kim's nuclear gamble
interview: madeleine albrightHome
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Albright served as U.N. ambassador during President Clinton's first term and as secretary of state in the second Clinton administration. As secretary of state, she visited Pyongyang in October 2000. In this interview, she describes her visit and what it was like to negotiate with Kim Jong Il. She argues that holding direct talks with North Korea should not be considered appeasement, and tells FRONTLINE that the Bush administration, "has kind of dug its heels in and said anything that we did vis-á-vis North Korea is appeasement. Once you define it that way, it's very hard to unpaint yourself, and I think that's where we are now." This interview was conducted on March 27, 2003.

In October of 2000, you go to Pyongyang. We know that you're there to try to get them to put away their missile program, to stop making their long-range missiles. What is Kim Jong Il up to, in your opinion?

Well, I think at that stage he wanted very much to have a relationship with the United States. The purpose, I think, generally, of his policy was to get some recognition from the United States that North Korea existed, that we should have diplomatic relations. So he was really quite open, in discussions that we had, in terms of limiting his missile program, and it was very evident that what he wanted to do was to be involved in a negotiation, which would lead to a meeting with President Clinton that would result in a better relationship.

If he's willing to give away his missile program, why does he embark on that in the first place?

Well, I think that the whole issue probably goes back to the end of the Cold War, where he had lived under the patronage and with the support of the Soviet Union and China. Then all of a sudden the Soviet Union, his major patron, disintegrates, and the question is what is the status of North Korea, in itself, in the world, which explains, I think, a lot of what happened from '93, '94 on.

We talked to Stalin, we talked to Mao, we talked to Khrushchev, and Brezhnev.  We made agreements. I don't consider talking appeasement.

What I think he wanted to do was to establish himself as a leader on the world stage, and the only way he could do it was by developing various aspects of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, and to have some kind of missile projection, because that's their only cash crop.

It is an economy that doesn't work, but they do manage somehow to figure out how to build various high-tech missile components.

And sell them to people like the Yemenis or the Syrians or--

There are a lot of people out there who want various weapons, and this is what they sell. That's why the situation is so dangerous.

Is he delusional?

I don't think he's delusional. I've thought a lot about this, and I obviously prepared a lot before I went there. I talked with Kim Dae Jung, president of South Korea, who had been there and met with him.

For the most part, we had very peculiar information about Kim Jong Il that he was a recluse. I think delusional actually was a word that was used. But Kim Dae Jung had reported that it was possible to have perfectly decent, rational conversations with him.

For me, the situation was that here is a person who is isolated, but not uninformed, who has operated in his own system where he is deified and, at the same time, wants to be in the outside world where nobody will pay any attention to him.

So I can't imagine what it is like to be raised in a society where their only statues that exist are to you and your father.

He wanted to show you how he was deified after that first day of negotiations.

Well, he was trying, I think, to do many things; one, to show that, but to be a good host, and also to show that it was a country that was filled with joy and color.

Just describe [your trip] for me, if you could.

Well, what happened was that he was the host, and so it was a little hard always to say, "I'm not going to do whatever you're suggesting."

So, at the end of about three or four hours of official meetings, he said, "I want to take you tonight to a huge celebration," and when we got there, we walked in, and we were in a stadium, where there was something like 200- to 250,000 people in the bleachers who applauded wildly at his entrance. It was evident that what we were going to was the recreation of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Workers Party.

Even though there had not been anybody in the streets -- there were very few people on the streets -- all of a sudden all of these people materialized.

And then the performance itself was kind of two-tiered. You know how they do those flash cards at our big football games where students can deliver various messages? Well, this was done in the most precise way, where they showed tableaus of farmers with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and various agricultural projects, and various scenes of countrysides.

And then there was one, and they were so good at it that they could make a rocket go up by moving the cards. At that point he turned to me, and it was a Taepodong missile. ...

It's very, very odd for you to be sitting there. You're there to negotiate a missile deal, and you're taken to a stadium and shown a depiction of a missile going up. What was going through your head?

Well, we were in the middle of our talks, and so the next day, when we returned to our talks, I had, with my delegation, worked out a series of questions that we needed to have answered about what the propositions would be to work out some kind of an agreement to limit the production of missiles and their export. ...

