GWEN IFILL: Today, North Korea announced they are pulling out of nuclear talks intended to slow their weapons program. That came a day after the United Nations issued a statement criticizing a recent test missile launch.
For more, we go to Balbina Hwang, who was a State Department adviser on the Korean nuclear negotiations until January. She now teaches at the National Defense University. And Selig Harrison, the director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy, he’s visited North Korea 11 times, most recently in January.
Welcome to you both.
Is stepping away — Balbina Hwang, I’ll start with you — is stepping away from these negotiations a really hostile act?
BALBINA HWANG, National Defense University: Well, it’s not hostile, but it’s certainly not helpful. And it does raise serious questions about how we will proceed to get to what the international community has said we wanted to do, which is to denuclearize North Korea and, in fact, what North Korea had declared that it would do several years ago.
GWEN IFILL: Was this a surprising step that they took today, Mr. Harrison?
SELIG HARRISON, Center for International Policy: Not at all. You know that on March 26th they said very explicitly that if even one word of criticism of their missile launch came out of the United Nations, they would discontinue the six-party negotiating process on nuclear weapons, which it started in 2005.
Now, that doesn’t rule out bilateral negotiations starting with the United States. So I think this is a very significant development, a regrettable development.
I think, really, in retrospect, we’re going to look back on it as one of the first big foreign policy mistakes of the Obama administration, because we knew this was coming. The North Koreans made it very clear. And they…
A multilateral effort
GWEN IFILL: Were they looking for an excuse to walk away?
SELIG HARRISON: No, I don't think so. Well, you can say that the North Koreans feel very beleaguered now. After all, Kim Jong-il, the leader, did have a stroke in August. He's had diabetes in the past, so his life expectancy is a big question mark.
They are nervous about the -- they're fearful that the outside world will take advantage of the situation in North Korea to try to bring down the regime. After all, they went through the whole Bush period with regime change as the avowed aim for the first half of the Bush administration.
And so I think that they're in a very beleaguered state of mind. They're hunkering down, as it were. The hardliners have gained in strength since Kim Jong-il's illness in the relative power balance between hardliners and the pragmatists.
GWEN IFILL: I want to get to all of that, but I want to go back to Ms. Hwang. There was something you said at the very beginning of your comments there, which is that this was a terrible foreign policy blunder for the Obama administration. And I assume he means by speaking to the U.N. or getting the U.N. involved in this way.
BALBINA HWANG: Well, no, I disagree. I actually don't think it's an indictment on U.S. policy at all, and I think that's the point, is that there are those that are trying to shift this to, exactly as Sig pointed out, a bilateral track. And I think that perhaps that is true, that North Korea would like to see that.
But the reality is that the last eight years and when President Obama came into office, he also agreed that this was a multilateral effort and there was no attempt to change the process that was established under the Bush administration.
GWEN IFILL: Should there have been?
BALBINA HWANG: It's multilateral.
GWEN IFILL: Should there have been?
BALBINA HWANG: No, I don't think so, because the point is, is that North Korea's nuclear programs and also its missile programs are not just a problem for the United States. Arguably, it's the United States that is -- actually, it's a strategic threat, but it's the countries of the region that face a far more direct threat from North Korea's missile programs and nuclear programs. It's absolutely multilateral.
Shift in North Korea's strategy
GWEN IFILL: To casual watchers of what's been happening on the Korean peninsula, it's like we've been on this merry-go-round before. This time, as North Korea steps away, Mr. Harrison, does this mean it's all over, these talks?
SELIG HARRISON: What's over is what used to be the U.S. formula, which was, if you're a good boy and you denuclearize, then we'll move on to normalize relations with you. The North Koreans made clear when I was there in January that now they've changed their whole strategy.
They now say, if you want denuclearization, first you have to normalize, because the reason we want a nuclear deterrent is because we don't trust you. We think you want to bring down our regime using the pressure of the nuclear option. So first make friends with us. Show us you're not hostile, which they think we were in our U.N. resolution the other day. And then we'll talk about denuclearizing when we don't think we have anything to fear from you.
GWEN IFILL: Was the U.N. supposed to just sit by and let them do this? Was ignoring this the best option?
