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U.S. Official Discusses N. Korea’s Return to Nuclear Talks

October 31, 2006 at 3:35 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: North Korea’s surprise decision to rejoin the nuclear talks. We hear from the number-three man at the State Department, Undersecretary Nicholas Burns. I talked with him this evening from the State Department.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

NICHOLAS BURNS, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: This decision today by North Korea to rejoin the talks, do you see it as a major development?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Oh, it’s certainly a major development. You know, we’ve gone through this extraordinary period with the North Koreans, of their missile tests on July 4th, of their nuclear test of a couple of weeks ago. And they decided that they wanted to have this meeting in Beijing with our ambassador, Chris Hill, and they decided that they would announce they’re coming back to the six-party talks, so it’s very big news.

And we hope it will lead now to the North Koreans agreeing to implement the agreement that we negotiated with them, you remember, back in September of 2005, and that is to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula, to have the North give up its nuclear weapons, and to then have, we hope, a more normal relationship, if that’s possible, in the future.

JIM LEHRER: I’m curious about one thing. You say North Korea said this, and yet the announcement was made by the United States and China. North Korea still hasn’t said anything officially about this. Can you explain that?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, it’s always hard to try to explain the behavior of the North Korean authorities. All I know is this: The Chinese government came to us last week and said that the North wanted to come back to six-party talks, they wanted a meeting today in Beijing, and they were willing to say at that meeting that they come back to the talks themselves, which is exactly what happened.

And, of course, the official announcement was made by the host of the meeting, the Chinese government, and then our ambassador gave a press conference. I assume that the North Koreans will give their own press conference probably in their own good time. It’s an erratic, unusual regime, but it is a regime we have to deal with if we want to see peace on the Korean Peninsula. And we certainly want to see them give up their nuclear weapons, which is the ultimate objective here.

Taking the initiative

Nicholas Burns
Undersecretary of State
We were encouraged to see that the North appeared to have a more realistic idea about what it's going to take to get back into the good graces of the international community.

JIM LEHRER: So they took the initiative to get this thing going? In other words, they asked for the meeting today that caused this announcement to be made?

NICHOLAS BURNS: That's correct. In fact, it was a very short timeline. The Chinese contacted us late last week and said that this meeting was going to be possible, they thought, and the North would come and say the things that we've been asking it to say.

And so Chris Hill, our ambassador, our excellent diplomat, had a trilateral meeting with the Chinese and North Koreans, and then he had his own meeting with the North Korean vice minister, Kim Gye Gwan. And Kim Gye Gwan was very direct in saying, and businesslike, that the North wanted to come back to the six-party talks.

And what that means, Jim, is that there's one document we work on, this September 2005 agreement. And as I said, it calls for many things to happen, for the North to give up its nuclear weapons, and to, in effect, give up its nuclear industry so that the Korean Peninsula can become a much more peaceful and unthreatening place. And that is very much in the national interest of the United States.

JIM LEHRER: So, in effect, Ambassador Hill had a one-on-one negotiation with a North Korean representative?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Yes, he did. He had several meetings today. He had a trilateral meeting, a trilateral lunch, and then he had a bilateral meeting with the North Korean vice foreign minister. This is a gentleman who many of us believe is one of the most important officials in North Korea, one of the most influential.

So we treated that as an opportunity to give the North a direct message. And one of the things that Ambassador Hill told him is that the sanctions in place will remain in place from the U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed two weeks ago because of the nuclear test.

We intend, and I think the Chinese, and the Russians, the Japanese and Australians intend to keep those sanctions in place as a firm warning to the North Koreans that they're not going to get away with a nuclear test, but we were encouraged to see that the North appeared to have a more realistic idea about what it's going to take to get back into the good graces of the international community.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see any connection between the sanctions and the deal today?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I do. There's no question that the North has felt isolated. They haven't had a single country, Jim, stand up for them since they conducted that nuclear test.

And, you know, most countries look at the North Korean regime and see it as unpredictable and, frankly, a dangerous regime, and so therefore everyone sent a common message to the North Koreans -- the Security Council resolution was relatively tough as these things go. The sanctions implementation has gone better than I think most of us thought it would.

And I think, Jim, maybe the crucial difference here was the attitude of China. China sent a stiff message to the North Koreans that they'd gone too far. And as you know, China has influence with North Korea. So it was perhaps that combination of factors that brought the North Koreans back to agree to these talks.

Japan's role

Nicholas Burns
Undersecretary of State
All of us, I think, will go into these talks with a very realistic and tough-minded attitude that we need to keep pressing the North to honor the agreement they made with us over a year-and-a-half ago.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the Japanese issued a statement today saying they wanted a disavow of some kind from the North Koreans officially before these six-party talks resume. What's that all about?

