TOPICS > Politics

Thawing Relations

October 11, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: For more on Vice Marshal Jo’s visit, we turn to James Lilley, former Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Bush administration, and Ambassador to South Korea during the Reagan administration; Tony Namkung, chairman of Murray Hill Company, a consulting firm advising companies doing business in North Korea — he has also served as an unofficial liaison between the U.S. and North Korea; and Don Oberdorfer, author of “The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History,” and formerly the Washington Post’s Northeast Asia correspondent. Welcome, gentlemen.

Don, the White House and the State Department seem to regard this visit as a very big deal, as very significant. Do you agree?

DON OBERDORFER: I certainly do, I think it is a big deal. We’ve never had anybody of any rank like Jo come to the United States. He is the right hand man of Kim Jong Il, and it’s been not in isolation either. This is part of a trend as your piece showed. It’s been going on now, particularly with the opening to South Korea. Now they have made an opening to South Korea; they’re sending this guy over here; they clearly want to have an opening with the United States. They are taking a step, the State Department was quite surprised that he was going to be the person to be sent from Pyongyang, and I think it’s a great opportunity to move forward with a country with which we’ve had very hostile relations, almost went to war just six years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Why did North Korea send someone so high level?

TONY NAMKUNG: Chairman Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea, sent Mr. Jo as his personal envoy to strike a certain tone and a certain position with respect to North Korea’s relations with the U.S. I think the picture is even larger than the way Don has just portrayed it. The picture that is emerging now is that this visit lays the foundations for a fundamental shift in the U.S.’s security posture in Northeast Asia. The Cold War is over. With friends in both the South and North the U.S.’s position is redefined to be one of a harmonizer and a stabilizer in the region. No longer does the security architecture of the Cold War in which the U.S. had two strong alliances bilaterally with South Korea and Japan and a strategic partnership with China, no longer does that apply. From now on the U.S.’s entire role in the region has been redefined.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see this visit as laying the groundwork for something that radical a change?

Romantic version

JAMES LILLEY: I do not. I think I’m entranced by my colleagues’ romantic versions of what happened, and I think that they’ve probably struck a note that’s accurate, namely the symbols were very good. Confucian — and the North Koreans are very, very Confucian — requires the sort of symbols and rights that we got, and they got the black limousines and the police escorts and the president and the banquets. That’s fine, that’s good, the symbols are there; and I think that’s important in order to make a relationship move ahead and I’m happy with that, and I think it was the right thing to do. What hasn’t changed is the North Korean military. What hasn’t changed is their economic system. In fact, Secretary Cohen said in Japan at the end of last month, he said their military has gotten stronger and more aggressive, and also that in order to get economic assistance we would have to see some kind of movement on the military front. Now last night, Marshal Jo said, in effect, which they’ve said very frequently — we’re the small country, we’re the beleaguered country, we’re the country under threat from the United States. You have to show us first what you’re going to do and then we might do something. When you get into this sort of tough bargaining there on these issues, you’re going to find the romance will go out of the relationship very quickly. And you’re going to find yourself in a good tough game. I think the United States is going to play a very strong role, I agree with Tony Namkung. I think that role has not been defined yet. And I think both sides, including President Kim Dae Jung and Chairman Kim Jong Il, both want the United States — they say — to stay in the peninsula, because the real threat, as they realize, historically and otherwise, comes from their predatory neighbors.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But Tony Namkung, what does — did Chairman Jo, and you all three were at that dinner last night — and one thing he said that Jim Lilley just referred to has become kind of controversial today, he said, well, the North Korean leader was ready for this new friendly relationship if and when North Korea was given strong and concrete assurances from the U.S. for the state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity of North Korea. What is it? What are they looking for in the security area?

TONY NAMKUNG: Well, simply the removal of North Korea as a military threat to the United States, and the establishment of friendly and normal relations across the board, cultural, trade, people to people, et cetera. That’s what they’re looking for.

DON OBERDORFER: I think he suggested to me in his remarks, and I don’t agree with Jim, I don’t think he was talking like small country, you guys are about to kill us or something. I thought his remarks were very straight forward, and I thought what he meant was they want some kind of assurances of their security and sovereignty. They’ve been saying this for a long time. The U.S. gave them some assurances in July 1993, again in 1994. I don’t think this is something that’s going to be too hard to do. We have no designs on their territory at all. So they want some way to normalize the relationship. There’s been talk of some kind of a treaty or agreement that would succeed the armistice. In Korea we’ve never had a peace treaty, it’s just an armistice. And I think that’s what he’s hinting around for too. Of course the meetings that went on today, we’ll learn eventually what he had to say. But I think it’s a perfectly reasonable request, and I don’t see it being too difficult to meet either.

Orders from the top

JAMES LILLEY: Again, Don, I would just add to that, that the North Korean position as was spoken to me last night by one of their leading diplomats, look I am a soldier, that’s all I am, I get the orders from the top and I do what I’m told, and he said, I don’t know anything about Marshal Jo, and yet he corrected some of the facts that I had, which may have been not true or true. But what he said is that what you have to do is to get the overarching agreements first, and then we can do the confidence building stuff. And that’s — as you know — that’s exactly what President Kim Dae Jung said in New York. What we tend to want to see is some confidence building measures from the North.


