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Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy from 1993-1996, Carter was the senior advisor to former Secretary of Defense William Perry on the Clinton administration's 1999 North Korea policy review. He tells FRONTLINE that a year ago he was more confident that diplomatic talks might have succeeded in convincing North Korea to give up its plans for obtaining nuclear weapons. Today, he fears it may be too late. This interview was conducted on March 3, 2003.

Just sketch for me what the situation was in June 1994.

In June 1994, North Korea was preparing to remove some fuel rods from a research reactor which they'd been operating at Yongbyon. [The] fuel rods contained five or six bombs' worth of weapons-grade plutonium. They were going to take those fuel rods and extract the plutonium from them.

That's reprocessing?

The problem isn't only nuclear weapons in the hands of the North Korean regime as it is, it's what happens after the North Korean regime.  Where do those nuclear weapons end up?

So-called "reprocessing." We felt that that would bring a potentially hostile nation to the United States across the nuclear finish line, and that that wasn't acceptable to us. We were not, by any means, confident that we could talk them out of taking that step. Therefore we looked into the possibility of compelling them by force to set back their nuclear program. We designed a strike of conventional precision munitions on Yongbyon, which we were very confident would destroy the reactor, entomb the plutonium and that we could mount such a strike and carry it out without causing the reactor to create a Chernobyl-like radiological plume downwind, which was an obviously important concern.

It is a Chernobyl model plant. Correct?

It is graphite-moderated like the Chernobyl plant. It's a smaller scale, but it does have flammable graphite in it. So you need to worry that a fire could start that would sweep all this radioactive junk up from the core and cause a radiological problem downwind. We were very confident we could avoid that.

So this was bombers going in and hitting it with missiles?

You could do it with tactical aircraft, you could do it with strategic aircraft, and you could do it with cruise missiles. Depending on the circumstances, we could have used any one of those or a combination of the three. We analyzed each building at Yongbyon, particularly the reactor, as I've said, but also the fuel fabrication plant, the reprocessing plant, the reactors under construction. We figured out where, if a precision munition is delivered on that structure, you will destroy the structure -- the objective being to set back their program many years. As I said, we were absolutely confident that we could have carried out a strike which would have been surgical within its own frame.

So why not do it?

The larger consequences would be far from surgical. North Korea maintains a million men on the DMZ. Thousands of artillery tubes are trained on Seoul, and Scud missiles are trained on South Korea. That's a large and antiquated army. We've had a war plan jointly devised with the forces of South Korea, called Op Plan 5027, which has been in existence for many years -- constantly updated for the defense of South Korea against North Korea, in the event that those million men and the artillery all spill over the DMZ.

We were also confident in 1994 -- and I'm sure we're very confident today -- that we would, within just a few weeks, destroy North Korea's armed forces if they started that war, and we would destroy then their regime.

We reckoned there would be many, many tens of thousands of deaths: American, South Korean, North Korean, combatant, non-combatant. So the outcome wasn't in doubt. But the loss of life in that war -- God forbid that kind of war ever starts on the Korean Peninsula. The loss of life is horrific.

Everyone could appreciate the magnitude of the damage that North Korea could do, if it chose to respond to a strike on Yongbyon [by attacking South Korea]. Now, if we did it properly, if it came to this option, one would say to the North Koreans in advance, "Yes, you can lash out at South Korea after we mount this attack. That will be the end of your regime." So after the strike on Yongbyon, the ball's in their court.

Now what we couldn't do was assure anyone, and I'm sure the secretary of defense couldn't assure the president, that North Korea would not, irrationally lash out and begin that war. They say they would. So we would be calling their bluff. Therefore, there were substantial risks associated with carrying that out that attack, although it would surely set back their nuclear program. That was a risk that I certainly felt at the time, and feel now, was worth running in light of the enormous risks to our security associated with letting North Korea go nuclear.

So you thought it was feasible to go to war?

It is such a disaster for our security in many ways to allow North Korea to go nuclear that we needed to run then -- and I think we need to run now -- substantial risks to avoid the greater danger of a nuclear North Korea.

But you're not saying, are you, that we should consider striking them now?

