North Korea Nuclear Challenge
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TERENCE SMITH: For more on the results of the talks in Beijing we get three views: Kenneth Quinones was the State Department’s North Korean affairs officer, and then a Korea analyst in the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research during the 1990s. He’s now director of the Korea program at the International Center, a Washington research organization.
Victor Cha is associate professor of government at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is “Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Strategies of Engagement.”
And Ming Wan is an associate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University. He was born in Beijing and is now a U.S. citizen. Welcome to all three of you.
Victor Cha, a viewer could be forgiven, I think, for being confused about the reports out of Beijing; namely, that North Korea has once again raised the specter of an actual nuclear bomb test, and the comments from the State Department that they’re pleased with the results of the talks. Reconcile that for us.
VICTOR CHA: Right. It’s a very good question. In terms of the positive aspect of this meeting, I think what the State Department and others are trying to emphasize is that there is going to be, or there will hopefully be, another set of talks that follow.
And I think the unspoken message is that I think there is much more coordination among the five countries – that is U.S., Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China – with regard to how difficult this problem is vis-à-vis North Korea.
I think prior to this meeting, there was probably different calibrations of what the right mix of carrots and sticks were. I think it became clearer after this meeting.
TERENCE SMITH: Kenneth Quinones, what is your assessment of this meeting and its real value?
KENNETH QUINONES: I think one of the problems is the information that has gone into the American press concerning this issue of North Korea threatening… allegedly threatening a nuclear test.
My understanding from delegations in Beijing, and I had contact with two of the delegations last night, they clearly agreed that North Korea did not make any threats; that essentially North Korea stated a diplomatic negotiating position, and that was confirmed by the Chinese News Service with a release, in which the North Koreans said if the United States would agree to security guarantees, formal security guarantees, North Korea was ready to give up its nuclear ambitions.
TERENCE SMITH: But if it was not?
KENNETH QUINONES: But if it was not, it would then have to proceed down the road, but it didn’t go that far this time. I think what we need to understand is that in April, the North Koreans said, yes, we’ve got the bomb. We are ready to test it. And they phrased it in a rather threatening provocative manner. This time, they backed off. I think largely because they did so in front of the international community as represented by Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, and so forth.
TERENCE SMITH: Ming Wan, read between the lines for us here as to the significance of the meeting and the specific either threat or negotiating ploy.
MING WAN: The talk was a success and to the extent that the expectation of the talk was so low, and nobody expected any breakthrough from, hopefully the opening round of a difficult process.
And what people had hoped for: A: the U.S., North Korea and others sit down and talk and no one walks out in anger; and B: there would be another round of talks, hopefully negotiations; and C: there would be some kind of framework to help the countries involved to resolve this issue. And we basically got all three.
As for the specific incidents of the threat allegedly by North Koreans, and we just have to wait and see, you know, right now, because they were so tightlipped beside what was going on between the talks, and the information is coming out. We have to wait until we have solid information about what exactly went on.
But I think it’s consistent with the North Korean behavior that they might make that kind of a threat.
TERENCE SMITH: Victor Cha, give us your reading on this as to whether it is a serious threat to actually go ahead and test a nuclear device, or a negotiating ploy basically.
VICTOR CHA: Well, I have not had the privilege of conversations with the members of the different delegations in Beijing, so I can’t speak with that information. But from my perspective watching this, I was very concerned by the news reports that said North Korea said that they were going to demonstrate themselves as a nuclear weapons state by doing a test.
From my perspective, what I see are the North Koreans taking very small – incremental but very well calibrated – steps since December of last year, and moving in the direction of becoming a nuclear weapon state and then trying to negotiate from a position of strength with the United States and with the world.
At the end of this meeting, there was a vague reference to another set of meetings possibly in the future. My concern is that the North Koreans might try to change the equation in their favor by doing a test prior to the start of those next meetings.
TERENCE SMITH: With what logic and motivation – in order to have a stronger hand? VICTOR CHA: Well, it’s my view that since December of 2002, the North Koreans have made a decision that they are pursuing a nuclear weapons program and they want to be a nuclear weapons state.
People talk about how they’re interested in trading their nuclear weapons for food, fuel, and security, but I really think they want both. I think they want food, fuel, and security from the rest of the world, but they also want to keep their nuclear weapons.
And this final step demonstrating their nuclear capabilities will be the final step in achieving that particular goal.
TERENCE SMITH: What is your view, Kenneth Quinones?
KENNETH QUINONES: I don’t disagree that the North Koreans really do have earnest nuclear ambitions.
However, on the other hand, I think the problem here is that the Bush administration’s strategy is essentially both allowing the North Koreans to continue their development of nuclear weapons, while on the other hand, the heated rhetoric that occasionally comes out of Washington tends to play into the hands of North Korea’s hard-line advisers, i.e., North Korea’s generals.
Every time they run off to Kim Jong Il and say, “see, the North Americans are threatening us.”
