JIM LEHRER: More now on North Korea and Iraq from two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: the outgoing chairman, democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware, and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
The U.N. is going to give North Korea one more chance, Senator Biden. How serious is this thing getting?
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: I think it's very serious. I think that we seem to be a bit bereft of a policy here. You know, none of this policy of I think what they call " creative containment", or whatever the phrase was, Jim, the administration is talking about, it rests and relies upon the cooperation of South Korea, Japan and to a lesser extent, but importantly China and Russia, and they don't seem to want any part of this policy of isolation.
And the bottom line here, Jim, is that they're going to be able to produce in a very short time another half a dozen nuclear weapons. If they get that plutonium uncorked, it's stuff that they can sell, they can, the very reason we're going after Iraq in part is to make sure that weapons of mass destruction don't get in the hands of terrorists, and North Korea proliferators. So I would say this is urgent.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hagel, the world just used a while ago was "blackmail," that North Korea is in the process of blackmailing us and the rest of the world. Do you agree, is it that kind of thing that's happening?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I'm not sure I'd use "blackmail", Jim. As Senator Biden said, this is a very serious situation. I think where we are today working through the International Atomic Energy Agency obviously tomorrow is going to be important here with the South Korean president's national security advisor in for consultations, South Korea's government has been involved over the weekend in these consultations. The process that we are now following is the correct process. Blackmail, I'm not sure is the appropriate term.
But the fact is, as President Bush said today, that we want to settle this peacefully, diplomatically, and I believe the present course of action is the correct course, and that is through the United Nations, and with our allies, and with those nations there in that region of the world that would be most affected by a nuclear North Korea.
JIM LEHRER: But, Senator Hagel, have I missed something, or hasn't the president also said that the United States will not negotiate with North Korea because to negotiate with North Korea would in fact be blackmail?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, the president said today, Jim, and you probably saw some of the transcript, that if North Korea would comply with a couple of the requests here that the I AEA is asking them to comply with, our partners, our allies, our friends in that part of the world, then the president said dialogue would be in order. We should sit down. I think we are going to have to sit down. And I think we should handle it just as Colin Powell has been handling it, carefully, quietly, let's get all the players, those affected, in a room.We are doing that, and will find a way out of this. But it is serious. And in the end, Jim, your attribution of "blackmail" may in fact be the case, but I'm not sure I would attribute it to it at this point.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Biden, going back to what you said, the policy doesn't seem to be working in some way. Now, what is on the table now apparently is that South Korea has said, hey, we'll mediate this, we'll mediate between you the United States and they, North Korea and the rest of the world. Does that make sense to you, is that possible?
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, it's possible, but what it really says to me, Jim, is that South Korea isn't going to be any part of this idea of total isolation of North Korea. And that creates a gigantic problem for us. I mean, we have sort of two negotiations here. One is to have a common position with South Korea. And it seems to me that to end up in discussions with the North, does not mean we negotiate, but what is necessary, I believe, is for the North to demonstrate that they put something on the table first.
I believe that the way out of this is if through South Korea or through China, or any other interlocutory they were to allow the U.N. inspectors back in, Bush would say, if that's done, then there's reassurance that we will sit down and talk with you, I think that is not a negotiation, that's just common sense. But this is, I'm not sure if it's blackmail or not, Jim, because I'm not sure how stable the northern regime is. This an incredibly isolated regime, who I think many times is their own worst enemy in their calculations; they miscalculate so often. And the only conflict that's worse than one that's intended is one that's unintended.
So there's back channels moving here, according to the administration and the secretary. I hope they are active. But the bottom line is, we're going to end up having at some point, however we construct this, having to sit down with North Korea and say, look, there's a way out of your total isolation to join the world, but these are the conditions upon which you have to meet. But until we talk, the only option left is, there aren't many.
What do you do, do you strike North Korea if they continue to produce or produce additional nuclear weapons with South Korea opposes it? Do you contain? You know, there's not many other options.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Senator Hagel? The question has always been do this or else. What's the or else here, those of us being in the United States and those who support us are saying to North Korea, what are the other "or elses"?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Of course that's the trap you can find yourself in very quickly. And that's, I think, where the president does not want to drift to, because if you play the "what else" card, then you're going to have to produce something. And we don't want to do that.