No. I think President Bush has said we're seeking a diplomatic resolution to the situation now, which means trying to talk the North Koreans out of going down the nuclear path. Now, to be successful at doing that, one needs to make it persuasive to them that they're better off without nuclear weapons than they are with nuclear weapons.

Was the Agreed Framework a good deal?

The Agreed Framework did one thing which was very important to us, which was to freeze North Korea's plutonium program at Yongbyon right up until just a few months ago. Had that not been frozen, by now North Korea would have several tens of nuclear weapons. So by that standard, it certainly did our security a service. It didn't do everything. It did not address ballistic missiles, which we have a serious problem with respect to North Korea. It did not address adequately, clearly, a uranium-based nuclear weapons program, because we now know that North Korea embarked on a uranium-based program at the same time.

Is it fair to say that what the Agreed Framework accomplished was getting them off of a fast-track at Yongbyon to a slow track towards getting nuclear weapons?

At Yongbyon, they were stopped in their tracks. That is, they never took those fuel rods and reprocessed them to get the plutonium.

But that was a potential fast track.

That was. They remained a few months away from reprocessing those rods, but they didn't reprocess those rods for eight long years. During that time, we could all rest more easily. At the same time the plutonium program was frozen, we now know that they began experimenting with, and then embarking upon a program involving the other metal that you can make nuclear weapons out of -- namely, uranium. Now they're not very far along in that. So it doesn't present a clear and present danger in the way that the plutonium program still does.

The plutonium program can lead to five or six bombs within a few weeks. The uranium program won't lead to bombs for many, many months. But the uranium program proves any undertaking you make with North Korea you better verify.

The Agreed Framework muddles along. Opposition sets in from Congress, and by 1998, it's in trouble. There's a missile firing over Japan. The Perry Review process comes in, and you jump into this.

Yes. President Clinton -- I think, to his credit -- recognized in 1998 that the United States had fallen asleep on the North Korea issue. So great had the relief been in 1994 that we'd managed to freeze the plutonium program at Yongbyon, everybody went off and worked on other things.

Why'd they fall asleep?

Bosnia, Kosovo, other [pressing] events, Haiti, Somalia -- I mean, go down the list of issues of the 1990s that seemed so important at the time. So in 1998, when the North Koreans fired this ballistic missile, everybody in the region and the United States woke up and said, "Boy, we haven't been paying attention to them. But they've been sure been paying attention."

So President Clinton asked then-former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry to lead an effort to review our policy and put a whole package together about this odd little place. Bill Perry asked me to be his senior advisor, sort of deputy, in this effort. We looked very hard at the possibility of, was there some way that we could undermine the North Korean regime or get rid of it? We looked very hard at that. That didn't look very promising, and ultimately we set that aside. But it's worth asking why.

History, human nature, would tell you that the North Korean regime, can't go on like this forever -- this very odd Stalinist throwback government, unable to feed itself. While that's true, there was no evidence that we could deduce that you could go into a president of the United States and say, "I don't think they're going to make it much longer." They have amazing staying power. Nor were we able to identify any cracks in the facade into which we could put a crowbar. Most defectors from North Korea, when asked, "Did you ever discuss your feelings about the regime with anyone else?" will tell you no, and so we didn't have a situation like Afghanistan.

In other words, they never discussed dissatisfaction with the leadership.

Right. There was never a conspiracy, never a tremendous fear. This is a society which is now in its third generation of severe political repression, so that children in North Korea have several hours of political education a day. Their parents did, and their grandparents did.

If you take the other extreme, which is Afghanistan, where you go in and you stir the pot a little bit and everybody rises up against the Taliban -- there [is] no evidence that we could deduce that we had any such prospect in North Korea. Additionally, an undermining strategy was, at best, a long-term proposition, and we needed a short-term way of addressing the weapons of mass destruction.

That remains true today. I don't know how long the North Korean regime can last. But we can't just wait for them to collapse, because in the meantime, they can do lasting damage to our security.

Another possibility was to encourage reform in North Korea, and to suggest that Kim Jong Il take the path of China's Deng Xiaoping -- open up the country, open up the economy. That, too, one could hope for, but we didn't feel that we could recommend it as a strategy, because, for starters, Kim Jong Il doesn't seem to want to open up.

