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North Korea Nuclear Threat

January 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the latest North Korea developments, we get two views. Joel Wit had a 15-year career in the State Department. He helped negotiate the 1994 agreement with North Korea, which aimed to curb that country’s nuclear weapons program. He then was the coordinator in charge of implementing the agreement. Henry Sokolski was deputy for non proliferation policy in the office of the secretary of defense during the first Bush administration. Before that he was senior military legislative aide to Sen. Dan Quayle.

Well, Joel Wit, what is the significance of North Korea unilaterally repudiating the non-proliferation treaty?

JOEL WIT: Well, I think it is a very significant step because North Korea is the first country that has joined the NPT and now has left the NPT, and it’s another move in what appears to be an escalation heading towards the possibility that North Korea will become a state with a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons. And that’s why you’ve heard all the statements of concern from countries in the region.

RAY SUAREZ: Henry Sokolski?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think the crisis is less that of North Korea getting more weapons and much more a crisis of the future of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and whether or not we’re going to enforce it. If this country, which is the only one to leave the treaty and to admit to having cheated, is given a walk or not identified as a violator and treated as such, it’s a blueprint for proliferators around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, does the NPT, as it’s currently written, have teeth, have an enforcement mechanism? Is there any ramification for North Korea leaving?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: It doesn’t have a formal enforcement mechanism. What it has is an appeal through the IAEA when there are violations of its safeguards agreements to the U.N. Security Council for action. That action was put off recently. It needs to be focused on as soon as reasonable.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, some people have been talking about North Korea being in violation for years. So what’s the difference if they’ve chosen this week to repudiate the treaty if they’ve been violating it by some accounts since the ’90s?

JOEL WIT: Well, you know, to understand the history of this, you really have to go back to the ’94 agreement. And there are a lot of different aspects of that. But part of the solution the U.S. reached with North Korea at that time was that North Korea essentially suspended its previous threat to withdraw from the NPT and had been in suspense since that time. And the hope was that the ’94 agreement would bridge from the suspension to their full membership again. Now we never reached that point, and we’re back to where we were, essentially, in 1993 before the agreement was reached.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree that this could, as Joel Wit suggested, open the door for other countries that are watching to see what happens to North Korea?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, as I said before, this is a blueprint for an Iran that is ostensibly compliant with the safeguard agreements to get all the nuclear equipment it needs to make bombs and then break out. If they watch and they see us blink on this one, it will be a green light for many other nations, I’m afraid.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, just a few moments ago, the Reuters news agency reported that nothing particularly new came out of talks — that’s the State Department’s description — with former energy secretary now New Mexico Gov. Richardson. Is that a channel that should be kept open, Joel Wit?

JOEL WIT: Well, I think at this point we need to keep all channels open because we’ve had very few since the crisis started in October. But the point here is that we’re not going to solve this issue through using third parties like Gov. Richardson or other intermediaries. The United States needs to sit down, talk with North Korea, try to reach a diplomatic solution, but at the same time, the United States needs to move forward at the U.N. Security Council to seek tough measures against Pyongyang.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: I would put the emphasis on enforcing the NPT and not doing direct deals anymore. We have done direct deals in ’85 when we first struck the idea that they should join the NPT. At that time we got the Russians to promise to sell them reactors as a sweetener. Then we cut a deal again later in ’92 to get them to do what they immediately violated, which was not to have reprocessing or enrichment plants to make bomb material. And we pulled out our tactical nuclear weapons. The agreed framework has been discussed. I think the time for dealing is over for the moment. We need to get the U.N. and the IAEA to act to get North Korea to act.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Senate is going to be out of session for a little while, but the two senators from Arizona, John Kyle and John McCain, are proposing a bill now that would impose sanctions on North Korea. Is that the way to go?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, I think at a minimum — the short answer is yes. But at a minimum, we should at least cut off the further construction of two nuclear plants, each of which could make 50 bombs’ worth of weapons grade material in the first two months of operation.

RAY SUAREZ: Cut off how, though?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: End it. And particularly the United States is critical in the completion of those reactors. Only U.S. parts are — U.S. parts — excuse me — are critical to complete the plant. We should simply say that we are not going to send those to a known violator of the NPT.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel.

JOEL WIT: Well, you know, look, I don’t disagree that we need to take tough measures now, and I think the North Koreans expect us to take tough measures. And one of the reasons they’re pushing this so far is because we haven’t. The U.S. policy has been in disarray.

But at the same time, in order to secure other countries’ support for tough measures like South Korea, like China, like Japan, like Russia, all of whom are critical in moving forward in the Security Council, we need to demonstrate that we are trying to use diplomacy to resolve this problem peacefully.

RAY SUAREZ: So don’t impose the sanctions? Don’t cut off the parts?

JOEL WIT: No, I think what we need to do is somehow construct a policy that moves forward in the United Nations, moves down the track of sanctions. You don’t have to get sanctions right away. And indeed it will be impossible to get sanctions right away, but we at least have to move forward on that track. And at the same time, we need to explore ways of getting to the table with the North Koreans and trying to work out a diplomatic deal.

If the deal doesn’t work, if the North Koreans refuse to negotiate or refuse to reach a reasonable deal, then we are in a much stronger position to get the support of these other countries for sanctions.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, diplomacy is not simply giving gifts. Diplomacy has to do with using the U.N. and the IAEA, and following the international rules as well. So it is not a question of whether we want to use diplomatic solutions or not, it’s which diplomatic solution. And in the case of North Korea, we have cut too many deals and extended the implementation and enforcement of the NPT now for 17 years. It’s time for them to comply or pay the consequences through the international diplomatic instruments.

JOEL WIT: See, this is where I really have to disagree because there is this idea that diplomacy itself, sitting down and talking with the North Koreans is a gift for them. Well, in fact, diplomacy can be a weapon we use to impose even tougher restraints on their program.

And I think everyone agrees, the administration and its critics, that one of the first priorities when you sit down with the North Koreans, will be to get a very extensive inspection regime that shrinks their nuclear program even further and that gets rid of it. So diplomacy is not a gift. It’s a weapon we can use and it’s also a weapon because it reinforces our efforts to get support from other countries.

RAY SUAREZ: As things stand now, with the cameras out, with the inspectors out, is there any way that the world can reliably know whether they’ve fired up the plant, if they begin to reprocess fuel and create plutonium.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: The bigger point is there’s no way, given that they have covert programs that can be hidden in any of 8,000 plus caves, for us to know whether they’ve ever given up their nuclear program. This is the key reason why, when you sit down to negotiate how we’re going to get them to stop their bomb program, you need to understand that you can neither trust nor verify at this point.

You have not enough information to verify against any data as you did in the case of ten years’ of inspections in Iraq. And given their pattern of behavior, you cannot trust them. They need to begin dismantling to reestablish their credibility for all of the negotiations that Joel wants.

JOEL WIT: Well, look, no one is sitting down at the negotiating table to trust North Korea. But I think other experts would disagree with Henry and would say that we could impose very stringent measures that would work. Very quickly though, you were right in pointing out that now that the IAEA is out of North Korea, there is a problem and that is that we don’t know if they’re moving the fuel rods with the bomb-making materials, to some unknown locations. I think we will know if they restart the plant to separate that material.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Wit, Henry Sokolski, thank you very both.