And for all the reasons you know and Joe and I think most of us understand, when you've got 37,000 American troops trapped between South and North Korea, and all the other consequences that could develop here if this isn't handled right, we've got a pretty serious situation on our hands. So as Joe laid it out, and I think that's essentially where the president is, is we do want the dialogue, and we I believe are going to have to have that communication.
The last thing we want to do or should do in my opinion is try to isolate North Korea. They are very dangerous, they're unpredictable, and they have a past behavior pattern that's a bit erratic. That is not good news for any of us. So I think we keep the emotions down and keep working the channels.
JIM LEHRER: And you feel that's where we're headed? You feel good about it?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I don't know if I feel good about it, Jim, but I think that's where we headed. I think if we stay steady and resolved here and handle this in a wise way with our allies and partners over there, we can find a way out of this. But just as you said and as Joe Biden said, if you get into a corner where you've got to play the "what else" card, then that's when this becomes very dangerous.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of getting dangerous and where we're headed, Senator Biden, on Iraq, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Atomic Agency said today that their inspectors thus far had found nothing, had found no smoking guns. Does that important, does that mean anything at this stage of the game?
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, I don't think it's important in terms of whether or not he has weapons of mass destruction in fact. I think it's important in terms of world public opinion, international community, what kind of support we would get from moving absent a smoking gun. He still has not accounted for the materials that the world knew he had before the inspectors left, that in and of itself is evidence of the fact that he either still has them or isn't telling us how he destroyed them.
But I do think, Jim, internationally, for the United States to be able to move in with 100-plus thousand forces into Iraq, there is going to be a need for some further evidence that he is in violation of the commitment made to the U.N. in the early 90s. And I think we're getting to the point where we're going to have to risk the loss of sources by sharing some information with Hans Blix and the inspectors, in order to be able to accomplish that.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Senator Hagel?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I'm not sure we're there yet. It may well be that that's what it will come to. But I think we should play this out. The next event here is January 27th, when Blix reports to the Security Council of the United Nations. Let's let this process work up until then. Then we'll probably have to make some kind of decision. But it should be in unison with and coordination with under the auspices of the Security Council of the United Nations.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hagel, what do you say to those folks who are saying increasingly, commentators on this program and elsewhere, wait a minute, every day, in fact today I reported in the news tonight, I reported in the news summary, call-up of more reservists, more elements from the first marine division are moving toward the Gulf, the buildup of U.S. forces. And people are saying, there's no way in the world the United States is going to commit that kind of money and resources and not eventually use them no matter what the inspectors come up with. What do you say to that kind of talk?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I still believe, Jim, maybe I'm one of the few left or the only one left, that war is not inevitable. Obviously for the president to show a strong hand, he has to marshal that forward-deployed force and do what he's doing. Now, this gets us back to the North Korean question, where we're talking about the 'what else' or 'where else'. Because once you have that kind of firepower and that kind of force structure in that part of the world, then you are going to have to do something with it. And our word, our credible is at stake here.
But I would prefer to think right now that the president is showing a very strong hand that he is willing to do what we need to do if it comes to that. I hope with the United Nations Security Council to disarm Saddam if there is no other resource.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Biden, is Senator Hagel alone in thinking that…
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: No, I'm still one of those who thinks there's a possibility we can avoid war. The cost of committing these forces and bringing them back without using them is considerable. But the cost of the war is considerably more. And so I think the president still would like to avoid a war. But I, quite frankly, don't think that since it takes so much time to move these forces, he has a whole lot of option. I might argue whether or not he should be doing it now or in a month. But that's sort of Monday morning quarterbacking, I'm not a military man; I'm not going to second guess that judgment.
But I do believe that the president has to be prepared to demonstrate the capacity to use force if in fact there's noncompliance, although it is costly. I mean, I would be very happy if the end result of this was, quote, we wasted the money and didn't have to use those forces, because no matter how much that cost, it will cost considerably more, and we may need to, but it will cost considerably more to go to war.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Biden, Senator Hagel, thank you both very much.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Thanks, Jim.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Thank you, Jim.