MARIA HINOJOSA: Welcome to the program. This week we're talking to David Kang, a government professor at Dartmouth College and co-author of the book "Nuclear North Korea." We're gonna be talking about this week's agreement between Washington, DC, and Pyongyang to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Welcome to the program, David.
KANG: It's good to be here.
HINOJOSA: So this was huge news. I wonder—what I want you to kind of tell us what it really means, what really happened. And I wanna know, David, do you think that it was downplayed? Do you think it got the attention that this kind of news should have gotten for such a breakthrough?
KANG: Well, the—the agreement itself is the baby toe in the water of a much larger attempt to completely denuclearize North Korea. North Korea is going to freeze its reactor and list all of its—nuclear facilities in exchange for a very small amount of electricity energy aid.
From this then they hope to move on to then beyond a freeze to actually dismantling the program and—normalizing the relationship between the US and North Korea. I think it got a fair amount of press. I was—I was a bit surprised by the amount of criticism of this because the agreement basically is the first step towards what we hope will be, you know, optimistically—would be a real change in US/North Korean relations.
HINOJOSA: Many people thought that there could be a point where we could be at war with North Korea. You actually never believed—you—you believed that that was a little bit overhyped.
KANG: Yes. One of the reasons that we've ended up where we are is that neither side (LAUGHTER), North Korea nor the US, wants to go and start a war. I mean, this is something that both sides realize would be extraordinarily devastating. It would make Iraq look like child's play.
Most military estimates are—about a million people would die in the first month of fighting. And there would be about a trillion dollars worth of damage. So nobody wants to go there. That being said, there was some fear, especially under the Bush administration, the sort of axis of evil preemptive policy, that the US would take, you know, would start a war.
HINOJOSA: So put this into context for us. Is there a sense of, okay, something has happened here and now these two countries are trusting each other? You know, people who were thinking about a possible war with North Korea, you can let out—you can exhale now.
KANG: Well, a couple things to note. The first one is are we—are we better off? It depends on where you measure from. If you measure from 2000, we're worse off. North Korea has proven that it's got a bomb or some kind of nuclear program. They've tested—and they've had the reactor running full steam for the last six years.
Are we better off than we were in October when we weren't talking at all and they had just tested a bomb? Yes. Is there a reason to fear? One—one important thing to remember is that North Korea was never a direct threat to the United States. If a war starts on the Korean Peninsula, nobody here is gonna even notice.
It will not affect the United States. They cannot bomb the United States. Their missiles don't get this far. The concern has always been that North Korea would sell those bombs to al-Qaeda or other terrorists who would then use them against the United States. So it's an indirect threat. It's still a threat. So in some ways, yeah, we're better off.
HINOJOSA: I wanna play a little bit of a—of a bite from the president—when he was talking about what happened in North Korea. And I want you to put this in context to what happened, what changed, and what led these two countries to finally get to this agreement. So let's listen to what the president had to say.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I changed the dynamic on the North Korean issue by convincing other people to be at the table with us, on the theory that the best diplomacy is diplomacy in which there is more than one voice that has got a—an equity in the issue speaking. And so—we had a breakthrough as a result of other voices in the United States saying to the North Koreans, "We don't support your nuclear weapons program and we urge you to get rid of it in a verifiable way."
HINOJOSA: The president is taking credit for basically creating this breakthrough. Is—is that right?
KANG: Well, this is where some of the criticism has come from. On the—on the—say, on the right, there's been criticism that Bush made any kind of deal at all. On the left, there's been fairly strong criticism that this was a deal that was in place in 2000/2001, and that we are actually five years and a nuclear test beyond where we could have been five years ago. In other words, much of the policies that the Bush administration took set off a spiral of tit for tat escalation by both North Korea and the US.
That being said, I do think that the president did decide to move away from a more coercive stance in the last couple months. In part because realizing there was nowhere—you couldn't escalate any farther without starting a war. And in part, as one insider in the—in the Bush administration has said, the—the prospect of Bush leaving office having Iran, Iraq, and North Korea worse than when he found them was too much.
HINOJOSA: When the United States has put any series of sanctions on North Korea—for example, banning exports, I think a lot of people would find this fascinating, banning these luxury item exports—into—into Korea—North Korea—cognac, iPods—it's not as if you think North Korea and you think, "Oh, there's a lot of people buying iPods in North Korea." You basically think this is—this kind of sanction isn't gonna do anything.
KANG: My own feeling has always been—that economic engagement with North Korea was by far most likely to effectuate change in North Korea, help the human rights, and to solve the nuclear program. Meaning, you know, we have—we have a country that we criticize in—in North Korea as being closed and isolated and resistant to change.
Then it makes no sense to me that if we call them closed and then refuse to trade with them. Targeted sanctions almost never work. And we have no reason to think that they would work in the case of North Korea. For example, we had sanctions on Saddam Hussein ever since the First Gulf War and it didn't knock him out of power at all.
But—and it's important to know this. Like I'm not defending the North Korean perspective. But if I were in Pyongyang and I'm reasonably sure this is (LAUGHTER) probably what they're doing right now, is they're sitting around saying, "Is the US serious or not? Are they really going to hold up their side of the bargain?"
HINOJOSA: So if there's still a great level of distrust between these two countries, who are we trusting inside North Korea that's going to essentially make sure that their agreements, what they have said will be enforced?
KANG: This is one of the ways in which I think that—that—you have to start slow or small in order to get to the bigger issues. Some criticism of this agreement has been, "Oh, it doesn't touch all these huge issues," you know, the dismantling and everything else, right? The levels of distrust are so high on both sides that you have to start small in a—in a process whereby if they renege, we'll know within 60 days. I mean, what's good about this agreement is that it's very specific about timetables and what both countries will do.
For the US side, and let's not forget, for the US side we also said we would do things. We would start to take them off the state-sponsored terrorist list. We would set up five working groups that are gonna discuss formal official government-level working groups with North Korea and the other five countries that will discuss normalizing our diplomatic relations with North Korea.
So we have to do some things that are—that are consequential. And North Korea has to actually freeze the reactor. So we're building trust in the process of this. And if these things don't happen, then we're back to where we were a couple months ago. So hopefully it will.
HINOJOSA: Thanks for speaking with us. David Kang is the author of Nuclear North Korea. Nice talking to you again, David.
KANG: My pleasure.
HINOJOSA: Thanks for listening. To read more of David Kang's opinions on North Korea, visit our website at www.PBS.org/now. That's www.PBS.org/now. I'm Maria Hinojosa. We'll talk to you again next week.
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