kim's nuclear gamble
interview: jimmy carterHome
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Carter was the 39th president of the United States (1977-1981). In 1994, at the height of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, he traveled to Pyongyang for a private meeting with then leader Kim Il Sung to broker a peace deal. He tells FRONTLINE that he believes the two nations were on the verge of war in 1994, and says that the U.S. should agree to direct negotiations to resolve the current conflict. This interview was conducted on March 21, 2003.

What prompted you to take the trip to Pyongyang?

Well, it became obvious to me that the North Koreans weren't [going] to resolve the crisis peacefully and with mutual advantages for both sides.

I was convinced of this, because for almost three years, Kim Il Sung sent me a steady stream of invitations and personal entreaties to come to Pyongyang to let him explain the North Korean position, and to try to relay some communication back and forth with Washington, which at that time, seemed to be very difficult, if not impossible.

[North Korea] is still isolated, it's still paranoid.  It's still willing to make incredible sacrifices for their so-called honor.  And I think they now feel that they might very well be attacked.

Also, I had a very close friendship with China, particularly then, because I had normalized diplomatic relations with China, and they shared a lot of their information [and] advice with me. They were convinced, and imparted to me their conviction, that if the United States was successful in imposing an embargo against North Korea, that the North Koreans would have no alternative left except to launch a military attack. The Chinese were convinced that if we declared to the United Nations that North Korea was an outlaw government and their revered, worshipped leader, Kim Il Sung, was a criminal, that they would have to save face by launching an attack.

And so, after hearing that Washington was also contemplating a buildup in military capability, I decided to go. In the past, I had always refrained from going to a troubled area of the world without approval from the White House or State Department. But I hadn't been able to get approval. So I finally wrote President Clinton a letter and told him that I had decided to go to North Korea.

What convinced you that Kim Il Sung wanted to settle this matter peacefully?

He sent a constant stream of messages to me, including we finally got permission on a couple of occasions for his ambassadors to the United Nations to come down to Plains, [Georgia].

I wanted to test him about his sincerity. And every time I asked for something, he agreed. Finally, I decided that I would tell him that I would not go unless I could travel directly from Seoul across the DMZ to Pyongyang and return.

Their immediate response was that no one had ever done this for the last 43 years, that even the United Nations secretary-general had to go to Pyongyang through Beijing. And I said, "Well, I'm not going, then." So, in about a week came back a personal message from Kim Il Sung that if I were to come to Pyongyang, my wife and I can go directly to and from Pyongyang across the DMZ. So, that convinced me of his sincerity, and also of his urgent desire to talk to me. So I sent Clinton a letter telling him that I was going to go. And he was in Europe. It was the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landing.

Al Gore, the vice president, interceded my letter and called me on the phone and told me if I would change the wording from, "I've decided to go," to, "I'm strongly inclined to go," that he would try to get permission directly from Clinton without going to the State Department for me to go. And so, he called me back the next morning and said that I had permission to go.

How close were we to war?

I think we were on the verge of war. I've already told you what I had heard from the Chinese and from my own observations. Bob Gallucci came down to Plains, to my home, Sunday afternoon I remember, and we discussed it. I don't want to speak for him, but he and I agreed, maybe with varying degrees of concern, that a conflict was possible.

When I arrived in Seoul, I talked to General Luck, who was a commanding officer of the military forces of both South Korea and the United States. He told me that he had already made a presentation to the White House to the president and his key advisors, telling them that he thought a war was very possible, and that more than a million people would be killed, and that more than 50,000 of those casualties [would be] Americans. And because the North Koreans have a formidable ground force and their missile capabilities are excellent for a poor country, and they're all within firing range of Seoul, very close to the DMZ, no matter what we did to destroy North Korea, its nuclear plant at Yongbyon, or even to destroy Pyongyang, in the process a major portion of Seoul would be destroyed with immediate response.

So, I was very convinced by the Chinese, by my own analysis and observations, by some conversations with Bob Gallucci, with my friends from China, who I thought knew more about Pyongyang than Washington did, and then by the conversation with General Luck.

And your [conversations] with Kim Il Sung also convinced you that he was ready to go to war?

He didn't tell me that, but his top advisors did. I asked them specifically if they had been making plans to go to war. And they responded very specifically, "Yes, we were."

What was he like? This was your first meeting with him and your only meeting with him.