If Kim Jong Il embarks on the path of reform and he is looking out on the spectrum of post-communist leaders, and he's saying, "Where am I going to end up? Am I going to end up like Deng Xiaoping, a hero? Am I going to end up like Gorbachev, reviled by my people, but alive? Or is the end of the road of a reform path for me more like what happened to Nicolai Ceausescu being shot in a revolution?"

He doesn't show any signs of confidence that he can end up like Deng Xiaoping. So we can hope that he'll take that path. But hope and strategy are two different things. You can't go into a president of the United States and say, "Well, let's sit back and let him do whatever he wants with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and hope that he's going to reform," when he doesn't show any evidence of wanting to reform.

So both undermining and hoping for reform, didn't, to us, address the urgent problem we had, which is nuclear and ballistic missiles in the hands of this government. That's why we wrote in the report -- an unclassified version of which has been released -- that we have to deal with the North Korean regime as it is, not as we might wish it to be. That remains true today as well. Unless somebody knows how to hasten this regime on in history, it can do a lot of damage to our security while it exists.

After the Perry report came out, we began to talk to them.

Yes. Coming out of the North Korea policy review, President Clinton sent Secretary Perry to Pyongyang. I went with him, and we laid out the results of our review. We described for them two paths. We said, "Here is a path in which you knock it off with weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and ballistic missiles. On that path, we can see a situation where we keep on keeping on in the current way. We don't like you. From listening to your radio broadcasts, you don't like us either. But we have a stable situation here on the Korean Peninsula, where if you attack southward, you know that the certain result of that will be your destruction. But you know that we know that's a very violent war and therefore, we're not going to provoke it either. That's a stable situation, in which you can keep running this odd little country, and we're prepared to live with that. We're not prepared to live with you upsetting that situation, and the whole world, with weapons of mass destruction."

These talks are pretty serious. This is tense, I imagine.

Very tense, and particularly when we met with the military leaders, they are very tense. Now, we're expecting that, and that was not a problem for us. We delivered those messages. Secretary Perry and I then left office, and the Clinton administration then went on. I was then not part of the sequel to that. But what happened was, some small steps were taken on that path -- reversible steps. I don't know whether North Korea would have continued up that path and taken progressively larger steps. Maybe, maybe not. We don't know. Now we're in a rather different situation.

A lot of work that you and Dr. Perry had undertaken went sort of by the by, with the change of administrations.

I hope that the North Koreans understand that the conclusions that we came to are conclusions that are embedded in America's security situation.

They're permanent?

They're permanent.

But our policy changes all the time.

If our policy is really going to protect American interests, it's going to have to draw the line at a nuclear North Korea. No American government can tolerate a nuclear North Korea. That's a major disaster for our security, and a setback for us.

To be successful, any American strategy in that part of the world has to have some degree of consensus with at least our allies, the South Koreans and the Japanese. We have to have that. Any American strategy has to come to grips with the fact that, much as they seem odd to us, to put it mildly, the North Koreans don't seem to be going anywhere. They seem to be able to get by, year in and year out.

Therefore, if we're going to protect our security in the face of that reality, and we don't have any realistic strategy for changing that reality, or way to get rid of them short of war, then the only thing we can do is to try to deal with them as they are. That means compelling them and persuading them that the path of going nuclear is a path that will inevitably bring us to confrontation, and that there's another path for them.

We can try to talk North Korea out of taking the path to nuclear weapons. I'm not confident, at this point, that we'll succeed. A year ago, I may have had more confidence. But the North Koreans have moved now forward quite a ways, unresisted by us. They've moved the fuel rods. They're restarting the reactor at Yongbyon. I'm concerned now that they think that, if they just dash across the finish line to nuclear status while we're busy, understandably, with other things -- Al Qaeda, Iraq -- that they can create a fait accompli, an irreversible situation before we get our strategy together.

Nevertheless, I think that a diplomatic try is worth trying. I think we have to look at it as an experiment.

You're saying that the Bush administration has done nothing on North Korea, and that this situation, perhaps, is beyond repair?

