TOPICS > Politics

Newsmaker: South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun

May 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

MR. LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome.

PRESIDENT ROH: How do you do?

MR. LEHRER: Yesterday after your meeting you and President Bush said that you would not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea. What exactly does that mean?

PRESIDENT ROH: It means that they will not be allowed to repossess the plutonium to make new nuclear weapons, and it also means that if they had produced any nuclear weapons before, they will have to dismantle them.

MR. LEHRER: Do you believe they have nuclear weapons right now?

PRESIDENT ROH: There are many different ideas on that question, but as for the Korean government’s official position, we cannot verify right now. We have not verified it as of yet.

MR. LEHRER: So what are you going to do about it, about finding out about what they do have?

PRESIDENT ROH: On this issue to Korean government and the United States government will do everything in their power to verify the intelligence, verify that proposition, and if they–their statement that they have nuclear weapons was made just before the negotiations, so we need to verify whether the statement if true or not, and we will resort to many channels to verify whether they already have nuclear weapons or not.

MR. LEHRER: Let’s assume that you are able to verify that they do in fact have such weapons. Then how do you go about getting North Korea to get rid of them?

PRESIDENT ROH: North Korea and the United States are still continuing their negotiations, and I don’t think that the door to the trilateral talks has been closed yet. And in the midst of such negotiation efforts, I don’t think it’s a wise idea to hypothesize the worst case scenario and to talk about what to do about it. And if–and doing so will pour cold water over the negotiation efforts of the parties, and I will be very cautious in saying those words.

MR. LEHRER: Yesterday President Bush said there had been progress. What did he mean by that?

PRESIDENT ROH: Up to this point there have been some media reports about there being some disagreements between Korea and the United States over how to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue, and such media reports have been posing some difficulties in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

But yesterday President Bush and I agreed on the principle that this matter should be resolved peacefully, and in the course of such efforts we will coordinate closely and incorporate closely with each other, and I think President Bush meant this.

MR. LEHRER: Do you and your fellow citizens of South Korea fear that North Korea might use nuclear weapons against your country sometime?

PRESIDENT ROH: I guess we cannot exclude any possibilities at this point of time, but right now I think North Korea is using this as a bargaining chip to secure guarantees for their securities and to receive economic assistance from the outside world, but there is a possibility that if negotiations don’t work out well, they might even export the nuclear weapons they might have. And also if they feel their regime is threatened, then I think they might even use their nuclear weapons that they might have. But however, I don’t think that they will use nuclear weapons to preemptively strike South Korea.

MR. LEHRER: North Korea continually says, Mr. President, that they fear the United States, they fear an attack from the United States. Is that justified?

PRESIDENT ROH: I don’t think I can judge whether or not that statement is–can be justified or not, but it is true that they are fearful of the United States, and I am sure that the Iraqi war have increased their fears against the United States.

MR. LEHRER: Because the message they received from the Iraqi war is: “you may be next, North Korea?”

PRESIDENT ROH: Rather than getting the message that they might be next after Iraq, I think they realized and they witnessed the tremendous war capabilities of the United States and that’s why they are fearful now.

MR. LEHRER: Do you believe this fear helps the situation in terms of solving it peacefully with North Korea or hurts it?

PRESIDENT ROH: I think there is a bigger possibility of this factor being a helpful one towards peaceful resolution.

MR. LEHRER: Do you believe that the United States, China and others, as well as South Korea, should find ways to give North Korea what it wants in exchange for its dismantling whatever nuclear program it has?

PRESIDENT ROH: It is unpredictable what course of action North Korea will take in the coming days, but no government has a policy that can never be changed. They can never be unchanged. And depending on the circumstances or conditions, any government’s policy can change I think.

And when Korea, China, Japan and the United States offers what North Korea wants, maybe North Korea’s attitude may chance in the future, and that is if the North Korea receives security guarantees and if it receives an opportunity to reform and open up its economy, then there is a high likelihood that it will be willing to renounce its nuclear program.