But what was interesting was that, as I said to him, "I have a series of questions for you, maybe you'd like to ask your experts and get me the answers," and he said, "No, just give me the piece of paper."

And what he did was systematically start answering the questions, without advising or asking advice from his advisers sitting next to him. So I think that he is informed on the subject, technically, and very much wanted to show that he was in charge.

And so, to go back to an initial question of yours, he's not delusional, and he's not someone who only is interested in watching bad movies, but someone who really is very much involved in the best product that he thinks his country has.

I would imagine this is one of the stranger visits you've experienced to another country as a negotiator, as a Cabinet member.

Yes. I mean, I had spent my life as an academic studying communist systems and had been to many communist countries and, actually, in various periods, as a private citizen, met with communist officials. So it isn't as if I'd never seen a communist country.

But this was the most totalitarian city I had ever seen, because certain marks of it, in terms of huge buildings, very wide boulevards, all designed to make the individual feel like an ant, and then basically all of these statues or monuments to the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, of the father and son, and then the fact that it was pretty much an empty city.

I've been in many motorcades, and usually people wave or are surprised to see such a long line of cars. Nobody paid any attention to us, as if they had motorcades all the time.

Obviously, we saw only what they wanted us to see, but it's evident that there were apartment buildings that had no electricity in them beyond the lower-level floors, and pretty dingy in that regard. But his own guest houses and the things that we were taken to were very ornate.

Did you feel uncomfortable at that celebration of the Workers Party, sitting next to Kim, being photographed?

... Of course it was uncomfortable. I didn't have the sense that people were looking at me. He was the center of attraction, and to have everybody robotically applauding him, it was like being in some very strange movie myself.

But I have to say I was fascinated because here this country is dead poor, and somehow he managed to make all of these people come and perform. He said that people loved it, you know, that all the students had volunteered to be a part of this. This was a big part of their lives. They just thought it was, you know, a great pleasure to perform like this. But it was pretty strange.

Did you ever raise with him the anomalies that pervade his country, the fact that so much of the resources go to the military, and yet people are starving?

No. What we did talk about, at one of the two dinners, actually, was we started talking about the farming situation, and he said that there clearly were serious problems and that it was due primarily to bad weather conditions. So we talked about whether people had enough to eat, and he said, well, the weather, there had been a drought and various things. ...

The hawks, people like Richard Perle, will say you cannot negotiate. You shouldn't talk to people like Kim Jong Il. You can't negotiate with them, that essentially it's appeasement.

I completely disagree, because I believe that it is essential to see whether there's a way to have some agreements. We talked to Stalin, we talked to Mao, we talked to Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. We made agreements.

I don't consider talking appeasement. It depends on what it is you agree to, but I think it is very much worth having conversations and delivering a very tough message. And when you actually go and you say, "You have to get rid of your missiles," or, as was done in terms of freezing the fuel rods at Yongbyon, I think it's worth the conversation.

Well, what they're saying is the concessions that were made, in the case of Yongbyon, the offering of light-water reactors, and the heavy fuel oil, and in the case of the missile deal, on the table, as I understand it, was the agreement that we would help them launch some civilian satellites.

Well, I think that basically, when you are dealing with any country, you try to make a variety of arrangements.

So, on the Yongbyon, we had a very serious problem, not begun by our administration, but had been happening before. The North Koreans were saying that they needed energy, that they were having problems with energy supplies. We knew that Yongbyon was being developed. The IAEA went in there to examine it. They had pulled out of the nonproliferation treaty. I was ambassador at the U.N. at the time, and the question was how to deal with that.

So I think we managed to make a pretty good deal in terms of having them freeze their nuclear program at Yongbyon. We now know that if they had been reprocessing those fuel rods all this time, there would be different estimates of the number of nuclear weapons that they could have. Some say between 50 and 100. So I think that was very important.

There was, I think, a pretty good arrangement that instead of this kind of program, they would get some light-water reactors, and we would deliver some heavy fuel. It was, indeed, to some extent, a quid pro quo, but it got rid of, or at least froze these fuel rods, which I think was very important.

