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U.S. Rejects Direct North Korea Talks Despite Threats

October 10, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: A day after North Korea claimed it tested a nuclear weapon, the Bush administration stood firm: There will be no return to direct negotiations with the communist country.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: Having learned from the mistakes, having learned from the inability of prior administration efforts to try to deal with the North Koreans, we thought, “You know what? If we go it alone, we don’t have the leverage. We need to come up with a much more practical way of trying to deal with a regime that sometimes does not seem to respond to rational incentives.”

RAY SUAREZ: Snow’s comment was the latest in the war of words over North Korea between Republicans and Democrats. Senator Hillary Clinton is leading her party’s assault.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Some of the reason we are facing this danger is because of the failed policies of the Bush administration. And I regret deeply their failure to deal with the threat posed by North Korea, and I hope that the administration will now adopt a much more effective response than what they have up until now.

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush reversed President Clinton’s policy of bilateral talks shortly after taking office. In a news conference with the South Korean president in 2001, Mr. Bush said that approach would not work.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Part of the problem in dealing with North Korea, there’s not very much transparency. We’re not certain as to whether or not they’re keeping all terms of all agreements. And that’s part of the issue that the president and I discussed, is when you make an agreement with a country that is secretive, how do you — how are you aware as to whether or not they’re keeping the terms of the agreement?

RAY SUAREZ: In 2003, the administration agreed to pursue a dialogue with North Korea, but only through six-party talks that also included China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. The Bush policy was a distinct break from the Clinton administration’s direct engagement with the North Koreans.

Top-level Clinton officials met several times with their North Korean counterparts. The highest level meeting came at the end of Clinton’s final term in 2000, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang.

But the most publicized and controversial negotiations came in 1994, as the two countries edged closer to war over the Korean nuclear program. Former President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang for talks with the former North Korean leader, Kim Il-Sung. Under their agreement, North Korea promised to freeze its nuclear weapons program in return for Western aid. But nearly a decade later, the Bush administration declared the North Koreans had cheated on that deal.

A unified approach to nuclear talks

Aaron Friedberg
Former National Security Aide
I don't have an objection in principle to the idea that we would talk directly to the North Koreans. In fact, we do, in the context of the six-party talks, but I actually think this is something of a red herring.

Now, two views on if and how the Bush administration should talk with North Korea. Aaron Friedberg was Vice President Cheney's deputy assistant for national security affairs and director of policy planning from 2003 to 2005. He's now a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

Jack Pritchard was deputy chief negotiator for Korean peace talks during the Clinton administration and then special envoy for negotiations with North Korea during the first term of the Bush administration. He's now president of the Korean Economic Institute.

Professor Friedberg, can the current dispute over nuclear weapons be settled, be pushed along in the right direction by direct talks with North Korea?

AARON FRIEDBERG, Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University: I actually think that the shape of the negotiating table, the context for those discussions, is much less important than setting the pre-conditions for a successful outcome, which in my view involves the application of unified and much greater pressure on North Korea by all of the parties to the six-party talks.

So I don't have an objection in principle to the idea that we would talk directly to the North Koreans. In fact, we do, in the context of the six-party talks, but I actually think this is something of a red herring.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you said you don't think it's that important compared with other considerations, but the North Koreans think it's important, don't they?

AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, they've put it forward as yet another reason why they are not responsible for the current situation, and it's been one thing after another. I don't think that it's really the fundamental reason why we are where we are.

I don't believe that if tomorrow we agreed to face-to-face negotiations with the North Koreans it would solve the problem. That assumes that they are concerned primarily with prestige and with our treating them nicely in some way or that they would be reassured by any written or spoken security guarantee that we would give them. And I just don't believe that's the case.

The rationale for six-party talks always has been that we wanted to get the other parties in the region that have a strong interest in the outcome of this crisis involved in the negotiating process so that they would have a stake in enforcing the outcome.

I think the six-party talks are the right way to go. We can talk to the North Koreans within that context, but I don't think we ought to abandon this six-party mechanism.

Dealing directly with North Korea

Jack Pritchard
Former North Korean Negotiator
There needs to be a sustained and prolonged dialogue directly with the North Koreans to ensure that we know exactly what we want out of this, what can be verified, and we can fold those answers back into the six-party process.

RAY SUAREZ: Jack Pritchard, what do you think? Is there anything to be gained by opening bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea?

JACK PRITCHARD, Korean Economic Institute: Well, there's a lot to be gained. But first, let's take a look at where we are today.

The North Koreans' test of a nuclear weapon was not the end of their nuclear weapons program. There's more to come. The North Koreans, to satisfy themselves that they've got a functional deterrent, is what they're seeking, will require another test of some larger magnitude, and they will require a successful, long-range test of a missile.

Then they've got to mate the two. They've got to miniaturize a weapon and to be able to put it on a nuclear-tipped missile.

So it's incumbent upon us to intervene in stopping the North Koreans from going down that path. They are 100 percent accountable for their own actions, but we must step in and ensure there is all possible action have been taken to ensure that they don't go down that path. And so bilateral dialogue is one of those.