Yes. Well, I had more than one meeting while I was there. But yes, that one visit. I had despised Kim Il Sung for 50 years. I was in a submarine in the Pacific during the Korean War, and many of my fellow servicemen were killed in that war, which I thought was precipitated unnecessarily by him. And so I had very serious doubts about him.

When I arrived though, he treated me with great deference. He was obviously very grateful that I had come. So far as I know then and now, he was completely truthful with me. He was remarkably knowledgeable about even the details of things that I had known as a trained nuclear engineer. That was my background.

When he didn't know the answer to a specific subject that I raised, he would call on one of his advisors to answer it in my presence. And after we had basically resolved all the issues that had been presented to me on a brief visit to Washington before I left, I raised other matters of my own that were not on the agenda. This was on a boat trip, which he said belonged to his son Kim Jong Il, eight hours long with him and his wife and me and my wife. And I urged him to have direct peace talks at a summit level, with Kim Young Sam, president of South Korea.

I urged him to agree on a mutual percentage reduction between North Korean military forces and a combination of Southern Korea and U.S. forces. And he said he did not insist that all U.S. forces be withdrawn, but he [would] be willing to reduce his total forces 50 percent if the same thing would happen south of the DMZ. I urged him to agree to withdraw his military forces back from the DMZ. He said he would agree if the same thing was done on the other side.

I assured him, based on direct commitment that I had from the White House, that we did not have any nuclear forces in South Korea, and that we were not going to launch a nuclear attack against North Korea. I asked him to help us find the remains of soldiers who were buried in North Korea territory at the end of the Korean War. All these were requests that I had made to him on my own initiative.

He agreed to all of them. And so, I found him to be very accommodating. He was 82 years old. He had had serious heart problems. When we got to the end of our boat journey, which was down near big locks that control the exit of the river to the sea, we come to a very steep and high hill to overlook the locks. And he climbed up without any apparent problem. So, I thought he was in good health. But he died a few weeks later, as you know.

When I got back to Seoul, I was amazed and distressed at the negative reaction that I had from the White House. They urged me not to come to Washington to give a briefing, urged me to go directly to Plains, my home. And I decided that what I had to offer was too important to ignore, not only the resolution of that particular nuclear crisis at Yongbyon, but also the other agreements he had made. So, I decided to go to Washington against their wishes.

But you still never got a meeting with the president?

No, no.

You were on the phone with him to Camp David, as I remember.

That's right. Nor any of the cabinet members.

So, they were feeling upstaged?

I don't know what their feelings were. I've never discussed it with them. But I was, you know, a former president returning from what I thought was a very important mission. ...

You made a decision to go on CNN [when you were in North Korea]. Why?

... CNN was permitted by Kim Il Sung, not by me, to accompany me, in effect, back to Pyongyang. They were the only Western news medium that was there, and my willingness to let CNN participate was not under my control. This was a decision that the North Koreans made that CNN could come into some of the meetings.

But I felt that it was important for the commitment that Kim Il Sung had made to be revealed to the public. It would have made it much more difficult for him to reverse himself or to violate his commitments if they had just been secret commitments made to me personally.

So, in effect, the promises that Kim Il Sung had made -- the most important one was to let the inspectors come back in and to stop the plutonium processing opportunities at Yongbyon -- I thought that was so important that the whole world should know about it and not just have it be a private agreement between me and him.

So, the decision to go on CNN helped cement the position of the North Korean government but you made a phone call back to the White House and announced to Robert Gallucci that you were going to go on CNN. As it turned out there was quite a lot of consternation about that. The feeling was that you were perhaps boxing in the North Koreans. But you were boxing in the Americans at the same time.

Well, I made it plain then, which may not have come across to the public, I have to admit, that I was not speaking with any authority. I didn't have any authority from the U.S. government. I was not a delegate or an ambassador temporarily for the U.S. government. I was there only on behalf of the Carter Center.

I presented only the commitments that Kim Il Sung had made to me and I gave my own personal assessment of what those commitments might mean. But I think everyone knew that I was not representing the U.S. government. Certainly everybody in the U.S. government knew that I was not representing the U.S. government and I knew it.

But it wasn't a chess move on your part to try to get this thing aired in order to box in both sides to bring them together? I mean, one could say it was a brilliant move on your part.

Well, I can't deny that I hoped that it would consummate a resolution of what I considered to be a very serious crisis. And although I was not authorized to speak for the government, I was given a list of all the U.S. demands, concerning nuclear program primarily, but a few others.

