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North Korea Nuclear Challenge

July 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: How dangerous is the North Korea situation, and what should the U.S. do about it? For that, we turn to two men with a long history dealing with the issue. William Perry, as we just said, was secretary of defense in the first Clinton administration, and special envoy to North Korea during the second Clinton term. He recently returned from a trip to the region.

Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl, a former member of the Intelligence Committee, is co-sponsoring a bill to end all U.S. aid to North Korea, and impose additional sanctions on that country. Welcome to you both.

Secretary Perry, beginning with you, as we just reported you had this rather dire warning in an interview with the Washington Post last week in which you said you thought the nuclear program now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities. Explain what you meant by that.

WILLIAM PERRY: If North Korea continues on its present course, by the end of the year, I think we’ll have about eight nuclear weapons, and next year will be in serial production of about five to ten nuclear weapon as year. I consider that this poses an unacceptable risk to our security. This will give them enough weapons to target Japan, South Korea and still have enough plutonium left over to sell to the highest bidder. There are plenty of bidders out there willing to bid for it. And if any of the terror groups are willing to get nuclear weapons or are able to get that plutonium, then we could see it end up in an American city.

MARGARET WARNER: So when you mentioned American cities you weren’t saying you thought North Korea could strike American cities with missiles loaded with this stuff, but rather that they would be in a position to sell small but lethal amounts to terrorists?

WILLIAM PERRY: Exactly. I do not think the danger is from North Korean missiles fired at the United States. I think the danger is in selling the plutonium or the weapons to a terror group and the terror groups planting them in an American city covertly.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kyl, do you see the situation as this dire?

SEN. JON KYL: It could be, and that’s the great unknown here. I think instead of the word “will”, the Secretary Perry uses, I would use the word “could”. But in either case, he’s right that we have got to try to deal with this problem right away. We know that North Korea earns its hard currency by shipping illicit material, for example missile technology that is forbidden by agreements that have been signed by the North Koreans as well as other kinds of weapons of mass destruction material. And if they begin shipping nuclear material or weapons abroad, then obviously the world has a huge problem on its hands. So the time to deal with that is right now. And on that I do agree with Secretary Perry.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it’s possible, Senator, though, that North Korea is bluffing? I notice the president used the terminology that, well, North Korea wants us to think they’re at this point. Could they be overstating either what they’ve already done or what they’re capable of doing?

SEN. JON KYL: Yes, they could, and probably are, overstating the case. But it doesn’t detract from the proposition that we know they are making progress, and it’s unacceptable that they get to the point the secretary mentioned. That’s why it’s important not to deal with them by simply sitting down to talk and promising them things, but putting some sticks on the table as well as carrots in order to demonstrate that we mean business, that we are serious and we have the means of enforcing what we are asking them to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, before we get to your prescriptions, let me ask you both, beginning with Secretary Perry, what you think of the administration’s policy so far. As we reported they have been essentially trying to ratchet up the pressure from Japan, from China, other neighbors on North Korea, at the same time they did go to three-way talks in Beijing with the North Koreans and Chinese in April, I believe. Do you think that’s been effective?

WILLIAM PERRY: I cannot truly discern the policy at this point, Margaret. But the approach that’s been taken, which is to deal with the other nations, has good and bad points to it. The good point is that this problem clearly concerns China and South Korea and Japan. It’s clear that any solution needs to involve those countries. So I think that is good. But I also believe that to solve this problem we have to deal directly with the North Koreans. We cannot outsource the problem this serious to other countries to solve.

The consequence of having look to other countries to solve this problem for the last six months is we’ve gone from where there are fuel rods that are canned and relatively safe to where they have been processed. There’s no uncertainty about what they have. They have 8,000 cans of spent fuel and there’s no uncertainty that they process that, they’ll have enough plutonium to make about six bombs. And it has been reported, as you mentioned, that Krypton 85 had been detected coming from North Korea, which means they are processing.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kyl, how would you grade the administration’s approach so far, and what about the point that Secretary Perry made that in the last six, eight months, North Korea does seem to have made progress?

SEN. JON KYL: Well, they’ve been working on their program. There’s absolutely no question about that. The question is what you do about it. And the position that’s been taken by the past, in the Clinton administration was you promise them things, they sign on the dotted line to receive the things you promise, and then they keep right on violating the agreements that they’ve signed. That’s the history.

So where do you go from here? I think the administration’s proliferation security initiative is the right way to go, that’s an initiative in which we sit down with ten or twelve other countries to start with, and others after that, and develop a regime by which we are going to stop the North Koreans from selling this material abroad — the proliferation problem that we’ve been talking about. And if we’re able to stop that, we achieve two things. First of all, we prevent the proliferation of this material around the world, and secondly we deny the North Koreans hard currency.