There are two theories about North Korea, which is that they should be pressed enough until the regime implodes, or that, based on some of the ideas that Kim Dae Jung was putting forward, that it's better to engage them, to try to do what Kim Dae Jung was suggesting, peaceful coexistence with them, and to see if, in some way, just to use a term of art, they could be "brought in from the cold."

There are huge problems with the implosion scenario, which has to do with refugees going in all kinds of directions and a complete collapse of a system that, in many ways, it made more sense to try to figure out how to have a dialogue with them and have some agreements. ...

What the Bush administration said was or what they're saying now is that [North Korea] cheated. They didn't hold to their end of the agreement. They froze Yongbyon, and on the sly they began to enrich uranium.

Well, I think it's a more complicated story than that. I believe that whatever crisis exists is primarily due to Kim Jong Il, but one can also understand what else is going on here.

There were questions from his side, which he raised with me and raised with others, as to whether we were living up to the timing of the deliveries that were in the Agreed Framework. And to some extent, things got a bit behind schedule, primarily due to funding difficulties, not just on our side, but from the South Koreans and the Japanese. We were not going to deliver the important core components of the light-water reactors until the end. I know there have been accusations about this being front-loaded, but it was not.

As a result of having an agreement like this, when we were suspicious that they were developing various things at a place called Kumchangri, we were able to arrange for site visits, which is something I think that happens when you have an agreement, that you call them on the cheating. ...

We operated off of the assumption that North Korea was a dangerous country. That was the basic assumption from the beginning.

We also knew, especially from 1998 on, after they had launched Taepodong in August, that we couldn't stay with the status quo, and that was the basis of the review that we had. But I never considered any of it appeasement. It was all difficult. But it was a way to try to get them to understand the importance of agreement.

They did cheat. There's no question. But I think that there would have been a way, in an agreement, to get them to explain what they were doing and hope that that would be a way to mitigate the issue, but it's not a reason not to have agreements with them.

The Bush administration came into office, and the work that you were doing was scrapped.

I think it was most unfortunate because I think we left them a pretty good hand of cards on the table. We were in the middle of some negotiations. We would not have agreed to something if it hadn't been verifiable.

I think one of the hard parts to explain, not just to a dictator, but to many foreign countries, how our system works, that our life seems to come in four-year segments, and that if, especially if another party takes over, that the foreign policy may, in fact, change. That is something that is probably pretty foreign to Kim Jong Il, since he dictates everything, and I think that there probably were many misunderstandings as to why what we had on the table had been taken off.

And it's as a result, I think, of those misunderstandings and mixed signals, that we are in what I believe is a very unfortunate crisis.

When did you realize that the Bush administration was going to reverse course?

Well, we didn't for a long time because what happened was that we briefed Secretary Powell and Dr. Rice during the transition period about what we were doing, and, in fact, I think Ambassador Sherman did those briefings with a team on my direction.

And the report from them was that there had been very good receptivity to what we had done, both from Secretary Powell and Dr. Rice, and it was not really until Kim Dae Jung came to visit President Bush when it became evident that they had reversed course.

I happened to meet with President Kim Dae Jung right after he had been in the Oval Office, and I think he was very surprised that that had happened.

What had happened?

He'd had a pretty bad meeting with President Bush, and then Secretary Powell had actually said that they would not, I can't remember the exact words, would not be continuing with the same approach.

I've seen the public side of those meetings when Kim [Dae Jung] goes, and I've talked to Lim Dong Won about them. He says, in fact, that it was a disaster, that his president was pretty upset. But what was it that you heard that convinced you that those meetings had not gone well?

Well, I went to Blair House afterwards. Kim Dae Jung and I, much to my pleasure, I think, had a very open and good relationship. I'd seen him a number of times, and it was very evident that he felt that there had been a reversal in policy, that there was not going to be the kind of support for the "Sunshine Policy" that we had given. I can't remember the exact words, but it was very evident that it had been a bad meeting.

What was his mood?

Very somber, very somber.

Somber. Angry? More somber?

