North Korea’s Nuclear Program
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MARGARET WARNER: North Korea’s decision to dismantle surveillance equipment at a nuclear reactor is the latest sign that Pyongyang may be intent on developing a robust nuclear arsenal. The outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reacted with alarm yesterday.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: This is a greater danger immediately to U.S. interests at this very moment, in my view, than Saddam Hussein is. We’re talking about them being able to, if they lift the seals on this– these canisters– they’re going to be able to build four to five additional nuclear weapons within months. If they begin that reprocessing operation, that’s within a year.
MARGARET WARNER: U.N. Inspectors shut down the Yongbyon Plutonium Plant and outfitted it with monitoring devices under a 1994 agreement with the United States. Under that accord, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for shipments of fuel oil and western help in building two light water reactors.
But this past October, Pyongyang admitted it’s been pursuing a separate uranium-based weapons program– a violation, U.S. officials said, of the ’94 accord. North Korea demanded a non- aggression pact with the U.S. as a price for suspending the new program. But the Bush administration said it wouldn’t talk directly with North Korea until Pyongyang stopped all work on nuclear weapons.
What’s more, the Bush administration persuaded its allies– Japan, South Korea, and the European Union– to suspend the scheduled December fuel delivery. North Korea says that’s why it’s now restarting the plutonium plant at Yongbyon — to meet its energy needs. Yesterday, the incoming chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Republican Richard Lugar, criticized the administration’s no-negotiations policy.
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: We cannot take an attitude, I believe, in which we just simply say they are wrong — that is, the North Koreans — and we’re not going to talk until they do some things right. We’re all going to have to talk, and talk continuously — to South Korea, to North Korea, to Japan– and be heavily engaged. It’s a tough thing to do while we’re dealing with Iraq. We must do two things well simultaneously.
MARGARET WARNER: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded at the Pentagon today.
DONALD RUMSFELD: We’re not talking to them? Assistant Secretary Kelly was over there. That’s when they took the occasion to announce that they were trashing every one of their international agreements. How can you say we’re not talking to them?
REPORTER: But are we talking to them now? We’ll be talking to them about this particular…
DONALD RUMSFELD: This is State Department stuff, and I thought I indicated earlier that, yes, we are engaged in a process of discussions — the United States, President Bush, Secretary Powell — with the People’s Republic of China, with the Russian Federation, with Japan, and the Republic of Korea. And that process is ongoing. There are a variety of interactions taking place.
MARGARET WARNER: Rumsfeld warned Pyongyang it would be a “mistake” to think it could take advantage of the administration’s focus on Iraq.
DONALD RUMSFELD: We are capable of fighting two major regional conflicts, as the national strategy and the force-sizing construct clearly indicates. We’re capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other. And let there be no doubt about it.
MARGARET WARNER: It’s the second time this month that North Korea has taken an action alarming to the U.S. On December 11, a Spanish warship patrolling the waters off the Arabian peninsula seized a North Korean ship carrying 15 scud missiles to Yemen.The U.S. agreed to release the ship after Yemen, a new ally in the war on terror, argued the missiles had been legally sold and were theirs.
Against this backdrop, South Koreans last Thursday elected a new President with a more conciliatory tone toward North Korea than his opponent. Candidate Noh Moo-Hyun campaigned on promises to continue current President Kim Dae-Jung’s “sunshine policy” of trying to engage North Korea. Noh also appealed to an apparent rise in public resentment against the United States, saying he wouldn’t kowtow to American leaders, and calling for a more “equal” relationship with the U.S.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in South Korea to protest the acquittals in U.S. military courts of two American soldiers whose armored truck struck and killed two South Korean teenagers. Some 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to help guard its border with the North under a defense agreement dating back to the Korean War.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on what this latest North Korean move means and how the U.S. should respond, we turn to James Lilley, Ambassador to South Korea during the Reagan administration, and Assistant Secretary of Defense during the first Bush administration; and Donald Gregg, a former CIA official and Ambassador to South Korea during the first Bush administration. He’s now head of the Korea Society. And welcome, gentlemen.
How alarmed should the world be, Jim Lilley, at this news that North Korea has removed the monitoring devices on this plutonium plant?
JAMES LILLEY: Well, Margaret, I think we’re always disturbed by what they do. We, some of us who’ve been watching them for 50 years, know all about their brinkmanship and the reasons they do these things. This is a bit ominous because they’re playing with fire with nuclear weapons, but I think it’s time to sit back and monitor this thing.
