New Talks with North Korea
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MARGARET WARNER: Today’s announcement is the first positive news in the Korea crisis since last October when North Korea admitted that it had a secret uranium enrichment program underway. Since then, North Korea has expelled U.N. weapons monitors, withdrawn from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and restarted a small plutonium reactor in violation of a 1994 agreement with the U.S.
Here to talk about why North Korea agreed to the Bush administration’s conditions for talks and what may come out of them, we turn to Kurt Campbell, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia in the Clinton administration; he’s now senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington; and Henry Sokolski, former Defense Department Deputy for Non-Proliferation Policy in the first Bush administration. He is now executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center also in Washington.
Welcome to you both. Let’s start, first of all, with this concession by North Korea. Why Henry Sokolski, do you do you think North Korea did drop its demand for one-on-one talks? How much of this was the Iraq factor at work?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think it was that in part – I certainly think that the Russians and Chinese were very impressed by that, and certainly the North Koreans say that they are frightened they’ll be next. All of this together conspired to advise the leaders in North Korea to think twice at least about the form if not the substance of the talks.
KURT M. CAMPBELL: I would agree with Henry. I think the war in Iraq on many dimensions had a very significant impact on the North Korean leader, not really the leadership. I think it was an incredibly bold military campaign and I think what we have convinced the Russians and the Chinese in particular that we can do anything. So if anything China has decided that look, in order to stop the Bush administration from doing something in our neighborhood that we might not like we’re going to move in and we’re going to put the pressure on North Korea, and that’s been significant. And I also think the most important thing that happened in the war in Iraq, ironically, was the toppling and the dragging of these statues. Anyone who’s been to Pyongyang knows that there are a lot of statues like that and I think that was -
MARGARET WARNER: Of Kim Jong-Il.
KURT M. CAMPBELL: — particularly eerie and worrisome to them actually.
MARGARET WARNER: And China of course did play a major role here, I gather, in pressing North Korea to agree. Why do you think China did that because so far hasn’t the U.S. been leaning on China to get involved and China has been saying –.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, China does like having it both ways as best I can tell. They send assistance to get the reprocessing plant started that makes the bombs that we’re worried about but gets the message that if the United States is begging and they have the ability to make things worse in the neighborhood, maybe they ought to be a little helpful in getting the talks going. It’s very hard to read, and I wouldn’t read too much into it.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain for people who don’t follow this all the time why this was such a stumbling block. Why were the North Koreans so hung up on having one-on-one talks? Why was the U.S. so insistent, or the Bush administration, on having multilateral talks?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, the North Koreans make it very clear that they would like to make this dispute about their nuclear program something that is not international. If it goes international, if it’s something that is a violation of an international treaty like the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, or a violation of the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, which it is, they lose.
If they can make this simply a misunderstanding between themselves and Washington they may get some benefit, maybe another agreement, maybe they’ll get energy aid, maybe they’ll get a non-aggression pact that says they are not a threat to the South and if that’s the case, support for us being there with troops will weaken and they will have stronger hand in unifying the South. That was their game. Our game has to be playing it straight. This is a threat not just to South Korea and Japan but to the world. After all, Pakistan was involved in supplying assistance to North Korea. What happens next if others are watching and we reward North Korea may be more proliferation around the world. So we want to put it in the U.N., we want it in the IEA and if can’t get that at least we want a few people around the table when we talk with them.
MARGARET WARNER: How would you — what would you add to the analysis?
KURT M. CAMPBELL: I’d agree with the first part of the assessment. I think the second part – the thinking in the Bush administration is more complicated. I think when this happened, I they were really caught without a game plan.
MARGARET WARNER: Even though they triggered it by going to the North Koreans and saying we know you have this secret program.
KURT M. CAMPBELL: Despite all the recent evidence that the North Koreans will admit to anything they’re accused of — I think it surprised the United States when they came back and said yes we’re doing it, what of it. I think what it did was put it back into an administration that’s deeply divided on Korea policy. And, in fact, I think by saying look it’s not a crisis it’s a misunderstanding, I think if anything it seemed to contradict our very correct policy that we have taken in the Middle East and elsewhere. I think now over time that we have worked with our allies we’re getting our act together on the peninsula better. I still am worried about what I think is a major problem and that is some rupture that has occurred between the United States and South Korea. And the long game on the peninsula is to make sure that we’re well positioned once the unpleasantness in the North has passed.
