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North Korea: Blunt Talk

June 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Yesterday, the U.S. announced troops will be pulled back from near the demilitarized zone between north and South Korea. U.S. troops have been stationed close to the DMZ for 50 years, since the end of the Korean War. Wednesday, Margaret Warner talked to members of a congressional delegation just returned from North Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: The lawmakers were the first American political figures to meet North Korean leaders since April, when the Bush administration held three- way talks with the Chinese and North Koreans in Beijing. With me now are two congressman who made the trip. The delegation chairman, Pennsylvania Republican Curt Weldon. He’s vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and New York Democrat Eliot Engel. He’s on the House International Relations Committee. Welcome to you both.

Congressman Weldon, why did you make this trip? What was the purpose?

REP. CURT WELDON: Well, Margaret, I’ve been trying to get into North Korea for the past 14 months, long before the nuclear crisis emerged. Because America, I think, lacks a full understand and appreciation of what North Korea’s all about — the kinds of issues that are important to them. And with the emergence of North Korea as a major enemy of the U.S. and the West, I thought it was important to get over there firsthand and have a chance to talk and dialogue and look for some common ground, so that we can build on that. And with the nuclear crisis emerging, it became all important… more important reason this year to really press the case to go in.

MARGARET WARNER: And Congressman Engel, I gather the North Koreans were quite blunt with you all in declaring that they’re vigorously pursuing the building of nuclear weapons.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Yes, they were blunt with us and we were equally as blunt with them. They confirm that they have nuclear weapons, that they’re continuing their policy of nuclear weapons. And they made it very clear that they want to talk to the United States. And if I come back with one thing in mind, it’s that we have to have dialogue with them. They have nuclear weapons. We need to get rid of their nuclear weapons. And the best way to do it is by speaking with them. We want to have multilateral talks involving other countries, like Japan and South Korea and China and Russia. They want to have one on one talks with the United States. I think we can do both.

The important thing is to talk, and I got the distinct impression that they would trade in their nuclear program if they could have a deal with the United States where either we would sign a non-aggression pact or give them guarantees that we wouldn’t try to topple their regime by force.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Weldon, let’s go back, though, first to what the North Koreans actually said about the state of their program. Flush it out a little more for us. They confirm they had nuclear weapons. What did they say about the reprocessing of these spent fuel rods that have been such concern to the United States?

REP. CURT WELDON: Well, they confirmed not only that they have nuclear weapons and capability, but they had just about completed the reprocessing of 8,000 rods, and were going to use that weapons grade material for the production of additional weapons, which means that the time frame for us to look aggressive and resolve this issue, I think, is in months rather than years. The concern is not just North Korea’s nuclear capability, but the fact that they, in fact, might follow their past practices and offer to sell a nuclear weapon to a terrorist organization.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you all talk about that with them?

REP. CURT WELDON: Absolutely. We talked about the absolute need to follow basically the May 28 meeting in Moscow between Putin and Hu Jintao from China, where they both call for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And we said it’s now not just the U.S., it’s all the nations of the world coming together collectively and saying, you know, you need to go back to what you were doing when you were a signatory to the non- proliferation treaty and abandon your nuclear weapons program.

MARGARET WARNER: But what did they say when you raised the issue of them transferring any of this nuclear material? Did they assert they had the perfect right to do it? Did they say they intended to?

REP. CURT WELDON: We didn’t focus on that, but they certainly eluded to it. They… they maintain they have the right to a deterrent, and their deterrent is their nuclear program. They repeated time and again they were not going to be a Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and were not going to be rolled over by the West, even though we have superior military power. But their trump card was really the nuclear capability that their country possesses.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Engel, how did you find their attitude? You know, sometimes U.S. Officials have described them as belligerent at times. How did you find their approach to the United States?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I wouldn’t classify it as belligerent. I mean, I think they were firm in what they said. But one thing we noticed that as the days wore on– we were there for three days, two-and-a-half days– that they became more and more animated. And we really thought that we had good discussions. Look, it’s a frightening society. You go there; there are billboards all over the place. You have the great leader and the dear leader– which is the current leader and his father who founded the state– plastered all over in every classroom. Wherever you can look, they’re there. It’s almost a frightening experience. But the fact of the matter is they have nuclear weapons and we need to get rid of them. The South Koreans are petrified that something will happen. And the way to go about doing it is in talking with them.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you also detect what Congressman Weldon did, that they’re very concerned they may be the next Saddam Hussein — that the United States has designs on the regime?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Yes, definitely. In every single discussion we had, they mentioned the axis of evil that President Bush has classified them as one of the three countries in the axis of evil — Iraq and Iran being the other countries. That they saw what happened with Iraq, and they’re very much afraid that they could be next. And they do look at their nuclear weapons as leverage or as their trump card; as the one thing that will prevent the United States or the west from attacking them and removing their regime. They said very clearly that they don’t want to unilaterally give up their nuclear weapons because if they did that, they’d have no leverage. But as part of a package and part of a deal, we all got the very distinct impression that they’d be willing to do… to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Weldon, you actually took a proposal, I gather, to them for what a deal might look like. What are the elements?