They haven’t started the reprocessing plant. They can’t do anything until they do that. So it seems to me, yes, it’s unpleasant; yes, we should be ready for it; yes, we should monitor it; yes, we should marshal our friends and allies, and that’s the crucial thing right now; but I think it’s the kind of thing we’re accustomed to and that we can handle.
MARGARET WARNER: But when you say they haven’t started up the reprocessing plant, I mean, each, at each step they keep ratcheting it up. Do you have any confidence that they won’t… that that’s not the next step?
JAMES LILLEY: Well, again, I have no confidence they won’t do it, but I think this will take a number of years, and I don’t think you have to run off half-cocked on some sort of a solution for this. You can handle it over a period of time, thoughtfully, exercising your leverage, putting in your incentives and disincentives, getting your allies and friends lined up. That’s the way to do it.
We’ve got tremendous leverage in this case, largely economic, and we can use it rather skillfully to get more cooperation out of the North Koreans, and we’ve also got a new South Korean government. We’ve got to get to know them, we’ve got to start working with them, and I think the prospects are good, but it’s going to take time.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Donald Gregg, Senator Biden said yesterday that he… he said once they lift the seals on the canisters at the plant, they’re going to be able to build four or five additional nuclear weapons within months. Do you agree with that, and do you think that’s their objective?
DONALD GREGG: Well, I’m not… I’m a 13th century man, so I can’t challenge the Senator on his timing. I think that that’s more disturbing than the starting up of the nuclear reactor, which they have a case to make for by saying that that will give them the electric power that they can’t generate since we cut off the oil. But I think, as Jim said, this is a bit of brinkmanship, and I think it can be dealt with.
I think there are a couple of very positive factors. Jim mentioned the new government in South Korea, which is dedicated to a continuation of dialogue, and we have in the neighborhood a full consensus among the Japanese, Chinese, Russians, South Koreans, and the United States that there should be no nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, and that’s a kind of leverage which I think we can work with very effectively.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you both use the same term, “brinksmanship.” Mr. Gregg, brinksmanship to what end? What is it this North Korean regime really wants?
DONALD GREGG: Well, my two trips to Pyongyang this year left me convinced that the military in North Korea is very much afraid of us. They have seen us go into Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia, and various other places, and they are very impressed with our military capabilities.
They have heard us use rhetoric towards them, which they take as insulting and threatening. They see that we have North Korea on a list of seven countries that might be eligible for a preemptive strike, and I think they take this quite seriously.
They also are threatened by the fact that the agreements that they reached with the Clinton administration in the fall of 2000, when Marshal Cho Myung-Rok visited Washington, has not been revalidated by the Bush administration.
So I think they are fearful of us. I think that the military in North Korea is hanging back. They’re nervous about the kind of change that Kim Jong-Il is trying to bring about. I think they want some assurances from us, and I think this brinksmanship is an attempt to get our attention, to get us to sit down so that we can give them some kind of assurance.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Jim Lilley, do you think that the Bush administration should engage directly with North Korea if this is what they want?
JAMES LILLEY: At a time and a way of our choosing. The President has issued at least three declarations that he is not going to attack North Korea. That has not satisfied them. They’re looking for what they call a non-aggression pact, which they should sign with South Korea, not with us, because to sign it with us is demeaning for South Korea, and it’s also aimed at getting our troops unilaterally out of the South.
We’ve got to adjust these things. But let me make just one point on what Don was talking about here, is that we have done a great deal to curtail nuclear proliferation in Asia. We shut down the nuclear weapons program in Taiwan, and we shut it down in South Korea with their cooperation.
I think it’s time for our allies and friends to work with us in a very creative and positive way to shut down this nuclear weapons capability in the North. We have done our bit, and we have done this, and it has benefited China and other countries a great deal — Japan — and it’s time for them to get with the North Koreans and begin to use what leverage they have to bring them around.
In the current situation right now, the North Koreans are holding the initiative; we are reacting, more or less. But I think it’s time for us to let them know what our agenda is, and then work out a common agenda with them. But we shouldn’t go plunging in very quickly because this is a very complicated business, and we’ve got to line up our friends and allies first, and I think we’re doing well, as Don says, because China and Russia have already come out: No nuclear weapons on the peninsula. Japan is holding back on diplomatic recognition and on the great, huge compensation package which the North Koreans lust for. So I think we’ve got a lot of leverage in this.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Donald Gregg, that is essentially the administration policy, and so far is there any evidence that that has — that is, to try to marshal the allies in the region to pressure North Korea — is there any evidence that they are actually susceptible to that pressure?