MR. LEHRER: I take it you would support that course of action?

PRESIDENT ROH: That’s right.

MR. LEHRER: There are some people in the United States who say that would be nuclear blackmail. North Korea says, “We have nuclear weapons. If you don’t give us what we want, we will use them.” And that’s not a way to conduct international relations. How do you respond to that, sir?

PRESIDENT ROH: Yes, I think it is against the moral principles of the international community to relent to any threats, and especially from the United States’ perspective it’s a matter of pride to bend to North Korea’s threats. I understand that. But it is a usual tactic for the negotiating parties to resort to bluffs or exaggerations, and I think it’s quite common to arrive at a compromise through giving and taking.

MR. LEHRER: There have been reports, Mr. President, that there are some officials in the U.S. government–not the president, but others in the high levels of the U.S. government–who believe the only way North Korea will ever, ever agree to getting rid of its nuclear program is by changing the regime in North Korea. Do you agree with that?

PRESIDENT ROH: I am aware that such opinions exist in the United States, but I don’t think it’s the actual stance adopted by the U.S. government. And in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue may be removing the North Korean regime is a possibility, but also making North Korea regime change is a possibility. And South Korea, since removing North Korean regime to resolve this nuclear issue may entail such great risks for South Korea as well, we think it’s safer to lead North Korea to reform and open up itself.

I think this is what the United States did to China in helping China to open up in the ’70s, and I want this history to be repeated on the Korean Peninsula.

MR. LEHRER: Did you express this belief to President Bush?


MR. LEHRER: And how did he respond?

PRESIDENT ROH: Well, we had an exchange of views on many, many topics and many subjects, and I don’t — I can’t really tell on which specific items that we reached agreement on or not, but comprehensively we agreed on the principle of resolving this issue through a peaceful means, and I think President Bush and myself agreed to the foregoing means, the foregoing approach to the North Korean nuclear issue.

MR. LEHRER: Did you specifically ask President Bush to ask his folks to quit talking about a military solution to the problem in North Korea?

PRESIDENT ROH: No, I didn’t ask him such a request.

MR. LEHRER: Would it be correct to read your position, however, that this is not helpful when Americans talk about possibly solving this problem militarily?

PRESIDENT ROH: Well, I’ll give you a long answer, a long-version answer to the question. Korea has suffered a lot of tribulations and trials over the past several hundreds of years, and our people have been devastated by a war half a century ago. And thanks to the support of the United States and thanks to our own efforts, we have been–we have reached a threshold of prosperity.

Another war on the Korean Peninsula means that we will lose everything that we have achieved so far, and we will revert back to our dire past, and we have not recovered completely from the fratricidal war that happened 50 years ago, and another such war between brothers and sisters will take longer for us to recover from the wounds and we may never fully recover from such a wound.

We want to do everything we can to pursue the path to a peaceful resolution and when we have exhausted all the efforts then at that point we will consult with the United States on the next course of action.

MR. LEHRER: President Bush has in the pat referred to North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.” How do you see North Korea?

PRESIDENT ROH: I think North Korea is insisting on an obsolete regime and the values that it pursues are not in the interest of its people. And its behavior and its demands are not those that can be accepted by the international community. And I–so therefore I don’t think North Korea is a partner to be trusted, and I don’t agree with its regime.

MR. LEHRER: Do you see a time, however, when North and South Korea will become one again?


MR. LEHRER: When you look ahead, how long a time will it take to get this done?

PRESIDENT ROH: I think it will take a lot of time, but we will never give up the hope that we will be unified one day. At the time of the President Lincoln, if the United States had been divided into two countries, the South and the North, I’m sure that mistrust and hatred and war and confrontation will be a norm for the United States as well, and the United States would not have achieved the level of prosperity that it’s enjoying now.

Likewise, Korea has been divided into two countries, and mistrust of each other and confrontation and hatred of the other have been continuing up to this day, and therefore, even if we need to take more time, we want to achieve unification ultimately.

MR. LEHRER: Mr. President, thank you very much.