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Nuclear Weapons

November 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: One month ago, the Bush administration confronted North Korean leaders with intelligence that Pyongyang was pursuing a secret uranium-based nuclear weapons program. Perhaps more surprisingly, North Korea admitted that was true. The U.S. government says this violates a 1994 deal called "The Agreed Framework."

Since the revelation, the Administration has demanded North Korea dismantle the new nuclear program, and mounted a diplomatic effort to isolate Pyongyang. North Korea says it wants to negotiate.

Joining us is the U.S. official who confronted North Korea: Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly — in his first on-the-record interview since then. He joins us from the State Department.

And, welcome, Secretary Kelly.

JAMES KELLY: Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about these meetings you had one month ago in North Korea.

JAMES KELLY: Well, for more than a year, ever since the President’s review of Korea policy had been finished, we had agreed to go to North Korea and speak to the North Koreans on an "any time, any place, no pre-conditions" basis. But last summer we got the information about this covert uranium enrichment program that you mentioned.

So when I went in early October with a group of people from the U.S. government, we went there with a pre-condition. And the precondition was to speak quietly to the North Koreans and tell them that they had this program and that they just had to stop it, or it was going to be very difficult to do business with us. We went and we had four meetings in a period of a couple of days in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The first two, which were quite lengthy meetings, my counterpart angrily denied these and said that this point we were making was a fabrication. But in the very last meeting, a more senior official made it very clear in a series of references that he admitted that they had this program and, in his characterization, said we had made them do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Were you surprised that they admitted it? Why do you think they admitted it?

JAMES KELLY: Well, I don’t really know why they admitted it. Yes, I was a bit surprised, especially after the earlier meetings, that this gentleman became so clear on the matter. But I reminded him that, with respect to his argument that the U.S. administration had compelled this action on their part, that our information showed that it had been going on for several years during which all kinds of contacts had been taking place, some of which we had pretty high hopes for.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, they were arguing that the… when the Bush administration came in and it cut off contact and adopted what they felt was a hostile attitude toward North Korea.

JAMES KELLY: Yes, he did argue that and he said that "The Agreed Framework" had, in fact, been nullified by our actions. And if he says it’s nullified, I think it probably is nullified.

MARGARET WARNER: Now many Korea experts said they believe… including some in South Korea– that this was a bid on North Korea’s part to get the Bush administration to reengage or to engage and to negotiate with them on some things they want.

JAMES KELLY: Well, they’re asking for negotiations. They’re asking for some kind of a non-aggression treaty, but some eight years ago there were extensive negotiations that had the goal of resolving the issue of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. So here years later we have another separate, different kind of an approach to have nuclear weapons. And so now we’re asked to undertake some negotiations anew and resolve it.

We’re happy to undertake the negotiations, but first North Korea really has to dismantle, and do so rather promptly, this program they have, which is in clear violation of the previous agreements we’ve had in some three other international agreements.

MARGARET WARNER: So you are flatly rejecting the North Koreans’ suggestion that all this be part of a negotiation, that they’re willing to give up all the programs– old and new– and accept verification if the U.S. will have a negotiation, sign a nonaggression pact, promise never to threaten or use nuclear weapons against North Korea?

JAMES KELLY: What we’re seeing is a repeat of what North Korea worked in 1993 and 1994, in which they’re caught with a nuclear weapons program that they had earlier agreed not to do, and then after extensive negotiations, some kind of formula is found in which they will presumably stop doing it. This has worked once before as Secretary Powell made it. We bought that horse one time before. Now, this is not an unsolvable problem but it is clearly one that there’s really nothing to negotiate, at least at this time.

MARGARET WARNER: Other administration officials have said… Condi Rice, the NSC adviser — and others — that you all believe that economic leverage, trying to get South Korea, Japan and Russia as part of this, to pressure North Korea, threaten to isolate it, that that will work. What makes you think that will work and do you really have those three countries on board for this kind of tough approach?

JAMES KELLY: One of the reassuring things since I came back — and on the way back I stopped in both Seoul and in Tokyo to brief these governments very clearly on what was going on is the degree of support we’ve had from the Republic of Korea and from Japan and as well from China, from Russia, and from many other countries. There’s really not anyone — outside of the leadership group in North Korea that wants to see nuclear weapons there on that peninsula.