DONALD GREGG: I think that we’ve have not exhausted that. When I was in Pyongyang earlier in November, there was a great deal of evidence of a new relationship between Kim Jong-Il and President Putin, and it’s been interesting to me that the Soviet… the Russians have already offered to sort of mediate with the North Koreans, and in fact their deputy foreign minister may already have been talking to them about this.
So possibly we may move toward a regional conference, which has been suggested in the past — not only China, the U.S. and North and South Korea, but bringing in Russia and Japan. That might give a little face-saving cover to both the United States and North Korea, to deal with this issue on a regional basis, and as we’ve both said, for the first time there really is a regional consensus that everyone should work together to keep nuclear weapons from appearing on the Korean Peninsula.
MARGARET WARNER: Jim Lilley, in 1994, when the Clinton administration faced…I mean, they were talking about this same reactor. If former officials are to be believed, and I have no reason to think they aren’t, President Clinton seriously considered a military strike to simply take out this Yongbyon reactor, until former President Carter got involved and negotiated this accord and so on that helped diffuse the situation. Is that definitely not an option now? Why not?
JAMES LILLEY: I thought it was a very poor idea then, and I think it’s even a worse idea now. Military action is not the solution to this situation at all. The psychological use of a military threat is possibly useful, but as Don said, the North Koreans have created sort of a national paranoia about the American threat.
But you must realize that back there it was the Clinton administration that was going to bomb North Korea. They started the threat, and they withdrew it. When I heard from the South Koreans, including statements made by the current President-elect, he was very upset by the way the Americans handled that, that we took…we were taking unilateral action, we were leaking stuff on this without proper consultation with them. He also felt that, on agreed framework, we Americans took the lead on this thing, and of course they paid the bills. We consulted with them, but we took the lead.
MARGARET WARNER: But you’re talking — excuse me — but you’re talking about Mr. Noh, who’s now the President-elect of South Korea.
JAMES LILLEY: I am, I’m talking Mr. Noh, but I’m also saying that, right now, in addition to what Don says about a regional conference, I’d be more inclined to let South Korea take the lead with the North, really take the lead on this thing, as they did in ’91, ’92, where they got some significant agreements on paper with the North. We supported them. If they take the lead on this, it’s no longer American unilateral action which would lead to the devastation of Seoul. We don’t do that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, but Mr. Gregg, explain to Americans watching this who aren’t into all the nuances of the politics in that region why military action is not an option. I mean, is it because of the closeness of North and South Korea, how vulnerable really South Korea is to North Korea’s conventional forces, the fact that North Korea is believed to have a weapon, a nuclear weapon?
DONALD GREGG: Well, it isn’t a question of nuclear weapons; it’s a question of massed artillery, maybe 10 to 12 thousand tubes, which can range into a city of 14 million people, and the estimates are that the first day’s fighting could kill perhaps 50,000 people. So Seoul really is a hostage to conventional military action on the part of the North Koreans. I absolutely agree with what Jim Lilley just said about military action not being an option, and I’m very happy that there hasn’t even been a whiff of that from President Bush or his hawk-like advisors.
And the…you know, we have 37,000 troops there as a deterrent. I think the last thing in the world the North Koreans intend to do is attack us, but they want some assurance that we are not going to attack them when we get finished with Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: So for both of you, very, very briefly, Jim Lilley, you think this new government of South Korea is a good thing even though apparently there was some anti-Americanism fueling his campaign and he basically wants to keep open to the North rather, maybe, than pressure the North?
JAMES LILLEY: Well, Margaret, when I came to Korea in 1986, they had tens of thousands of people demonstrating in the streets against Chun Doo-Hwan, the President, and the Americans. It’s an old factor in Korea. It’s gotten worse, no question about it, but it seems to me it was diffused in 1987 by the very creative activity of Noh Tae Woo, then President.
I think we can diffuse it again if we can work with this current President-elect to set up new arrangements for our security arrangements with South Korea. We’ve got to rework that. We’ve got to consolidate our military presence there. We’ve got to look at new weapons systems that can be used and cut down on the exposure of troops. A lot of things have to be done, and I think we’re going to do them.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay, and briefly, Mr. Gregg, do you think this new President of South Korea will work with the U.S. in trying to really pressure the North?
DONALD GREGG: Yes. He certainly wants to work with us, and it’s very important that his election gives continuity in policy from Kim Dae-Jung to Roh Moo-Hyun. I think that’s very important for the North because I think it has been the total discontinuity between Clinton and Bush which has been very difficult for the region, and for North Korea in particular, to understand.
MARGARET WARNER: Donald Gregg, Jim Lilley, thank you both.