MARGARET WARNER: Publicly, at least, the U.S. and South Korean presidents put up a united front today on the question of how to deal with North Korea.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We're strategic partners and allies and friends. I appreciate the president's good advice, and we share the same goals: Peace on the Korean peninsula and peace throughout the world.
MARGARET WARNER: President Roh Moo-hyun did not mention his proposal to offer bigger economic and security incentives to North Korea than Washington is willing to provide.
PRESIDENT ROH MOO-HYUN (Translated): There are admittedly many people who worry about potential discord or cacophony between the two powers of the alliance. But after going through our discussion today, Mr. President, I realized once again that with regard to all the matters and all the issues of great importance, we were able to deal with them, and we were able to bring closure to them smoothly. To be sure, there are one or two minor issues, but I am also quite certain that we will be able to work them out very smoothly through dialogue in the period ahead.
How do you feel, Mr. President? Don't you agree the alliance is strong?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I would say the alliance is very strong, Mr. President. And I want to thank you for your frank assessment and of the situation on, on the peninsula.
MARGARET WARNER: Today's White House meeting came amid fresh boasts from North Korea about its nuclear program. This week, a senior official in North Korea told an ABC correspondent on a rare reporting visit there that North Korea was continuing to build its nuclear arsenal.
KIM GYE GWAN (Translated): We have enough nuclear bombs to defend against a U.S. attack. As for specifically how many we have, that is a secret.
REPORTER: Are you building more bombs now?
KIM GYE GWAN (Translated): Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: It was the latest in a series of red flags from the North since it ejected U.N. weapons inspectors in 2002. In 2003, Pyongyang withdrew from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the only signatory to ever do so. And ever since June 2004, Pyongyang has refused to return to the six-nation nuclear talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
Last month, tensions escalated further. North Korea fired a short-range missile over the Sea of Japan, and there were reports that U.S. intelligence had detected possible preparations for an underground nuclear test. The rhetoric has grown heated as well. In April, President Bush excoriated North Korea's leader.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Kim Jong Il is a dangerous person. He's a man who starves his people. He's got huge concentration camps. There is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon. We don't know if he can or not, but I think it's best when you're dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong IL to assume he can.
MARGARET WARNER: Kim Jong IL responded by calling President Bush a philistine and a half-baked hooligan. But in a surprise move Monday, North Korean officials told the U.S. they were committed to returning to the six-party talks "when conditions are ripe." Bush administration officials expressed skepticism about Pyongyang's intentions.
And for more on the U.S.-North Korea nuclear standoff and how today's meeting fits into that, we turn to Kenneth Quinones, the State Department's North Korean affairs officer during the Clinton administration. He helped negotiate a nonproliferation agreement with the North in the mid '90s; and Chuck Jones, who until recently was director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council; he participated in the six-nation talks before they broke off. Welcome to you both.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's start with North Korea, since that was the topic of the day at the meeting this morning. And Kenneth Quinones, how do you assess the state of play and the degree of risk since the talks broke off a year ago? In other words, has this situation become more dangerous in that year?
KENNETH QUINONES: Yes. In recent months, especially in February when North Korea announced that it did have nuclear weapons, that significantly increased the danger level and has ever since caused considerable concern around the world.
MARGARET WARNER: So would you say -- would you agree, Chuck Jones, has North Korea benefited most from this stalemate?
CHUCK JONES: To some degree it's benefited but I want to disagree with Ken on one thing. I'm not sure that it's more dangerous right now. We've long assessed that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons. We assessed that prior to this administration. We assessed that back in '94 when we decided the frame work.
We were going to address the issue of the nuclear weapons long term after we addressed the immediate problem, Yongbyon. The fact that they declared they had nuclear weapons is important but it doesn't inherently make the situation any more dangerous.
MARGARET WARNER: How about what the North Korean official told ABC, which is that they've used this interim period to build additional weapons? Do you put stock in that?