JAMES LILLEY: Hotlines, investigators, military exercises, notification of military exercises, challenge inspections, all —

MARGARET WARNER: Kinds of transparency

JAMES LILLEY: Transparency. Which we would like to see happen to give us confidence right off the bat, and give them confidence; they can send their inspectors into South Korea; they can go to Osan, Kunsan, various bases there, and see them — come on down and look —

DON OBERDORFER: Jim, don’t you think it’s not being romantic to say, the fact that they sent a very, very senior military person over here to negotiate and to talk to us, rather than a foreign ministry person, as the piece suggests —

JAMES LILLEY: Absolutely —

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Tony Namkung back in this.

TONY NAMKUNG: The military issue is really the key here, and rather than deferring the military issue, what has happened by virtue of Marshal Jo visiting the United States is that the stage has been set for three-way talks now between the U.S., North Korea and South Korea — the talk about replacing the armistice with a new peace mechanism or agreement. And that’s where the action will be in the next phase.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. What, and I know the meetings just ended, he had a meeting at the Pentagon with Secretary Cohen, and it’s a little early, but what can you tell us about what concrete came out of this — particularly in the area the U.S. is interested in, which is some assurances that the nuclear and missile programs are really going to be, you know, they’re going to pull the plug for good on those?

Relations on a new footing

TONY NAMKUNG: I think that the joint statement that is scheduled to be released tomorrow morning will first of all put the relations on a brand new footing, and it will contain some language, I would hope, and I think, about the concerns of the U.S. with respect to missiles and nuclear programs and military, the military confrontation.

JAMES LILLEY: And this is the man to talk to, because he went to Iran in 1994, with a military nuclear delegation, and the reports are that he gave them spare parts, and a note on drafting – pieces on drafting a long range missile. Three years later they had the .… His predecessor Che Kwong (ph) went to Pakistan in 1995, three years later they shot off the …. Now there’s something — this man is intimately involved in the missile and nuclear programs. I’m very glad that a man that had that responsibility sat down next to President Clinton and President Clinton told him directly our very deep concerns about this.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think North Korea is really ready to end these programs? Or is this a carrot they keep dangling in front of the West, as some believe, and but really they never intend to give this up?

DON OBERDORFER: Well, they have a moratorium, in other words they’ve agreed not to fire any more missiles, as long as talks continue, and I believe that in the communiqué tomorrow it very likely that is going to be made more definite and more formal and so forth. So that they’ve agreed to already. Now, will they stop developing missiles, will they stop selling missiles? They have made it clear they’re willing to stop if we will pay them, because that’s one of their principal sources of foreign revenue. The United States has not been willing to do that. This is the kind of thing that could be talked about as we move down the road. And while we’re on missiles, let me mention one other thing. It’s very significant, if you have a friendly relationship with North Korea, this kicks the props out from one of the justifications for an early national missile defense program. That is the thing that has been used to say we have to do this right away, because North Korea may have a missile by 2005. Now if you have a friendly relation with North Korea, what is the rush to have a national missile defense program? I don’t think there would be any.

JAMES LILLEY: The rush is one thing, Don, China.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get back to Korea here. Okay. What do the North Koreans really want to see in a concrete sense as quickly as possible?

TONY NAMKUNG: I think what they want to see is what they will see tomorrow morning in the joint communiqué, and that is the end to the era of adversarial relations and hostilities between these two governments.

MARGARET WARNER: But that sounds very symbolic.

TONY NAMKUNG: It is long on political symbolism, but it’s very significant political symbolism.

They want sustenance

JAMES LILLEY: What they want, they want money, food, and oil, and they want it in big doses because that will sustain their survival. Their system, economic system has not changed, it’s in very, very bad shape. Our inputs over the last six years have kept them going, our oil, our food, all these things we’ve done for them. They want food and they want sustenance; they want it now and they want it on terms where they can keep their military strong and keep their system in a way that they can keep control. And we can make a deal with them on that, I agree, we have so far in the last six years, Perry has done a very good job. But you have to look at their very material requirements for survival.

DON OBERDORFER: You make it sound like this is something new or sinister or something. But in fact, yes, I think they want the survival of the regime, I think that’s why they are opening up.

JAMES LILLEY: Absolutely.

DON OBERDORFER: But they have South Korea; they realize they have to open up to the United States. They have sent letters to every single country in Europe asking to establish relations. They want to have a, as much stuff coming in, investments, the more economic activity and investments they have from the West and from the outside, as far as I’m concerned, the better off everybody will be because it will be a different kind of regime ultimately.

JAMES LILLEY: Well, I think that is romance again, you see; I think that’s very nice. I hope that’s true. My experience tells me sometimes it isn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: That does raise the question, though, could this regime stay in power if it were to really open up and people in North Korea were exposed to people in the South and democracy and capitalism?

TONY NAMKUNG: Well, of course, entire lead segments of North Korean society are very much familiar with the outside world, there’s no question that they would adapt very easily to these changing trends. Let me just make a point about the request for food aid, there have been no official requests for food aid for some period of time, suggesting that food aid is a diplomatic device; it’s not a response to an economic situation.

MARGARET WARNER: What they really want also is investment, is it not?

TONY NAMKUNG: Not only that, they want something similar to a U.S./Japan mutual security treaty, believe it or not, in the long run by which North Korea would enter into a strong positive relationship with the U.S., and of course with the South as well at the same time. And so it’s very natural for the U.S. to provide lots of assistance.

JAMES LILLEY: Just a correction here. They got 500,000, they’re getting 500,000 tons from South Korea — corn and rice from Thailand and China purchased by South Korea. There is a tradeoff on that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen, we’ll leave it there. Thank you all three very much.