REP. CURT WELDON: I can’t call it a proposal because we were not negotiating. We weren’t representing the president nor the secretary of state, and they understood that. In fact, they confirmed that in meetings to the foreign minister said we know that you’re not here to represent your country officially. It really is a series of ideas.

I stayed up the first night after meeting with the vice foreign minister from 3:00 A.M. to 5:00 A.M. and wrote out what I thought could be a solution to the problem. And surprisingly, the next night I presented it both to my colleagues privately, and then I privately met with the vice foreign minister for about an hour. And the response was, “this is exactly what we’re looking for. This is great, and this is the kind of basis for a conclusion of the differences that we have.” Now I can’t reveal that now, because that’s not fair to the administration and Colin Powell. I respect, I support them, and I’m waiting to present that to Colin Powell and his people at some point in time. And once that’s over, they’re the appropriate people that can respond because only they can negotiate. Members of Congress don’t have that authority and don’t have that responsibility.

MARGARET WARNER: But did you get the impression that they’re willing to not just freeze one or another nuclear program they have in place, as it happened in ’94, but actually dismantle everything, have intrusive verification, the kind of thing the administration is now looking for?

REP. CURT WELDON: Absolutely. I raised the issue of not just stopping the program and freezing it, but actually of eradicating nuclear capability and something they had not agreed to in the past, to put on the table, eliminating the existing weapons that they have in their invent/ . And their response was positive in all areas. So it really comes down to whether or not the administration wants regime change or thinks they can work with this government, and gradually move toward the kind of reforms that China is engaging in regarding human rights and so forth. And the ideas that I presented to them, ironically, even include a movement toward observer status of the Helsinki final fact, which, in fact, focuses specifically on human rights. So, I am optimistic. Now, there’s a long way to go, because negotiators and diplomats have to dot a lot of i’s and cross a lot of t’s, and that’s got to be something only the administration can do. But I think the foundation is there, and I will look forward to the administration following up in the formal way with the North Korean government.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Engel, you said a couple of times that you got the impression that they see their nuclear weapons and material as a deterrent. Why really would they ever give that up? I mean, isn’t it possible that they just want to have it both ways? They want to get some security guarantees and maybe some economic aid, but that they don’t want to surrender their status as a nuclear weapons power?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I think that the regime is economically near collapse. There’s famine in the country; people are starving, although I must say that people looked pretty good in the capital. But we know outside of the capital, things are very, very bad. I think they are… they are worried about regime change by force. And I think that the thing that’s most important to them is staying in power. And I believe that they would trade away their nuclear program if, indeed, they could remain in power. These are not good people. Their system is… is terrible. It’s alien to us. There are no freedoms. But, you know, there are lots of other countries who started out the same way. You had China and others as well. We have trade with them. We have agreements with them. It certainly makes sense to have this agreement with North Korea. Again, I think it’s a matter of what the administration wants to do.

There have been a lot of bellicose statements coming out of the administration. I hope those bellicose statements are designed to back the North Koreans into a corner, so when we negotiate with them, they’ll be at a disadvantage. I hope the bellicose statements are not in lieu of discussing and negotiating with them. I think what was done during the Clinton administration– which is engaging them in talks– is something that’s very, very important. Now it’s true and I said this to them. They did not keep their promises under their agreements. They tried to blame President Bush for having bad relations, when, in fact, it’s not President Bush or President Clinton or any American president. It’s the fact that the North Koreans have not lived up to their agreements.

They make nuclear weapons when they agreed not to. They’ve withdrawn from the agreements not to have nuclear weapons. They’ve shot missiles over Japan. They’ve done other things; drug trafficking and so on. We raised all these things with them. We were just as tough as can be. But the bottom line, again, is that they have the weapons. We cannot allow these nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and there’s only two ways to go about it: You either negotiate with them or you try to remove it by force. I don’t think we’re ready for force. I think the only thing to do is negotiate and I hope the Bush administration does that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Congressman Eliot Engel and Congressman Curt Weldon, thank you both.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Thank you.

REP. CURT WELDON: Thank you.