Well, the situation has been getting progressively worse. It's been unraveling now for well over a year. ... The North Koreans take progressive steps towards a nuclear status, and we have not articulated, at least, an overall strategy for dealing with this situation. What is our approach? Are we going to let it happen? Sit back and watch? Are we going to try to talk them out of it? If we're going to try to talk them out of it, when are we going to start talking?

Are we going to go to a military option, which one can talk about at this stage, but doesn't really become realistic in terms of our relations with the others in the region -- our South Korean allies, who would bear the brunt of an assault from North Korea? That option isn't really realistic unless and until we can show that we gave a diplomatic approach a try, and that try failed. Then we can turn to the military option, and we would have the support and assistance we needed to carry that out.

So while I can't be confident that a diplomatic approach will succeed now, it seems to be clear that that's a step we need to take. It's an experiment we need to run, and we need to embark upon it soon, because the North Koreans are creating facts on the ground that my children and my children's children will have to live with. The half-life of plutonium 239, which is what they're going to get out of those fuel rods, is 24,400 years. I don't know how long the North Korean regime is going to last. But it's not going to last 24,400 years. So while this rather odd regime is in power, perhaps just for a few fleeting years, they can create a lasting danger to us and to humanity.

The problem isn't only nuclear weapons in the hands of the North Korean regime as it is. It's what happens after the North Korean regime. Where do those nuclear weapons end up?

You've seen the intelligence. Is there any information that leads you to believe that the North Koreans are assisting Middle Eastern countries such as Iran or others in getting nuclear weapons?

What information I have on that subject I can't share. But what I can say is that North Korea has clearly, in the past, assisted Iran in its ballistic missile program. The Iranian Shahab-3 ballistic missile, which they call the Shahab-3, is a North Korean missile. The North Koreans call it a Nodong. Same thing.

They've helped the Pakistanis with missiles?

That's right.

They've helped the Iranians with missiles, the Libyans with missiles?


The Syrians with missiles? Egypt?

Many countries in the Middle East. Almost anybody who will buy them, and they're out hawking them all the time.

Are there North Koreans helping the Iranians with nuclear programs?

Wouldn't surprise me to find the technical underbellies of these weapons of mass destruction programs in constant communication with one another and working with one another.

It wouldn't surprise you to find out that the North Koreans were helping the Iranians develop a nuclear bomb?

No, it wouldn't surprise me.

Syrians or Libya?

Would not surprise me, no, and it's fine as long as they're only trading blueprints. But when they've got the metal, the plutonium that can make those blueprints real, then you really have to be worried.

This is important, because this is, as I understand it, a major piece of their gross national product -- missile sales.

In the past, it has been a substantial source of hard currency earnings to them. I think the market has tapered off a little bit for them.

All the more reason to sell something bigger and better?

That's much more valuable.

Ed. Note: More about North Korea's missile trade

How much do you sell a nuclear warhead for, or five pounds of plutonium? Enough to make a big warhead?

There is mercifully no market in that. No test has been done. I believe it's the case that there were rumors 25 years ago, that Gadhafi offered India to relieve its entire foreign debt in return for one nuclear weapon.

How much was that?

I don't know, but it must have been billions and billions and billions of dollars. And remember that countries that choose the proliferation path spend an enormous amount reprocessing plutonium or enriching uranium. It's expensive to make nuclear weapons. It's a hassle. There are large facilities involved, and you get caught building them. They're facilities that can be bombed, like Yongbyon. So if you're intent upon getting nuclear weapons, by far the easier path is to buy the material -- even more so if you're a terrorist who doesn't have a country in which he can build a reprocessing facility or build a uranium enrichment facility.

Our nightmare, any of us, which would change the way we lived our lives, was if we thought that any moment Al Qaeda might detonate a nuclear weapon in a city anywhere in the world, because we learned that they had gotten hold of some plutonium from the North Koreans by sale, or when the North Korean regime collapsed, somebody smuggled it out.

People talk about "containment" of North Korea. Well, you can contain North Korea in many ways, but it's not believable to me that we can put a hermetic seal around North Korea that will guarantee us that a little piece of metal this big of plutonium can't get out of North Korea. That's completely incredible.

