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North Korean Government Declares Itself a Nuclear Power

February 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: For more we’re joined by: Wendy Sherman, a former State Department counselor and special advisor on Korea to President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright; and Henry Sokolski, deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the secretary of the defense during the first Bush administration — he’s now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington research organization.

Wendy Sherman, is this first public acknowledgment of a nuclear arsenal a significant shift for North Korea in the way it discusses its program publicly?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think what we’ve seen today is North Korea trying to up the ante on a negotiation that I think will come back together again at some point, and we’ve seen North Korea try to really create a threat of some sort on the world that it has nuclear weapons, that it’s going to suspend its participation in the six-party talks. But what really North Korea is asking for is the attention, the assurance and the incentive to come back to the negotiating table.

RAY SUAREZ: Henry Sokolski, a call for attention?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think this one is a bit different. They’ve called for attention and hinted at having nuclear weapons many times before, after all. What makes this different is they’ve made it absolutely clear that they want to be dealt with as an equal, even though they’ve made it abundantly clear they have violated the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. And that makes it tough.

I think talks are going to have to take a back seat to going to the U.N. Security Council now because we are backing into another dispute with Iran, which I understand you’re going to be talking about later in the program. These things are starting to link up, and so this latest move by them to up the ante, I’m afraid, won’t work the way they think it will.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you explain, how do you understand the companion declaration, which was that it was unilaterally pulling out of the multiparty talks?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: They’re not getting what they want in those talks, is my hunch. They want to be treated as an equal. We want to isolate them as a violator first and get them to recant. They don’t see any progress in those talks, and we are stuck if we think we can go further by engaging in negotiations with them at this point.

I think we’re going to have to first go back to where we were nearly two years ago when they were reported out from the International Atomic Energy Agency as being non-compliant with the treaty. The U.N. Security Council was supposed to take up that action and we pulled that action down off the agenda so we could do the six-party talks.

RAY SUAREZ: Wendy Sherman, do you agree, is the U.N. the next stop, or is there still life in the six-party talks?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think there may still be life if the United States is serious about having a true negotiation. Henry is quite right that there have been meetings of the six-party talks, but until the last round, the United States would not put a proposal on the table because the position and the posture of the Bush administration was North Korea, you have to recant, you have to dismantle completely and verifiably first, and then there might be some positive things coming your way and a warming of relations.

Although that is something that makes us all feel very good and most decidedly North Korea should step back from its nuclear weapons program and completely and verifiably dismantle it, it is not likely for that to happen in one fell swoop and although we all want freedom and democracy around the world, although we all want the dismantlement of all such nuclear weapons programs, we have to deal with the reality that’s in front of us, be a tough negotiator, get them to slow down this program and ultimately stop it and dismantle it.

We wouldn’t have the votes in the Security Council. It would escalate the situation. We would move to a very tough point, and as Henry points out, there is a connection to Iran. North Korea is watching the tough language and the tough rhetoric toward Iran. They’re afraid that toughness is coming their way. And we could see both of these situations get out of control very quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, permanent five member China today was far more conciliatory than the United States about the North Korean statement. A foreign ministry spokesman said China has all along being staying in close contact with other parties to strive for the early start of the next round of talks and the favorable results thereof. Would a country that does that be willing to vote with the United States in the Security Council?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Don’t know. But I have to tell you, the correlation of forces in the U.N. are a lot better than they used to be, largely because of the six-party talks. I think they have served their purpose in demonstrating what is possible through diplomacy with neighbors. And at this moment, I think if you want diplomacy to work with regard to North Korea, it’s a good time to take a time-out.

I’ll tell you why. You have the International Atomic Energy Agency, its director general, the French government, the European Union, the U.S. State Department all of one view that a country that violates and has been identified as having violated by the IAEA should not be allowed to withdraw from the treaty without being identified as a violator and being sanctioned in some fashion.

That is a rare moment. It needs to be taken advantage of. What China will do if it finds itself on the outs, Russia is the question, not China, is worth finding out. I can tell you this: If you don’t even try to identify them as a violator, this is your last chance. You’re not going to get as clear a case. Iran is not as clear a case for sure. And if you want to go to the U.N. on Iran, you better first make sure that you go to the U.N. with regard to North Korea.