CHUCK JONES: I put stock in that. I believe that's very possibly true. That said, however, I don't think it fundamentally changes the strategic balance. It doesn't make them any more dangerous at this point, increasing their nuclear arsenal. At some point it could make them more dangerous.
MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. strategy it appears -- obviously, here actually Mr. Quinones, has been to isolate North Korea. Has North Korea, in fact, paid any price for refusing to return to the talks?
KENNETH QUINONES: None whatsoever. They continue to receive ample economic support from both China and South Korea. They are continuing to improve relations with Russia. So economically they haven't lost anything. Militarily, actually, they're in a much, much better position now than prior to having nuclear weapons in that that they can deter a U.S. military attack much more effectively. And I think it's -- this has emboldened the North Koreans.
MARGARET WARNER: Which is why we hear this rhetoric?
KENNETH QUINONES: Exactly.
MARGARET WARNER: And how much stock do you put in the reports that the U.S. Intelligence had at least picked up signs that North Korea might be preparing for a nuclear test?
KENNETH QUINONES: Well, I think very, very mixed signals have come out of the United States intelligence community on this. I have not heard anything from individuals in that community that really is convincing or compelling about preparations for the test.
All I have heard is that the North Koreans are drilling yet another tunnel, which is really neither here nor there because they're infamous for having tunneled all over their country to create underground bunkers and so forth. So I think the question is still open as to whether or not they're preparing --
CHUCK JONES: In defense of intelligence officials, this is not something you can clearly predict; the preparations are somewhat ambiguous under the best of circumstances.
MARGARET WARNER: Well the U.S. did say, the White House said, warned Pyongyang they don't consider it a provocative act. Why would a nuclear test, if it went forward be -- would that ratchet up the level of risk or threat and if so how much?
CHUCK JONES: I think it would ratchet up the level of tension and I think it's understandable because while we have long assessed that North Korea is a nuclear power, that's not necessarily true in the Republic of Korea. They have not been willing to make that assessment until more recently; I think they're coming around to that --
MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about South Korea?
CHUCK JONES: South Korea. But I think there's a difference between what the government may be willing to assess and what the public is willing to accept. Nuclear tests would definitely push the South Korean public to realize that they're now facing a nuclear power on their northern border. That changes the dynamics.
We have, particularly in the six-party talk, four of the powers are nuclear powers, the other two are not, Japan and the Republic of Korea, South Korea. This would change the dynamics of that particular engagement.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean, make them feel there was more of a threat?
CHUCK JONES: I think South Koreans would definitely feel more of a threat as would the Japanese.
KENNETH QUINONES: But I think there's another dimension that goes beyond a political military situation and now that is that now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, claims it has nuclear weapons, prospects for successful negotiations have been significantly diminished. Reaching a peaceful diplomatic solution is going to be far more complicated and difficult if they did not have, rather than if they had.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, rather than looking backward, let's look at today's meeting. From the body language, the actual language or what you've learned from talking to people since the meeting, did it appreciably advance the prospects for resolving the U.S./North Korea nuclear standoff?
KENNETH QUINONES: Well, I think the first is that the summit today appears to be by all indications -- and on the way here I talked to people on both the U.S. And South Korean government sides -- the U.S. And South Korea have successfully sent a message to Pyongyang and the rest of the world that they're in this together and they, do in fact, share principles, goals. There are a few wrinkles they have to work out, but overall, the alliance is very, very healthy and solid. That's a very solid message to Pyongyang to start negotiating.
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, there's not -- they didn't, at least, reveal any differences that the North could feel -- could exploit.
KENNETH QUINONES: That's right. And I think Pyongyang was hoping that those would pop out. They didn't.
MARGARET WARNER: How big, in fact, are the differences, Mr. Jones, between the U.S. And, say, South Korea or the U.S. And some of its other partners in these talks, like China, over the proper mix of incentive versus pressure to exert on North Korea?