How worried are you about the way that this is being handled now?

I'm very worried about the fact that the situation just gets progressively worse, and North Korea will not check itself. It will keep plunging forward. So unless we show it the limits of the conduct that we're willing to accept, the North Koreans will just keep going. They won't sit on the back burner. It's not in their nature. The one thing this place is expert at is getting off the back burner. They're the masters of provocations, of ratcheting up pressure, of playing these kind of games. If you don't want them driving the train, them pacing events -- that's what they've been doing; they've been making them worse and they've been calling the shots -- you have to get out in front of them and begin to drive the train yourself.

That requires a strategy. It requires that we come, as a government, to some view, and there can be disagreements about what that view ought to be. But you have to come to some strategy for dealing with North Korea. You need to share that with your allies, Japan and South Korea, and then you need to go to the North Koreans and say, "Listen. This is the way it's going to be."

That's what they say they're doing. They're talking to South Korea. They're talking to China and Japan. Everybody's trying to get on the same page.

I think, so far, we have been saying to South Korea, China and Japan, Russia, "You go talk to the North Koreans." That's a good thing to do. They need to recognize that their interests are at stake, and it's not entirely up to us to save their bacon by stopping North Korea. So they're an important part of the choreography. But I don't think we can outsource our security to them. I don't think we can say, "We're not going to do anything about the North Koreans. But if you guys want to do something about the North Koreans, go ahead." That's not safe, either.

But I hear the administration saying they're going to talk to them, but they want to engage everyone in the region, all the players in those talks.

I think that's the right approach, and we need to get that going now, because what is occurring, as we speak, and as the weeks go by, is a situation that is unraveling. Our options for that diplomacy are narrowing, and North Korea is progressively creating, on the ground, irreversibly, a fait accompli that will be harder for us to deal with in the future.

So there's some urgency to getting around to pulling our strategy together; coordinating it with all of our partners; getting them to join in a common diplomatic onslaught against North Korea; and test the proposition that North Korea can be talked out of its nuclear ambitions. As I said before, I'm not sure it can be.

And if it's not able to be talked out of it, what does the United States have to do?

On that, I think you have to then go back to where we were in 1994, where you're looking at the use of force to achieve your objectives.

If they cross the line and decide to become a nuclear power, we can only face war with them, is what you're saying?

The alternative of letting North Korea go nuclear -- just sitting back, and allowing that to happen -- causes us to run such grave risks, in the near term and in the far term once they've made that plutonium that lasts a long time, that in order to avert that risk, we do have to be prepared to run substantial risks in the near term. They will have presented us with that situation. But we're not there yet. We might get there, if a diplomatic approach fails -- which it may well.

In 1999, you met with Vice Foreign Minister Kang and other North Korean officials. What sense did you have of these men, and what they stood for, and what their goals were?

In the North Korean system, the person who really counts, of course, is Kim Jong Il. So when you're talking to other officials of the government, you know that you're talking to someone who is unable to make commitments that they don't refer first to Kim Jong Il. The general belief -- everyone says this, and I think it's absolutely true -- is that the paramount objective of the North Korean regime is survival of itself.

The North Koreans see themselves as a miniature Soviet Union. They believe in socialism. But they believe even more in being proud Koreans, and "proud Koreans" means, in their view of history, that they've always been kicked around, by the Chinese, the Japanese, the Russians, the Americans.

It's true.

That causes their ideology to be one of absolute and total and iron self-reliance, as they call it. Autarchy. They want to sit there all by themselves, and not have to count on anybody.

The Juche philosophy.

Exactly, and if you say to the North Koreans, "Come on in. Join the wider world," which is an argument we've used in other countries and other situations to break down repressive regimes, to cause a change of political strategy in other governments -- that's not attractive to them. It's a very tough nut to crack when the definition of their state is one that is arrayed against a hostile world.

That was the Lim Don Won and Kim Dae Jung policy, though, "Sunshine."

Yes. The South Korean government under Kim Dae Jung was trying to suggest to North Korea that it could have survival in a less truculent mode than it was accustomed to, and that if they wanted to keep on keeping on, that was OK with South Korea. If you were South Korean, this would be a very reasonable point of view. Remember, if unification ever occurs on the Korean Peninsula, for South Korea, that means that 22 million poor people move into their house.