RAY SUAREZ: Wendy Sherman, what do you think of that suggestion?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think that we’re a ways away of taking action in the Security Council. The votes aren’t there but we haven’t really tried diplomacy in either the situation of Iran or North Korea.

In the situation of Iran, we have said that the Europeans can negotiate with Iran, but we will not join them in those talks. We’ll be the bad cop. They can be the good cop. In the North Korean situation, we have come to the six-party talks, but until recently have not put a proposal on the table, and even when we put the proposal on the table, we were really not willing to discuss it until North Korea took all the actions that we wanted them to take.

Tough negotiations where we get more than we give and that means ensuring the security of the United States of America is worth the dialogue, is worth the negotiation is worth taking the six-party talks seriously, and we have yet to really do that.

RAY SUAREZ: What did you make of the statements from senior administration officials today? You had the secretary of state responding to the North Korean announcement as if it was true, and the secretary of defense saying, well, I have no proof, no reason to say beyond a shadow of a doubt that North Korea has nuclear weapons.

WENDY SHERMAN: I think there was something similar about both of them, and that was trying to take a low-key approach, to not let this escalate out of control. I disagreed with the tone of it in the sense of saying that this is really about North Korea changing their behavior. They’re just isolating themselves further.

Well that is a clear instance in which we’re going to get an escalation of circumstances because North Korea will feel they have to match that. But on the issues of whether they have nuclear weapons, I don’t think anyone knows for an absolute verifiable certainty, but I think that unlike Iraq, there is pretty good evidence that North Korea certainly has the plutonium to be weaponized for at least one or two weapons and maybe as many as four, six or eight. And most people believe they have gone ahead and acquired those one to two weapons.

I think it is an accurate statement that Secretary Rumsfeld probably does not know for an absolute certainty, but there is no question; on this Henry and I would agree: North Korea is the most dangerous place on earth in terms of having nuclear weapons and perhaps transferring that technology to others, which is incredibly dangerous. So it’s time to take it quite seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you share Donald Rumsfeld’s caution? Were you more ready than he seemed to be…

HENRY SOKOLSKI: I’m more ready. I think we get caught up in interesting questions that beg the things that we clearly know. What we clearly know is that this country, North Korea, has been let off the hook from the rules for over a decade now. They were supposed to be inspected regularly starting in 1993 or ’94. We gave them an out. We said, “You won’t have to be inspected if you eventually comply.” They never did.

Then they were reported to the U.N., and they were supposed to take action at the U.N. But we pulled that off the table, as well. We said, no, we’re going to give extra diplomacy a chance. And we gave them another two years. We know now that the North Koreans have said, well, we’ve to the bomb, we have pulled out of the NPT and we want to be treated as an equal.

I think the danger isn’t just North Korea. It’s how the world will view this if they think North Korea can get away with this, Iran won’t be the only problem, North Korea won’t be the only problem, it will be a whole host of neighbors saying, well, we should follow their case. Let’s follow in suit.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a quick read from both of you on what the next step is and who has to make it. Wendy Sherman?

WENDY SHERMAN: I think the next step is several things. One, I think we need to hear from all countries in the international community. We’ve begun to hear today, to hear people say it’s time to get back to the negotiating table and these talks should continue.

Secondly, we need to have some of the actors of both in front of the curtain and behind the curtain encourage North Korea to do so. China’s been effective in the past at helping to make that happen, as has South Korea. The United States needs to be careful about its rhetoric, not because that’s a reason for North Korea to be belligerent, but because it does make it more difficult.

And it would be helpful for the United States to send a signal that we’re serious about negotiating, perhaps announcing a new special envoy. I think going to the Security Council is premature. It will escalate the situation. We need to go in another direction.

RAY SUAREZ: And Henry Sokolski quickly.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: There is an NPT review conference this year. Everyone is concerned about the future of this treaty. If we cannot after 14 years of clear violations and identification of the clearest case take up a report that has been sitting for two years at the U.N. and do something to at least say, yes, they have violated, I think that treaty is in trouble and I think we’re in for a much rougher time than worrying just about North Korea.

RAY SUAREZ: Henry Sokolski, Wendy Sherman, thank you both.

WENDY SHERMAN: Thank you.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Thank you.