I think the context of six-party talks is fine. No one is suggesting that we're excluding any of the other parties. But the idea that we can talk to the North Koreans on the margins of the six-party talks, during the six-party plenary sessions or otherwise, just doesn't work.

There needs to be a sustained and prolonged dialogue directly with the North Koreans to ensure that we know exactly what we want out of this, what can be verified, and we can fold those answers back into the six-party process. But this is not something that can be done on the cheap, with 30-minute meetings periodically as part of the six-party process.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, you just heard Mr. Pritchard posit that a final determination is not possible without a bilateral relationship.

AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, again, I think that what's more important than the context in which we talk with the North Koreans is what goes on outside the negotiating room. And there what's really critical is getting South Korean and Chinese cooperation in applying the greatest possible pressure, economic and diplomatic pressure, to North Korea to compel them to the realization that they have to choose to back away and abandon the programs that they've been pursuing.

Without that pressure, it doesn't matter what the shape of the negotiating table is. The negotiations will not succeed. And thus far, we have not gotten the full cooperation of either the South Koreans or the Chinese in applying this pressure. That's the key to a successful resolution to this crisis.

Implications for northeast Asia

Jack Pritchard
Former North Korean Negotiator
Sanctions by themselves don't work. You've got to turn this thing upside-down and look at it from a North Korean point of view. What is it that they're willing to accept that will allow them to give up their nuclear weapons program?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, taking what the professor has just said, hasn't the test itself -- an actual detonation -- sort of changed the situation in that region, making some of the other partners more vital discussants in a final solution? Japan is talking about building up its military. China is talking about taking a tougher line and how this is a security threat to them. And, of course, South Korea is worried that its policy of rapprochement with the North is in tatters now.

JACK PRITCHARD: Sure. All of those parties have large stakes. They've always had a large stake in this. You know, it is incumbent upon us to use what we can do.

There's nothing wrong with using sanctions as a tool for diplomacy if you're seeking an end game for a resolution that doesn't involve the use of military force, which the Chinese, the Russians, the South Koreans will not permit. And so if you're looking for the six parties to sign up for a policy or a direction, military action isn't one of those.

Sanctions are appropriate. You've seen the Chinese ambassador at the U.N. talk about the need for punitive actions against the North Koreans. That's absolutely correct. But what we've got to do is take a look at: What it is that's going to make the North Koreans come around at the end of the day?

And we've seen time after time and again that sanctions by themselves don't work. You've got to turn this thing upside-down and look at it from a North Korean point of view. What is it that they're willing to accept that will allow them to give up their nuclear weapons program?

And they've telegraphed that over and over again to us, and that is a final positive relationship with the United States. Is that possible at this point in time? I don't know. But we've got the obligation to find out.

A swift and careful reaction

Aaron Friedberg
Former National Security Aide
This is the moment, if there ever was one, to galvanize, mobilize, get others to do what needs to be done to get a successful resolution. If we allow this to be played out, I think the odds of getting a satisfactory outcome will diminish.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, we've had years of on-again/off-again United States involvement in the six-party approach. Has that yielded anything so far that would lead you to believe that, from here on out, that's the proper context to carry on in?

AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, I think the degree to which China, Japan and South Korea, and the Russians to a somewhat lesser extent are actively engaged in what's happening now and feel some obligation as we do to try to move the process forward is a function of the fact that they've been engaged in negotiations intensively with us and with the North Koreans over the last three-plus years. It's not an accident that that is the case.

Let me just say, on the point about sanctions, I agree with Ambassador Pritchard that this is a very important mechanism. I think, in particular, the application of financial sanctions, of the sort that we began to apply last year which would actually have a possibility of squeezing the hard currency that the regime earns from its illicit activities, might very well be the kind of pressure that would persuade them to change their positions.

Because it's that hard currency that sustains the regime that allows Kim Jong Il and his coterie to live in comfort, that allows him to have the resources to buy imports that he uses for his special weapons programs. And we can squeeze on that, and we have started to do that, but we need more cooperation, particularly from China and South Korea, in order to do that effectively.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, very quickly, does there need to be some sort of cooling-off period, some time to elapse after this test before you start these new overtures? Can you get something started right away?

AARON FRIEDBERG: I think it's very important to move quickly. I think, in the past, there have been a number of opportunities. When the North Koreans tested in July of this year and previously when they announced their intention not to return to talks, there have been some opportunities that perhaps we haven't pushed hard enough on.

This is the moment, if there ever was one, to galvanize, mobilize, get others to do what needs to be done to get a successful resolution. If we allow this to be played out, I think the odds of getting a satisfactory outcome will diminish.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Pritchard, in that case, how do you avoid the appearance of detonations getting people to come to the table?

JACK PRITCHARD: Well, one of the things you don't do is you don't negotiate under duress. But when you take a look at, what's the priority for the people of the United States? It's our own security.

And at the end of the day, if the North Koreans are successful in completing their nuclear weapons program, they will have a larger detonation. They will have a missile that's successful. And some day down the road they will mate the two, and it is a danger to the security of the United States. We've got to act now before that occurs.

RAY SUAREZ: So that new diplomatic round starts today?

JACK PRITCHARD: It should have started three years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Pritchard, Professor Friedberg, thank you both.

JACK PRITCHARD: Thank you.