MARGARET WARNER: But when the president — President Bush — met in Mexico about ten days ago with the Presidents, the leaders of all three of those countries, he did not get the tough statement that U.S. officials had said you all hoped to get threatening economic isolation of North Korea if it didn’t dismantle this program. So how is North Korea going to read that? Japan is still continuing talks also with North Korea.

JAMES KELLY: Well, I think there must be some misunderstanding. We got an excellent statement. We got the full statement that we in fact sought from the South Koreans and Japanese. And we got an equally strong statement from the entire APEC group at Los Cabos. We’re not trying to do this all in one leap. We have, in fact, encouraged this variety of contexts that the South Koreans and the Japanese and others have with North Korea. It very much complicates and enlarges the opportunities in which we can try to convince the North Koreans that this is a serious problem not just with us but with the world community as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Could taking the hard line backfire? As you know, today North Korea publicly threatened to resume their missile testing program if Japan held back on normalization over this nuclear issue.

JAMES KELLY: Well, there’s always the prospect and possibility of surprises from the North Koreans, but I’m not sure that what the policy we’re taking is such a hard line. We’re really, in fact, quite open to all kinds of ways. It’s just that North Korea has repeatedly promised in writing to not develop nuclear weapons, and they just simply have to start honoring their own word.

MARGARET WARNER: Does the U.S. consider North Korea still bound by the rest of that ’94 agreement — most of which concerned actually their plutonium-based program?

JAMES KELLY: Yes, it did most of it, as you say. But the object of the agreed framework was to end nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. And the North Koreans have said that it was nullified and we guess it probably is nullified. In any event, it’s going to be something that’s going to be very difficult for us to continue. But the elements of the program–


JAMES KELLY: … and there are quite a few… are not yet decided and there may be some things in there that are worth saving in one form or another.

MARGARET WARNER: I guess what I’m asking is do you think there’s much of a danger that if the agreement is nullified in Pyongyang’s view that it could then go back and get the spent fuel that has been in storage and make plutonium bombs out of it?

JAMES KELLY: Well, we hope they wouldn’t do that. That might be one of the things that they might choose, but that’s one of the efforts of our diplomacy, to try to convince North Korea that that’s really not in its interest to try to prompt some kind of crisis of that sort.

MARGARET WARNER: Will North Korea in the meantime continue to receive the fuel oil shipments that, in return, the U.S. and this U.S. led consortium had promised to give them under the ’94 agreement? There was a report today that the next shipment was in fact going to, what, set sail today.

JAMES KELLY: Well, the shipments have been on a monthly basis. And it’s not clear when the last one or whether the last one has already occurred. This is something I’m going to be heading on off to Japan and Korea. There’s a board meeting next Monday that’s going to decide whether that one goes ahead. For next year though or for very much beyond the present, I see very little support in the U.S. Congress to continue providing these fuel shipments.

MARGARET WARNER: How would you explain the fact that the U.S. is willing to deal with this situation diplomatically rather than threatening military action in the case with Iraq?

JAMES KELLY: Well, Iraq is a country that has used weapons of mass destruction on its own people and on its neighbors. It has actively within recent years invaded its neighbors. It’s striving hard to obtain nuclear weapons soon. And there’s a strong reality that it might choose to use these either against the U.S. or one of our allies.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula is tense but there is a kind of a stability over the last 50 years or almost 50 years since the armistice occurred. North Korea is almost broke. And it’s begun engaging much more broadly with other countries so the situation is really quite different.

MARGARET WARNER: Can I ask you a quick final question: Can you confirm the report in the "Washington Post" today that U.S. intelligence believes North Korea has smallpox stocks?

JAMES KELLY: I’m not able to confirm that report. There is indication and information that several countries have retained smallpox virus samples in violation of the World Health Organization resolutions. All the smallpox viruses are supposed to be in two locations in the world, but I’m not able to go into any detail about whether North Korea has this –


JAMES KELLY: — although there have been reports to that effect.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Kelly, thanks very much.

JAMES KELLY: You’re welcome.