That's a much bigger deal than it was in Germany. The East German population was smaller in relation to the West German population than is the North Korean population to the South Korean. And the income differential between North and South Korea is much greater than it was between East and West Germany. So for South Korea, reunification has a mixed complexion. On one hand, "We're one people, and it would be nice to be reunified." On the other hand, the economic penalties would be huge.

So the South Koreans, like, in many ways, the United States, were trying to show North Korea a path where it could survive without taking actions that would necessarily provoke us into coming after it. Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are the kind of action -- we can't leave them alone if they do that.

The case to make to them is, "We can leave you alone if you don't. But we can't leave you alone if you do. So you think that nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are your protection, but they're not."

But they have felt threatened ever since Truman and Eisenhower threatened the use of nuclear weapons against them at times, correct? And now, we have a president who repeatedly insults the leader, Kim Jong Il. It seems to be part of the policy. Axis of evil. He's called Kim Jong Il a pygmy. He's said he detests him, or loathes him. This feeds, it seems to me, a paranoia, or a sense of needing security, therefore driving sort of a self-fulfilling policy.

Unless you have a plan -- and I'm not aware of any realistic plan -- to change the government of North Korea, which looks pretty entrenched to me, then it's counterproductive to suggest to the North Koreans that you're out to get them -- if you don't really have any way of being out to get them.

Well, perhaps regime change is actually in fact the policy.

I looked at the possibility of regime change in some detail, and short of conquest -- which, of course, we can do because we have the military power, without question, to do that -- there is little evidence indeed of a situation or a crack in the armor of the North Korean regime into which we could stick a crowbar and bring them down. There's no evidence that I'm aware of that a strategy of unhorsing the regime is a realistic strategy. It's a hope. The president can hope that, if he wants. But hope and a strategy are two different things. You have to have a plan for how you're going to achieve this, and it can't be a long-term plan, because the North Koreans are capable of doing damage to our security in the short term.

When you were working with the North Koreans with Dr. Perry, was there a particular moment that jumps out, where the lights went on and you realized what the options had to be, or who you were dealing with here? You've been on the ground. So I'm talking to you as someone who might be able to give us some insight into who these guys are, what they're like.

Remember, the North Koreans have a very heated rhetoric, and a very heated way of talking to foreigners, including Americans. They talk about how they're going to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. They're going to turn Tokyo into a sea of fire. They'll ask you, "Where are you from?" And when you tell them where you're from, they'll say, "Well, we're going to turn that into a sea of fire."

They asked you where you were from?

They asked Bill Perry where he was from. He's from San Francisco, and they [said], "Well, we can turn San Francisco into a sea of fire." They have a level of rhetoric that takes your breath away.

I remember in 1994, when we were dealing with North Korea, the intelligence experts would come in, and they would say, "That's a very interesting statement by the North Koreans. It's rather conciliatory." I'd say, "How can you tell that's conciliatory?" And they would say, in effect, "Well, you know, it doesn't say anything about your mother." In North Korean terms, that's conciliatory.

So it's a whole level of paranoia, overheated rhetoric, which is the results of three generations of Stalinist indoctrination. There's no question that it's a very strange place. The situation of children and old people is heartbreaking in North Korea, and therefore, one has to realize that you're dealing with about the most dangerous situation you can imagine -- of isolated, repressive government and a people that has suffered in unimaginable ways.

You've seen the suffering firsthand?

No. Of course, when you visit there as an American, you're in Pyongyang. Pyongyang is a model city, so they're not showing you the places where there's truly suffering. But I've talked to humanitarian aid workers who have seen the real North Korea, which I never saw. There's a generation of children there, who are not just physically stunted, but in all likelihood, we understand, neurologically stunted because they didn't get enough food when they were young.

So it really is a heartbreaking situation, and when President Bush says he finds that very upsetting, it's very, very easy to share his view. I think he's absolutely right. Now on top of that situation, you have a headlong run to nuclear weapons. You've got about the strangest and most dangerous situation you can imagine.



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