NICHOLAS BURNS: We'll have to talk to the Japanese government. The Japanese, of course, have very strong feelings -- as they should, as a neighbor to North Korea and a country that's been victimized by North Korea, with the children and young adults that have been taken hostage over the years by the North Koreans.

And so I think the Japanese believe, I'm sure, that the September 2005 agreement should be honored, and that would mean that the North would live up to that agreement. They have not done so.

And so all of us, I think, will go into these talks with a very realistic and tough-minded attitude that we need to keep pressing the North to honor the agreement they made with us over a year-and-a-half ago.

JIM LEHRER: And so you don't see the Japanese position as being a hindrance or to some way prevent these things from going ahead?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I don't think so, no. As Secretary Rice said earlier today, we hope that these talks could be held before the close of 2006. It could be possibly this month, probably more likely the next.

But it's an opportunity for us to be working with China, with Russia, with Japan and South Korea together, to use our influence, our collective influence, to tell the North that they have to meet these commitments that they've made, and they've got to have a much more realistic way of looking at their future in East Asia.

Trusting North Korea

Nicholas Burns
Undersecretary of State
They have not followed the rules, as you know, and they have not abided by their agreements over the last 12 years, so we have to be realistic -- and we are -- and we have to be tough-minded, as we go back into these talks.

JIM LEHRER: Why the delay? Why not just have them tomorrow?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, these things are difficult to set up when you have six different countries coming together. And I think it's more likely, Jim, that we'll have some discussions over the next week or two with the Asian allies.

And then President Bush and Secretary Rice will travel to Asia for the APEC meetings. They'll be in Vietnam and in Indonesia, and that will give them an opportunity to talk to some of the leaders. This needs to be carefully prepared.

We've been down this road before: the Clinton administration in 1994; the Bush administration over the last year. We want to make sure we prepare these well enough and effectively enough so that these new negotiations will make a critical and positive difference.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have a feeling that they will be different, it will be different this time than it has been in the past?

NICHOLAS BURNS: We hope so. But, as President Reagan used to say, "Trust, but verify." We'll want to verify that the North Koreans are ready to do what they said they would do, and that is to take apart their nuclear weapons system, to have the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, go back in and verify that the North Koreans are playing by the rules.

They have not followed the rules, as you know, and they have not abided by their agreements over the last 12 years, so we have to be realistic -- and we are -- and we have to be tough-minded, as we go back into these talks.

JIM LEHRER: Did Ambassador Hill in his either trilateral or bilateral talks with North Korea today get the feeling that North Korea was saying more than, "We're just willing to talk"? Were they also saying, "Hey, we're really ready to made a deal and honor it"?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, he felt -- I talked to Ambassador Hill earlier today after his talks -- and he thought that they were very pragmatic and businesslike. The tone was good. Sometimes in these meetings, the North Koreans can adopt a fairly aggressive tone. That was missing, fortunately, in this meeting.

And so the objective here is to convince them that they have no alternative but to honor these obligations. They might have been surprised, Jim, by the strength of the reaction of the international community to that nuclear test. It was condemned by every major power in the world, by President Putin, by President Hu Jintao of China, by the Indian government, the Brazilian government.

And so I think they obviously miscalculated. They made the wrong decision, and it may be that they realized just how alone they are in the world.

When North Korea comes to the table

Nicholas Burns
Undersecretary of State
We are not interested in talks for talks. We've had too many of those with the North Koreans over the years.

JIM LEHRER: What I'm really getting at here -- and, finally, is it your feeling and Christopher Hill's feeling that these are going to be just talks for talk's sake or that there is a feeling now that there will be an agreement that will be lasting and that will, in fact, resolve this rising crisis over the nuclear proliferation issue in North Korea?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Jim, we are not interested in talks for talks. We've had too many of those with the North Koreans over the years, and that's why we're going to take a couple weeks or many weeks to prepare these negotiations before we actually enter them.

We have got to know that, when the North Koreans come to that table, they're going to be willing and capable of honoring the agreements that they've already made to give up their nuclear weapons, to take down their nuclear and scientific apparatus, to open themselves up to international inspection.

We've got to have a sense and an assurance that that's the case, and we'll be working towards that over the next several weeks.

JIM LEHRER: But you want to know that before the talks begin.

NICHOLAS BURNS: And it was Chris Hill's opinion, based on his talks today, that the North does have that intention, but, as I say, we'll need to verify that over the next several weeks.

JIM LEHRER: Secretary Burns, thank you very much.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you, Jim.