Former CIA Director Leon Panetta Friday urged President Donald Trump to exercise caution when dealing with North Korea and to take care not to engage in any "precipitous action" in reacting to President Kim Jong Un's threat for a nuclear test this weekend.
"There is no question this is a tinderbox," Panetta, also the chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton, told the MSNBC "Andrea Mitchell Reports" program.
"It has been for a long time, but we're at a time when there is a potential for provocation . . . the words from the administration are creating an even higher volume in terms of the provocations that are going on. I think we have to be careful here."
There is a reason no president has pulled the trigger on North Korea, and that's because of the "20 million people in Seoul that would be a target," said Panetta.
"We have a potential for a nuclear war that would take millions of lives," Panetta told Mitchell. "I think we have to exercise some care here. We just gave China the opportunity to engage [North Korea]. Let's see how they do."
South Korea currently is being run by an acting government, Mitchell pointed out, after the impeachment of South Korea President Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in March by the country's Constitutional Court in a unanimous ruling over a corruption scandal.
"If there was military action now, pre-emptive say from the U.S. side, that would have a big impact on South Korea's willingness to handle the U.S. military presence in the future," Mitchell said.
Panetta agreed it would be a dangerous step to take preemptive action against North Korea, as there would be a counterreaction, most likely aimed at Seoul.
The United States has always had heavy forces for years in the region, he continued, and could have taken action at any point before now, but "we always hesitated for good reason, because of of the consequences that could result."
Meanwhile, the United States is already aware of North Korea's capabilities, including its work on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
"They're not there yet in terms of administration, but at the same time, they have developed a mobile missile system," Panetta said. "They fired missiles from submarines and they have a dozen nuclear weapons. The reality is that our best approach is to increase the defenses, as we have with those missiles in South Korea. Increase our military presence there as we have with the U.S.S. Vincent and other Navy ships in that area, at the same time."
Panetta said it's also important to increase sanctions against North Korea and pressure on China to come to the negotiating table.
There has always been hope that regime change would happen on its own to remove Kim from office, but that hasn't happened, even though the nation's economy is one of the world's worst, said Panetta.
"This has been going on for 60 years, but at the same time, every leader tends to become much more dominating in terms of the way they pressure the North Korean people, the way they go after those that they suspect of trying to be disloyal to the leader," said Panetta.
"I think there comes a point at which these leaders, by conducting themselves this way, they tend to overreact and take action, which ultimately could undermine their own regime. I think the self destructing, as did the Soviet Union, I think it is a real possibility."
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