How do you do that? You can’t do it by sitting down with them and talking. Talk is cheap. They’re not going to agree to give up the weapons; they didn’t develop them for bargaining chips, they developed them for their own national security and to sell them for hard currency. So there’s only one way you’re going to be able to persuade them to drop their plans and stop this development and stop the proliferation, and that is to let them know that there are consequences, bad consequences to them, if they continue to do that.

And that’s what this proliferation security initiative is all about. It’s economic sanctions, it’s interdiction of the transport of these kinds of materials. And then some other things that we’d like to talk about in terms of regime change that are involved in the legislation that I’ve introduced.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Perry, can the interdiction strategy work here — whatever they do back in North Korea at least prevent them from exporting any of this, and I suppose with interdiction also prevent them from being able to export other things that enable them to earn hard currency?

WILLIAM PERRY: I think our line of defense really depends on stopping them from getting the weapons and plutonium in the first place. I do not believe it is feasible to stop them from smuggling out plutonium to make an atomic bomb. It would take a sphere of plutonium about the size of a big grapefruit, or maybe as large as a soccer ball, to make a nuclear bomb. And I have no reason to believe it’s possible to have an effective program of stopping them from smuggling out a package that size. Therefore, I’m not satisfied with a solution that calls for interdiction. I want to stop the problem at the source, before they get the plutonium and the nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kyl, a quick response on that, that it’s a pretty tall order to prevent a smuggling of that amount.

SEN. JON KYL: It’s hard but its not impossible, and the alternative is to say what? Please stop doing it, we’ve give you money, food, we’ll build you a nuclear plant? Those are things we’ve promised in the past and they’ve gone right ahead with their elicit development of this material. So pleading with them, offering them money and assistance doesn’t solve the problem. A combination of being tough and offering some help might work, and that’s why I say a combination of carrots and sticks.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me let Secretary Perry who has said a couple of times we ought to engage in direct talks, I mean, why would they work, make the case for that. Why would they work any more effectively in the past?

WILLIAM PERRY: I don’t think what I’m saying is that much different from what Senator Kyl said. I believe in coercive diplomacy, that is direct negotiations but backed with a credible threat of military force. That’s what we did in ’94, and while that agreement, as Senator Kyl has pointed out was far from perfect, let me say it did in the absence of that agreement North Korea today could have fifty to a hundred nuclear weapons. That’s what that agreement bought for us.

But it did not cause North Korea to give up its aspirations for nuclear weapons. We are still faced with that problem and we still have to deal with it. And to deal with it I believe the only way I can conceive, short of war, is coercive diplomacy, go in with direct negotiations, assisted by the other countries in the region, direct negotiations backed by a credible threat of military force.

MARGARET WARNER: But Secretary Perry, is there a credible threat of military force? I mean, most of the experts will say Seoul is so close by, you know the arguments, that North Korea could mount a devastating just conventional counterattack on Seoul within minutes.

WILLIAM PERRY: There are no easy solutions to this problem. The threat from North Korea from conventional forces is powerful already, but they have been deterred from using those conventional forces now for more than four decades, so the threat of military force is something that North Korea understands. My own belief, Margaret, is that if we are tough, if we offer a credible threat of military force, we will not have to use it. It’s only when we are weak that we are in danger of having to use a military force.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Kyl do you think there is a credible military option available?

SEN. JON KYL: Well, in a sense there is, but they have to believe we would use it. I think Secretary Perry and I are fairly close here, but let me see if I can summarize it. We agree that there immediate to be discussions, but they need to be multilateral, and they certainly need to include the Chinese which have the leverage power over the North Koreans. We believe that no option, military included, should be taken off the table, and that, I guess, is an ultimate proposition.

But in order to have coercive diplomacy you need some other things in between and that’s where I’m suggesting that the proliferation security initiative of the administration which includes interdiction, which includes economic sanctions and so on, are an intermediate step of sanctions that are short of nuclear war, but still demonstrate the seriousness of purpose and could help to force the North Koreans to agree to the termination of this program.

MARGARET WARNER: A final brief question to both of you, beginning with you, Senator Kyl. Do you think there should be a red line that the administration makes perfectly clear to the North Koreans that if they cross it, the U.S. will attack militarily whatever the consequences, and if so, what should that red line be?

SEN. JON KYL: Well, first of all there was such a red line under the Clinton administration. And the North Koreans have now exceeded that, because they have moved forward, as second Perry said. So I think you need to be careful about drawing red lines. Any such lines like that need to be conveyed in clear terms, but probably not in public as we’re doing right now. But that should be part of the diplomacy, part of the message that we send them, that there is a point of no return and they don’t want to get to that point.

MARGARET WARNER: Should there be a point of no return, Secretary Perry, that’s made clear to them, and if so what should it be?

WILLIAM PERRY: In 1994, we made the process of, the reprocessing of plutonium the red line. My own belief is we should have made that the red line late last year. It seemed like it’s a little late to make that a red line since it appears that the plutonium has already been processed.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Secretary Perry and Senator Kyl, thank you both.