So I think we have to pull back and reconsider our strategy. The longer we refuse to negotiate, the longer time Kim Jong Il has to develop his nuclear deterrents. I agree we need to stop that process as soon as possible. Once North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, then we move into an entirely different ball game.
TERENCE SMITH: How so?
KENNETH QUINONES: In that the balance of power in Northeast Asia will completely shift, and instead of having United States verses China nuclear arms, we will have a very very different framework in which the North Koreans have the ability to threaten not just the United States or China, but also Japan.
We also have to consider the long-term impact specifically on Japan as to whether or not the Japanese would feel compelled to consider their own nuclear option. The South Koreans already had such consideration back in the 1970s, and did have a clandestine South Korean nuclear program.
So those are the things I’m looking at down the road, and what could be accomplished if we really do sit down with the North Koreans and focus on, essentially throwing the gauntlet to them and say, Look, if you want to negotiate, let’s negotiate. Otherwise you better tell the whole world you are not sincere, and you’re going to become a nuclear power. That is something the international community cannot accept.
TERENCE SMITH: Ming Wan, what is your take on that and also on China’s perspective in all of this? After all, China originally was quite reluctant to get into these talks, in the end, not only joined them, but hosted them, so something shifted there. There was a fundamental change in attitude.
MIN WAN: I think the prospect Ken mentioned– and I think the Chinese believe that clear as day…
TERENCE SMITH: And are concerned about it.
MING WAN: Right. And they’re concerned about it. It is not in China’s interest to see North Korea having nuclear weapons. Certainly, it will have a spill-over effect on other countries in the region. And fundamentally compromises China’s national interests in economic modernization and also having a peaceful environment along its border.
And at the same time, which the new leadership in Beijing would see a new shift in Chinese foreign policy, which is to present China to the international community as a responsible major power.
The Chinese interests have not really shifted. Essentially, they want North Koreans and Americans to get exactly what they want, and they want a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula and they also want the U.S. to provide some kind of guarantee that the U.S. is not going to attack North Korea. Both are in China’s interests.
What has changed is that they realize they have to do something to help bring that about. And they felt that a few months ago, that things were beginning to spin out of control and they began to take action.
TERENCE SMITH: Victor Cha, your assessment of the U.S. strategy here. Is it, as Ken has suggested, a license for North Korea to continue the development of nuclear capacity, or… and is it getting us where we want to go?
VICTOR CHA: Well, first, I think we have to remember Ming Wan said everybody wants a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. I would agree. Everybody wants a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula except North Korea.
If that’s the case, and you assume that North Korea wants to have nuclear weapons at the end of this, as Ken stated, then directly entering into bilateral negotiations at this point is inherently going to fail because they’re going to seek nuclear weapons anyway. As I said, I believe that they’re looking for both– nuclear weapons and food; fuel and security.
And if that’s the case, the administration’s strategy of trying to get everyone in the region to come to the table and to tell North Korea you can’t have both – you can have food, fuel, and security, but you can’t go down this nuclear path. To me, it’s not the best strategy, but it’s the least worst strategy at this particular point.
KENNETH QUINONES: Unfortunately, we’ve already allowed the North Koreans to go down that road, and I think it’s conceivable by the end of this year they could be there.
On the other hand, there’s another option, and that is to erase the reasons for North Korea wanting to have a nuclear capability. That would mean settling the Korean War; coming up with a peace treaty, and then opening Korea to, essentially, total exposure to the international community.
The more people you have going into that country, the more exposure to the international community, the better we are to manage it and prevent it from going in a direction we don’t want it to go in.
TERENCE SMITH: Are you suggesting, or any of you, that the United States should therefore step forward with some concessions, if that’s the right word, on food, fuel, or security, in other words, take some initiative more than it has?
KENNETH QUINONES: Well, I think we need to challenge the North Koreans and say, look, you keep saying you want to negotiate. All right, let’s negotiate and find out if the North Koreans really are earnest.
If they aren’t, then we prepare for our other options. If they are, then, yes, you do what do you in negotiations.
VICTOR CHA: I would argue that that was once tried before, in 1994. And it apparently was not the case that the North Koreans wanted to stay nuclear-free.
One of the things we have to stay very careful of is that assuming that simply moving in the direction of engagement, that’s the only hurdle here. I mean, if we give North Korea carrots, they’re going to take them and they’re going to give up their nuclear weapons.
We also have to remember that this is the most closed society in the world. And once you start to open it up, if you are the North Korean leadership, you are risking the whole thing coming apart at the same time. So for the North Koreans, from a North Korean perspective, engagement option is also a dead end.
So the notion that they would be willing to engage and completely give up their nuclear deterrent, to me at least, it’s not logical
TERENCE SMITH: All right. I’m afraid we’re out of time because it’s fascinating subject and obviously very delicate negotiation, and I’m sure we’ll get back to it.
Thank you all three very much.