the way, the argument, a lot of their justifications back then led to the insanity of the United States having 30,000 nuclear weapons. That’s what we used to have and people used to argue it was absolutely essential, we had to have all those weapons. Now we’re down to about 4,000 in the active stockpile, just about 7,000 total. And you still hear people with impassioned pleas for maintaining the nuclear weapons, and we can’t cut one of them without risking national security. It’s the same kind of bogus argument that you used to hear in the Cold War. They were wrong then, they’re wrong now. It’s really more about contracts and jobs than it is about national security.

AJ: Last Question. Do you support a special prosecutor or a 9/11-type commission to investigate the relationship between the Trump Campaign/Trump Administration and the Putin Regime in Russia?

JC: I do. The concerns about the Trump campaign’s dealing with Russia are deeply troubling. There are dozens of serious and unanswered questions about this and that gets right to the core of whether you can trust the president and his key advisers with the national security of the United States. We have to know what their relationship with Russia is: is money owed, have deals been made, what were these discussions that were going on at such intensity during a campaign, do the Russians have a hold on the president of the United States? Until we know, the president is crippled by doubt. We have to know. Unprecedented is thrown around a lot, but I’m not sure this has ever happened in American history. If it turns out that any part of this is true, it’s unlikely the president will finish out his first term.

“If any part of this is true, it’s unlikely the president will finish out his first term.”

You can read more from Joe Cirincione on Twitter @Cirincione He is president of the Ploughshares Fund and if you want to help the world reach saner conclusions when it comes to nuclear proliferation, you can donate to his group. Visit them at