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Obama, S. Korean President Criticize N. Korea’s Actions

June 16, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak criticized North Korea's recent provocations Tuesday in the latest round of the ongoing diplomatic standoff. Analysts consider how international pressure and new sanctions may affect the region.
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GWEN IFILL: As tensions continue to mount between the U.S. and North Korea, President Obama played host today to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Mr. Obama used the occasion to toughen his approach toward the reclusive and diplomatically uncooperative North Koreans.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: There’s been a pattern in the past where North Korea behaves in a belligerent fashion and, if it waits long enough, is then rewarded with foodstuffs and fuel and concessionary loans and a whole range of benefits. And I think that’s the pattern that they’ve come to expect.

The message we’re sending — and when I say “we,” not simply the United States and the Republic of Korea, but I think the international community — is, we are going to break that pattern.

GWEN IFILL: In recent weeks, North Korea has launched a series of missile and nuclear weapons tests. And last week, two U.S. journalists were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for allegedly crossing into North Korea illegally.

The international community has retaliated. Last week, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to enhance sanctions against North Korea. China and Russia, which have traditionally resisted such moves, agreed.

In Rose Garden remarks today, Mr. Obama said the sanctions will allow the U.S. and other nations to step up interception, tracking and inspections of North Korean ships suspected of carrying banned cargo.

North Korea has said forced inspections would be an act of war.

Both presidents reiterated today that they would not allow North Korea to become a nuclear power.

BARACK OBAMA: Its nuclear and ballistic missile programs pose a grave threat to peace and security of Asia and to the world.

GWEN IFILL: It fell to President Lee to appeal for clemency for the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, as well as a South Korean worker who was also being held.

LEE MYUNG-BAK, President of South Korea (through translator): They haven’t been giving us any explanation. I urge the North Koreans to release not only the two American journalists, but also the South Korean worker, without any conditions.

GWEN IFILL: At a Senate Armed Services hearing today, the Pentagon’s second-in-charge, William Lynn, said North Korea’s arms build-up is a danger.

WILLIAM LYNN, Deputy Defense Secretary: Certainly their testing program has accelerated with the Taepodong-2 launches and the nuclear weapons, nuclear device test. We think it ultimately could, if taken to its conclusion, it could present a threat to the U.S. homeland.

GWEN IFILL: What President Obama today called the grave threat posed by North Korea is scheduled to be on the agenda when the Group of Eight industrialized nations meet in Italy next month.

Obama signals policy shift

Dennis Wilder
Brookings Institution
The president now has signaled today that the United States has got to take a tougher stance with the North Koreans.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on all of this, we turn to two former officials who have experience dealing with North Korea. Dennis Wilder was special assistant to the president and senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the second Bush administration. He's now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And Joel Wit was a career State Department official dealing with Northeast Asia and arms control. He's now a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Wilder, what were Presidents Obama and Lee signaling today in that joint meeting?

DENNIS WILDER, Former Asia Director, National Security Council: I think President Obama was signaling a shift, a significant shift in American policy on North Korea.

When President Obama came into office, he felt that, if he could change the tone of the relationship with North Korea, there was a chance to negotiate. So he sent Steve Bosworth to Beijing with a message for the North Koreans that Ambassador Bosworth was ready to go into North Korea, ready to talk.

The North Koreans, for their own reasons -- largely, I think, involved in their succession issues, but also because of the fears they had about where the South was going, decided not to take him up on that offer. And, of course, we had the missile test and then the nuclear test.

The president now has signaled today that the United States has got to take a tougher stance with the North Koreans, has got to show that there are things they have done here that are beyond the bounds of the international community and that they must be held responsible.

GWEN IFILL: Joel Wit, when you watched that today, did you get the sense that all of the time we've spent on this program and other places talking about the six-party talks, the negotiations, the multilateral efforts to get North Korea in line, that that's all over now?

JOEL WIT, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: Well, I don't think it's over, but certainly the likelihood of the six-party talks occurring is becoming lesser and lesser. And so the issue now becomes, how do we deflect North Korea off its course and back to negotiations?

Whether they're in the six-party talks or bilateral negotiations or some other form doesn't really matter. We just need to get back to negotiations and to try to work out a peaceful solution to this situation.

Talks 'a long way off'

Dennis Wilder
Brookings Institution
[W]e have the means in place now to begin to send a message to the North Koreans: Don't even think about selling weapons of mass destruction.

GWEN IFILL: Do you actually see any -- did you hear anything today which sounded like anyone was talking about negotiation? We heard about interdiction, and we heard tough language.

JOEL WIT: Well, yes, you heard tough language, and that's, of course, intended to try to deflect North Korea off its course. But if you read the transcript of the presentations, President Obama mentioned that there is an alternative course of action for the North Koreans, and that's to get back to the talks and to build ties with other countries in the region and the international community. And administration officials say that repeatedly at the same time that they use these tough statements.

GWEN IFILL: Dennis Wilder, how realistic or likely is it that talks will begin? Or did today signal something different?

DENNIS WILDER: I think we have to be realistic. I think right now talks are a long way off. And we have to worry about something that wasn't said today up on Capitol Hill.

