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North Korea’s Nuclear Attitude: What’s Next?

February 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said North Korea's agreement to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for U.S. food aid was "a modest first step in the right direction." Judy Woodruff, The Korea Society's Donald Gregg and Georgetown University's Balbina Hwang discuss the implications for multinational disarmament talks.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all of this, we get two views. Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg, he’s now chairman emeritus of the board of the Korea Society. And Balbina Hwang, she is a visiting professor at Georgetown University. She was a Korea specialist at the State Department during the last Bush administration.

And we thank you both for being here.

Ambassador Gregg, to you first. How big a breakthrough is this?

DONALD GREGG, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea: I think this is very significant.

It’s the first major step forward taken by the two countries since President Obama came into office. And it also, I think, says a lot about the way the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea is going to operate. They’re a very hierarchical country. And it’s interesting to me that Kim Kye-gwan, who has recently been promoted, was happy to meet with Glyn Davies, who is a lower rank than the man he succeeded, Steve Bosworth.

So there was no talk of hierarchy. There was just a getting down to business on issues that had long divided us and which now we were able to talk about since Kim Jong-un came into power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Balbina Hwang, do you agree this is a big breakthrough?

BALBINA HWANG, Former State Department Official: Unfortunately, no, I don’t. I would even hesitate to call it a step in the right direction.

The problem is the bar has been moved so far backwards that really even if we return to where talks stalled in October 2008, I’m not sure that this statement today even gets us to that point. It’s certainly leading in the right direction and I certainly think it’s a positive sign, but I hesitate to read too much into this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about Ambassador Gregg’s point that you have ranking officials on the North Korean side who are willing to meet with less-ranking folks from the U.S. side?

BALBINA HWANG: I’m not sure if that’s quite the calculation.

Glyn Davies is actually — was a former ambassador for IAEA of the United States in Vienna, so he does certainly have ambassadorial status. I think the more important point here is to make sure we don’t read too much into this being a tremendous sign of Kim Jong-un’s new regime, and that this is a tremendous sign of change, because, in fact, the statement reveals it was actually very carefully crafted.

And I think it actually shows a great deal of continuity with the old regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Gregg, what do you see, though, in here, that gives you hope?

You mentioned the different level, the officials who came, the sense that this new regime in North Korea wants to move. What else do you see in here that gives you hope?

DONALD GREGG: Well, part of it is the new attitude shown by Ambassador Davies. He welcomed the signs of continuity, which — the things that he heard from Kim Kye-Gwan. And also the agreements that the North Koreans have set in place are going to test how quickly they are willing to implement these new steps.

It’s up to them to reach out to the IAEA to arrange procedures for inspections at Yongbyon. It’s also they have been told that no food will be developed — or delivered until there are monitors set up inside North Korea.

Now, the Koreans when they want to do something, can do it quite quickly. I saw that when I accompanied the New York Philharmonic on their visit to North Korea three or four years ago. The North Koreans moved very adroitly and gave a wonderful reception.

So we will quickly know whether they’re serious about these agreements by the speed with which they will reach out to the IAEA and arrange to have food monitors put in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why isn’t that, Balbina Hwang, a promising sign, or at least a sign that something could happen in a positive direction and quickly?

BALBINA HWANG: Oh, certainly, it is a positive sign. On the other hand, I think there’s a very long way to go before this leads to any real progress in terms of the overall goal of denuclearization, and certainly even kick-starting the actual six-party talks.

What is interesting to me is. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s a reference to the multinational. . .

BALBINA HWANG: Process that has been in place for pretty much the last decade, yes.

The problem here is that even if the IAEA inspectors come in, it’s unclear from the North Korean statement, which is quite different from the U.S. state issued today, on whether or not that even brings us back to where the six-party talks stalled in October 2008.

It doesn’t specifically state plutonium, which is the problem with the actual nuclear weapons they have today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, Ambassador Gregg, as we understand it, the North Korean statement did mention uranium. It didn’t mention plutonium.

What’s the significance of that?

DONALD GREGG: Well, that’s very significant because the nuclear weapons they have produced have been produced through plutonium, not uranium.

And so it’s clear from what Ambassador Davies has said that our goal is to get at denuclearization of North Korea. But these steps are in the right direction. And I would suggest to Balbina and others who are so deeply skeptical that we stop looking backward to where we have been, but let’s look forward to where we can go.

And what has been agreed to in Beijing sets a very clear path toward preliminary steps that can lay the basis for significant negotiations on denuclearization in the future. But that’s going to take time. It isn’t going to happen immediately because there are decades of mistrust between our two countries that we have to overcome. But this is a really major step in the right direction, in my view.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that as an approach, looking ahead, rather than back?

BALBINA HWANG: Oh, certainly, we should do that.

But, also, history has much to teach us. And I think the point here is in this statement one very important missing piece was no mention about inter-Korean relations. Now, I know the U.S. State Department. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: With South Korea.

BALBINA HWANG: That is correct, improving relations between North and South Korea. Now, the State Department has said that that was included in the dialogue with — in Beijing with the North Koreans, and that the U.S. position has not changed on that. However, I’m not certain how much of a priority that is. And that concerns me a great deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Gregg, what do you look for next to give you a sense of whether this agreement may bear fruit eventually?

DONALD GREGG: Well, I think it’s important for the United States to maintain very good relations with South Korea, and it’s interesting to me that the South Koreans have approved this — this agreement.

I also look for reactions from within North Korea to what has been agreed to, because we have all been saying, can Kim Jong-un really make it as the new leader? He’s less than 30 years old. But the implementation of this agreement will validate his leadership in North Korea, if it brings food to mothers and small children.

That will be taken as evidence in North Korea that he is a successful leader who’s establishing better relations with the outside world than North Korea has had for some time. So, I think there are positives to this agreement both in Pyongyang and the United States and South Korea as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just briefly, would you agree those are the next steps to look for?

BALBINA HWANG: They are, but I would caution about the food aid.

If, in fact, we are prefacing our shipments of food aid based on monitoring, if North Korea cannot meet those requirements, then, from — the message that Kim Jong-un sends to his people is that the United States reneged on the deal. So, again, this is — we have to be quite careful with all of these steps and measures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We thank you both, Balbina Hwang, Donald Gregg.