CHUCK JONES: I don't think they're significant. I think we've made more of them than there are actually are in terms of the differences. They are tactical mostly in nature. The basic principles are agreed to. Both the Republic of Korea and the United States and Japan -- in fact all the other five parties want a denuclearized peninsula. We do have disagreements on the specific tactics. We did in '94 and '93. In fact, we had some pretty vehement disagreements on tactics in '93 and '94 when we negotiated the agreed frame work.
That said, I don't think by any means they're insurmountable. I want to go along with what Ken said. I think when the United States and Japan and the Republic of Korea work together, I think it's a much more potent force. I think today's meetings, by all indications that I've had were very cordial and were as characterized in the press conference by both presidents largely a united front. I think they're going to help get the North Koreans back to the table and more importantly a willingness to negotiate.
MARGARET WARNER: How significant is it do you think, Kenneth Quinones, that the U.S. And South Korea be singing from the same book? And do you think they really are or to that today was about, as we just said, presenting a united front?
KENNETH QUINONES: I think best indication that they are on the same sheet of music was the fact that President Bush did take the time as well as President Roh to come here in, albeit brief, nevertheless a very substantive exchange. It sends a message to both governments and bureaucracies and officials that it is time -- whatever the wrinkles are that they have to resolve, they need to get resolved now.
And the timing of it could not have been better in terms of Pyongyang appears indecisive as to whether or not it's going to come back to the talks. Pyongyang can't manipulate Seoul against Washington anymore. There's no daylight there. Their only option really is to reengage in the six-party talks.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think North Korea is ready to come back to talks? And as a corollary to that, will that really -- I mean, do you think North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear ambitions, talks or no talks?
CHUCK JONES: I think that point remains to be determined. The North Koreans have to understand there's a price to be paid for not giving up their nuclear weapons and I think that's the challenge that now faces the other five parties, convincing Pyongyang that it does have to give up its weapons or else it will suffer consequence of that failure.
MARGARET WARNER: And isn't there a difference between the United States and some of its partners on how quickly and how tangible to make that threat, like going to the U.N. Security Council?
CHUCK JONES: Clearly, there are differences. But I think after today's meeting they're less than there were 24 hours ago, 48 hours ago. I think we're getting to a point where particularly in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, those differences are becoming minimal.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the U.S. has good options here?
KENNETH QUINONES: No. We have very limited options. And our primary option remains to reengage the North Koreans through the six-party talks. At the same time, our best option is to do as we've done since mid-May, and that is reengage in private diplomatic dialogue with the North Koreans. Otherwise, we will be on a very slippery slope.
Going to the United Nations is not going to compel the North Koreans to do anything. It will only compel them to get more stubborn. It will distance us from both Beijing and Moscow. There are doubts as to whether both would, in the end, support any action at the United Nations. So I think right now our primary option remains reengage the North Koreans in diplomatic dialogue and six-party talks.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Jones, you just came from the administration so this may be an unfair question. But there's a lot of speculation on the outside that there's even a division within the administration about how long to pursue the diplomatic track versus how quickly to go to the Security Council.
CHUCK JONES: There's no division within the administration on that. The president has made it clear that the diplomatic tack is his preferred option. He made that clear today. That's the option that we're all -- that when I was there and I am convinced now that everyone is working to pursue.
KENNETH QUINONES: I'd like to disagree with that. They may be on the same track, but they look very, very clumsy inside the administration sending out mixed signals. Over the weekend Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is saying on one hand we're ready to go to the U.N. Then he holds back from that. Condoleezza Rice is saying no, senior DOD officials didn't say the right thing concerning the U.N. and so forth. So I think we even had different press guidance between the White House --
CHUCK JONES: I think we need to be more precise. Secretary Rumsfeld didn't say that.
MARGARET WARNER: It was an aide to Secretary Rumsfeld, an unidentified aide.
CHUCK JONES: More importantly, Secretary Rice didn't say we weren't going; she said now is not the right time.
MARGARET WARNER: Not so quickly -- Anyway, I have to leave it there. I'm very sorry. Thank you both very much.