BALBINA HWANG: Well, of course not. And, in fact, one could argue that this was rather a tame response by the United Nations. First of all, it wasn't a U.N. Security Council resolution. It was one step short of that.
And, frankly, if you read the statement very carefully, it was a serious statement, but in no way was it threatening. In fact, the statement clearly says that the United Nations encourages a peaceful resolution, a cooperative resolution, and encourages North Korea to come back with other parties and to talk.
China, Russia urged restraint
GWEN IFILL: Today, it was interesting. At the White House, the word was that this was a provocative threat. And at the State Department, the word is that this was unnecessary. And we're talking about diplo-speak here, but is that a significant difference?
BALBINA HWANG: Well, no, not necessarily, but remember, too, what Sig said earlier. He's absolutely right: North Korea did tell us in advance that they would react badly if the matter was brought to the U.N. On the other hand, they did say that, if the United Nations took action, they would consider it a declaration of war.
So North Korea's strong statement in reaction is still shy or short of something far more provocative and threatening.
SELIG HARRISON: Why did Russia and China try to restrain us from taking this action at the U.N.? They knew it was going to lead to an end to the six-party process.
More important, the U.N. Outer Space Treaty permitted North Korea to do what it did. Japan has conducted 25 satellite launches, which have demonstrated rocket capabilities equal to those that we have in our missiles. South Korea is going to have a rocket launch -- a satellite launch in July.
And one of the reasons the North Koreans wanted to have theirs was to get theirs in first. They also wanted to have it because they think they can sell stuff to the Iranians and the Syrians. They wanted a big show for the big Supreme People's Assembly that they had.
I mean, this was not really provocative to anybody. And that's why Russia and China did their very best...
GWEN IFILL: You disagree?
BALBINA HWANG: Well, Sig, the point is, is that South Korea and Japan do not have U.N. sanctions prohibiting testing of satellite or long-range missile capabilities. That's the difference.
The point is, is that China and Russia opposed a much stronger U.N. sanction for a variety of different reasons, and it's not because they felt that North Korea would pull of the six-party talks.
Nuclear situation in Iran
GWEN IFILL: Is there a ripple effect which is possible? Is Iran watching this very carefully and saying, "Oh, we don't have to do this" -- you know, there have been those olive branches extended to Iran. Can they say, "We don't need to do this"?
SELIG HARRISON: No, I think the two situations are extremely different. Iran is a much more difficult problem, really, because Iran thinks of itself as a potential great power. I've been there three times in the last year. They think it's their destiny to be a major power, and nuclear weapons are part of that.
North Korea is a poor, struggling, pathetic country, a country to be pitied much more than to be feared, with tremendous economic problems. They've got to normalize relations with us. They've got to get things from the outside world. But they're afraid we're going to do them in first with a nuclear pre-emptive strike.
BALBINA HWANG: Well, I disagree. I mean, I think that North Korea does have grandiose visions, as well. And, frankly speaking, North Korea may relatively be certainly very poor and very weak compared to all of these great powers that surround them.
On the other hand, I don't know any other country of North Korea's relative poorness that is able to hold at bay the world's, you know, four major powers and South Korea.
GWEN IFILL: Final thought, briefly. Kim Jong-il, we saw the pictures of him. He didn't look at all well. Does his health or the potential for his not being that healthy have an effect on what happens here?
SELIG HARRISON: Very much so, because I think that they think of the outside world as trying to move in and take advantage of the potential instability in North Korea and, indeed, trying to promote a collapse of the regime. And that makes them hunker down more.
But our objective has to be to get their nuclear weapons program capped at the four or five weapons they now had. We should have kept our eye on the ball, kept these negotiations in play, instead of playing this game we played at the U.N., which was kind of a ceremonial game, and let's hope that now we can, through bilateral channels, get back into nuclear negotiations before too long.
GWEN IFILL: Kim Jong-il, as well?
BALBINA HWANG: The danger here is -- of course, we don't know what's really going on in North Korea. The danger is, is that we approach negotiations with North Korea assuming that there will be instability.
I think we have to be very, very careful. We shouldn't make assumptions about the questions that we certainly don't know about Kim Jong-il.
GWEN IFILL: Balbina Hwang and Selig Harrison, thank you both very much.
BALBINA HWANG: Thank you.
SELIG HARRISON: Thank you.