And when Kim Il Sung agreed with me directly and personally that he would comply with all those demands that I relayed as a messenger, then I was very relived about that. And I figured that since he had met all the demands, that this was a resolution of the issue, at least if it was confirmed officially.

There were a few additional demands that originated in the White House that I was not asked to relate to Kim Il Sung. And those were given to me on the telephone in the middle of the night by Tony Lake, the middle of the night in North Korea. And when I later the next day released them to Kim Il Sung he also agreed to them.

And that was whether he would start up their program again or whether this was, you know, a permanent commitment on his part concerning Yongbyon and the plutonium issue. So, that was one step more restrictive than had been envisioned before I went to Pyongyang. But Kim Il Sung was willing to accept those additional restrictions.

Did you feel that that was going to break the deal? Did you object to Tony Lake at that point?

No, I didn't object to it. I just wasn't briefed on those demands. But within three days after I returned to the United States, in writing between Kim Il Sung and President Clinton, he confirmed his willingness to comply with the additional restraints.

After the Agreed Framework was signed in Geneva a few months later the Republicans on the Hill attack the Agreed Framework as appeasement. You come under fire for your role in this. Gallucci, everyone comes under heavy fire as traitors essentially.

(LAUGHTER) I don't remember them using that word but go ahead.

Well, I talked to McCain about it. He says, "Look, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is appeasement." I'm interested in your response to that.

I felt then and I feel now that the only resolution of that extremely serious crisis was what I did and what the Clinton administration did. I think the alternative to that no one can know for sure. It might very well have been a second Korean War, within which a million people or so could have been killed and a continuation of the production of nuclear fissile material, plutonium, as a matter of fact, at the Yongbyon plant if we hadn't had a war. And I think that had we not concluded that agreement that North Korea would have 50 or more nuclear weapons.

The current administration says [North Korea] cheated. They developed a highly enriched uranium program while they were on the record as having signed the Agreed Framework and agreed not to develop a nuclear program. They didn't break it in letter but they broke it in spirit. And that this shows that we never should have been dealing with these guys in the first place.

Well, I don't agree with the conclusion that we shouldn't have dealt with them in the first place. I think it's hard for some people to understand, in fact including me, how fearful North Korea is that they will be attacked by the United States.

That's a very interesting point. Can you talk about how Kim Il Sung relayed that sense to you of his own fearfulness about the U.S.?

Well, his fearfulness about the United States was not nearly so clear to me as the present fear is in North Korea, and that's what I really meant. But my opinion then was that North Korea couldn't accept the condemnation of their country and the embarrassment of their leader and that they would respond.

And I think this small and self-sacrificial country and the deep religious commitments that you had, in effect, to their revered leader, their Great Leader as they called him, meant that they were willing to make any sacrifice of massive deaths in North Korea in order to preserve their integrity and their honor, which would have been a horrible debacle in my opinion.

I don't think they feared that the United States was going to attack, except they did think that there might be a precision strike against their nuclear capability, against their one tiny site, which is a very small nuclear reactor. I think there were 8,000 fuel rods there being maintained. But they had withdrawn the inspectors, which I helped get them to put back in immediately. So, that was the military tactic that they were fearing then.

I think now, though this country is still isolated, it's still paranoid. It's still willing to make incredible sacrifices for their so-called honor. And I think they now feel that they might very well be attacked.

And so what should be done? What should American policymakers do?

We should negotiate directly with the North Koreans and make our demands quite clear. Primarily they would have to stop all nuclear weapons development. They should stop all selling of long-range missiles, which are very good I understand, at least in their scale.

And in return the United States should agree that we would sign with them a mutual non-aggression pact, with the caveats that if they violate this pact, if they make any threatening moves against South Korea for instance, or if they resume their nuclear program, that the non-aggression pact would be terminated.

That's it in a nutshell. And that's all they're asking for. I've met with some of their representatives recently -- and this could be confirmed by South Korea, by China, by Russia -- and this would in effect denuclearize the entire peninsula, and it would declare that there would be a non-aggression agreement that applied to all parties concerned.

If they did comply after a certain period of time, say two years or three years, if there's no violation of their commitments, then I would like to see trade sanctions finally removed after almost 50 years and us to encourage in every way, through South Korea and others, North Korea to take its place as part of a peaceful international society. ...



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