We have the ability to defend ourselves against a missile attack from North Korea. I'm not worried. We have 20 interceptors. We're going to grow that force to 30 interceptors.

What is more worrisome is that this North Korean leader has shown the ability to proliferate. He sold a complete package to Syria for a plutonium plant that could have led to bomb-making in Syria.

Given his erratic behavior this spring, we have to worry that he could export these materials. And that is why the new U.N. resolution is very focused on interdiction of North Korean shipping, because if we find evidence that he is sending fissile material out of the country, we must stop it before we have an international disaster.

GWEN IFILL: The interdiction idea, stopping ships on the high seas, boarding them potentially, that comes with its own risk, doesn't it?

DENNIS WILDER: Yes. But if you look at the resolution, it was very carefully and, I think, artfully worded. The resolution does not give us the right to board these ships forcibly. What it gives us the right to do, and other countries -- importantly, China and others in the region -- to challenge a ship and to say, "We believe you have something on board that needs inspection."

If the ship does not stop, then we have the right to say, "You need to divert to a port." If it doesn't divert to a port and it continues on its journey, the United Nations can tell any port along its route that they should not provide it fuel or supplies. And the ship could literally be stopped at sea in that manner.

So we have the means in place now to begin to send a message to the North Koreans: Don't even think about selling weapons of mass destruction.

GWEN IFILL: Joel Wit, if the U.S. has the means, which you can challenge if you like, but does it have the leverage?

JOEL WIT: Well, I think I agree with Dennis, but I have to disagree also that the United Nations resolution does give us more authority and other countries more authority to stop North Korean and other ships or to have them diverted to ports where they can be inspected.

But the point here is that we shouldn't kid ourselves. It makes it harder for North Korea to proliferate with that right, but the fact is, finding anything that they send abroad is going to be very difficult.

And let me just give you a very quick example. Libya was building nuclear weapons. They would have needed 5,000 centrifuges -- those are the machines that are needed to produce fissile material for those weapons -- to produce three weapons a year.

One ship, one cargo ship can carry 60,000 centrifuges. So unless we have the information to know where that ship is -- and we need to have that information in real time -- it's going to be very difficult to stop that kind of shipment.

Imprisoned journalists' fate

Joel Wit
Former State Department Official
I have a friend who's worked with the North Koreans a lot who says, if there's anything the North Koreans know how to deal with, it's a frontal assault.

GWEN IFILL: Dennis Wilder, I noticed today that it was President Lee who mentioned the plight of the two American journalists who are being held in North Korea, as well as a South Korean worker. Is there a reason why that was not something that the president himself would mention?

DENNIS WILDER: Yes. First of all, I think the administration is very carefully trying to keep the issue of the two American journalists out of the negotiations over the nuclear issues.

This is a humanitarian issue. These two women, whatever they did up there on the border -- and it's still not clear whether they actually went into North Korea or not -- but whatever they did, they've been tried, they've been sentenced. Now it's time for the North Koreans to show their humanity, to build some goodwill in the world by releasing them.

I think that the president doesn't want to say anything that would jeopardize attempts to get them home soon.

GWEN IFILL: Joel Wit, what do you think about that? Is this something that the United States could have anything to do with? You noticed that today the South Korean president was at the White House, and today the North Koreans came out and said, "Here are the charges against that these women have admitted to." This is what the government said, but that they seemed as determined to link the two issues as the United States is determined to keep the two issues unlinked.

JOEL WIT: Well, I think the administration is handling this issue just the right way. It has to be handled at a very low-key issue, as a low-key issue in a low-key way.

And I have a friend who's worked with the North Koreans a lot who says, if there's anything the North Koreans know how to deal with, it's a frontal assault. So the administration needs to play this very quietly and try to get some progress here.

But we also shouldn't kid ourselves. It's a humanitarian issue. We should try to keep it separate. But the fact is, it's going to be very difficult to do that.

China's role

Joel Wit
Former State Department Official
[T]he other shoes that I want to watch to see if they're going to drop is whether North Korea is going to conduct another nuclear test.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly, both of you, what is the next shoe that has to drop on this issue? We saw another gauntlet thrown down today; we've seen a lot of them before.

DENNIS WILDER: Well, the next shoe is actually one we haven't discussed, and that's China. China must join us in interdiction of North Korean activities. It must fully implement this resolution, or it's not going to work.

And I agree with Joel: This is tough. But if China is with us, and Russia is with us, and Japan and South Korea, it's going to be a lot easier.

GWEN IFILL: Is that the shoe to drop that you would pick, as well, Mr. Wit?

JOEL WIT: I think that is very important; Dennis is absolutely right. But to me, the other shoes that I want to watch to see if they're going to drop is whether North Korea is going to conduct another nuclear test and when they will conduct another missile test.

And if those events don't happen or they seem to be at least delayed or put off into the future, it gives us something of an opening to calm the situation down and to try to get back to talking to the North Koreans.

GWEN IFILL: Joel Wit, Dennis Wilder, thank you both very much.

DENNIS WILDER: Thank you, Gwen.

JOEL WIT: Thank you.