MARGARET WARNER: Henry Sokolski, has there been damage done during this six month standoff? In other words, what is known about what North Korea has done during this time say since the U.N. monitors were taken out and the seals they had on all this equipment were broken?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, I think to understand the damage, you actually have to leave the region. It’s what other people are making of this, what other would be bomb makers like Iran and people thinking about making bombs–believe it or not the Egyptians and the Saudis who might borrow from the Pakistanis– are saying in their press. And they’re looking at this and saying if you dawdle, you get bombed; that’s Iraq. If you move quickly, you may get rewarded but you surely won’t get penalized.
And so I think where we have hurt ourselves and where we need to move more quickly is to identify North Korea as a violator of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We still have not done that at all. And I think we need to get on to that so that the damage is limited outside of the region. As for what is going on inside the region what is interesting is they pretty much have the bomb material they had before; they have just gotten closer to breaking out sooner.
KURT M. CAMPBELL: I think the most important sort of description of Bush administration policy is the two words that Secretary Rumsfeld often puts when he describes policy towards North Korea. He says “for now.” That was always before the Iraqi war. The interesting thing is going to be now that we’re sort of done, at least with this phase in Iraq, whether U.S. policy will change on the peninsula. And I think what we’re going to see is remember these are talks about talks and they could drag on. I think we could receive some unpleasant information that maybe the North Koreans are looking at starting to reprocess. That could trigger a crisis in which no longer will the administration be saying not to worry and we may go to a much higher level of alert with the prospect of conflict on the peninsula.
MARGARET WARNER: You are saying that the U.S. administration thinks it is possible that during this six months, we should point out that they believe already North Korea has a weapon or two, but that they may have in fact started the reprocessing of that other spent fuel that they could quickly make more weapons grade plutonium?
KURT M. CAMPBELL: I don’t think there’s any evidence that the North Koreans have gone after the canned material to date. And there’s been no discussion of that publicly but however they are primed to do so and there are also other programs that are underway that we think we understand inside of North Korea. All that suggests that the next couple of meetings the important part from the United States’ perspective is to figure out whether the North Koreans are prepared to walk back very substantially and to go back to a non-nuclear state. That I think is the only way that North Korea can be welcomed back at least into the Asian Pacific region.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: We have a hint already about that. On April 12, not too long ago, the spokesman for the foreign ministry of the Democratic People’s Republic Korea went on the Internet and put forward the following formal statement. He says, “As the DPRK is not a signatory to the NPT, there is no ground whatsoever to internationalize the nuclear issue and any attempt to do so would make the solution quite impossible.” He then jumps to his conclusion: “If the U.S. is ready to make a bold switchover in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue,” that is to say do it on our terms, “the DPRK will not stick to any particular dialogue format.”
This tells you they are not going to give up their program and they certainly aren’t going to let the IEA back in. They made that very clear. So the United States is going forward saying please show us that you are out of the bomb making business and please show the world. I think this might be a short dialogue.
KURT M. CAMPBELL: I worry about that myself.
MARGARET WARNER: So then why would North Korea have even agreed to do this – we get back to that question — if they are not ready to give anything at all?
KURT M. CAMPBELL: Well, first of all that’s why you have diplomacy– to figure out what people’s intentions are. They are clearly under enormous pressure from the Chinese. We have heard reports, I think accurate report that the Chinese have cut off fuel oil and other support to North Korea to send a message. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how the North Koreans play this. They could be playing for time. They may want to string this on for a period of time as they do things internally inside North Korea. That would be very dangerous from my perspective.
And I think unfortunately although you can bemoan the fact of how we got here over the last six months but the reality is as you move forward, you can’t take the military option off the table. It’s got to be there. It’s got to be part of how the United States conducts diplomacy. It’s going to be the fear of stick I think ultimately that will bring the North Koreans to the table.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, we need to think a bit more broadly, though, about what a stick might be, because I don’t think bombing is going to be anything anyone’s going to grab for. This administration, Bush, has been very clear that it understands the down sides from an alliance standpoint in trying to start a war it can’t win without the allies’ help and they are not interested.
MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly do you think the administration is ready to give the North Koreans what they say they want which is this signed non-aggression pact?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I hope not.
KURT M. CAMPBELL: I think the biggest problem is and this is where the divisions are, I think there is a fear among some in the Bush administration that to do deal with the North Koreans along these lines will compromise what is called the moral clarity of the administration. And so I think we may have a problem in terms of even if we could reach a deal how we would, you know, sort of shape it in such a way that it doesn’t look like somehow the Bush administration has given in, in one place where we’ve gone to war somewhere else.
MARGARET WARNER: As they say nuclear blackmail. Thank you both. Henry Sokolski, Kurt Campbell.
KURT M. CAMPBELL: Thank you.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Thank you.