I think probably a little bit of both. You know, he's a pretty restrained kind of person. But having spent time with him when he was happy and voluble, I could tell that this had not been a good meeting. ...

I know that you were getting some intelligence during your administration that there was some kind of nuclear shopping trips, if you will, going on out of North Korea with Pakistan, but it wasn't until [Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James] Kelly's visit that it was clear that the North Koreans were clearly cheating on the Agreed Framework. What was your reaction?

Well, what happened was that I think there were some, within our administration, who had hints of various things. But when it came out, it was evident from what the CIA had said, as well, actually, as Secretary Powell and Dr. Rice, because I spoke to them both. They called me to say that this had happened. And they said, "There was no way you possibly could have known that this was going on." ...

What was the point?

I think they wanted to let us know that this was a very unfortunate point, that the, whatever relations had existed and whatever Assistant Secretary Kelly was trying to do was jeopardized now by the fact that they had been cheating. And they did specifically say, "You could not have known this." ...

Why so much antipathy towards the Clinton administration? Why were you guys so reviled by the incoming administration?

I honestly don't know. I think that campaigns are always bad and hard. I think some of it had to do with the fact that President Clinton defeated President Bush's father and that that's one part, more personal.

Some of it is ideological. I think that we had a different view of what the 21st century could be like, with much more of a sense, from our perspective, of trying to have an interdependent world: looking at solving regional conflicts, having strength in alliances, operating within some kind of a sense that we were part of the international community and not outside of it. And I just think that basically many of them saw the world quite differently.

And the other part is that, because they did not take seriously what we had done in eight years -- and those were a very significant eight years -- to a great extent, they have gone back to thinking the way that they thought in '92-'93.

And that means?

Well, just a much more zero-sum view of the world. ...

Where do things stand today?

Well, I think it's very, very dangerous because we don't know at what stage the Yongbyon fuel rods will actually be reprocessed. There are all kinds of rumors about that. There are rumors about a number of other things that are potentially out there, and I am not sure at how sophisticated a brinksman Kim Jong Il is.

And there's clearly an impact in terms of how the war in Iraq is going, will go, what the spillover and the message from that is, both negative, in terms of Kim Jong Il may be thinking, "If they're doing this to a country that doesn't have nuclear weapons, what are they going to do to a country that does?"

And one doesn't know, basically, what the spillover effect is, but at the moment, I think things look pretty bad.

And we're not talking to them.

As far as I know, we're not talking to them, because what we are insisting on is that the regional powers get more involved. ...

But, ultimately, it is evident that what will make the difference here is if there are direct talks. It's possible to have other countries in the room or have some kind of umbrella talks, but this administration has decided, at least on March 26, that they are not talking to them. ...

I think that there are a variety of ways to go about this. I think one very good one, suggested by Bob Einhorn, who was one of my assistant secretaries, [is] that what should happen is that the North Koreans should freeze whatever they're doing, and we should freeze whatever military buildup and various things we're doing in the area in order to negotiate something new, which would be beyond the Agreed Framework.

That has been kind of dubbed "more for more," that there would be a wider approach to what would be part of some kind of an agreement.

The Bush administration is saying we shouldn't have to give [North Korea] anything. They're violating the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, they're in defiance of the world. They should be held to task; that appeasement leads to more aggressive behavior.

Well, It depends on if you decide that direct talks are appeasement.

Well, if you hand them concessions that would--

It's not a concession.

They say that's appeasement.

Well, I mean, that's the initial problem. I think that I would not give concessions. There's no reason to. What you do is that you have various quid pro quos in any agreement, but if you decide up front that just having the direct talks is a concession, you're pretty much stuck. That's the problem.

But a quid pro quo presumes concessions.

No, because a concession, at least to me, is if one side concedes and the other doesn't. I mean, I think that there are things we want, and there are things that they want.

And one of the interesting parts was that, in October, when Vice Marshal Jo came to Washington before I went to Pyongyang, we signed a communique in which we agreed that there was no hostile intent between our two countries.

They wanted that reiterated. As far as I know, we have no hostile intent towards North Korea. Why would it have been such a big deal just to reiterate that?

It's things like that where this administration has kind of dug its heels in and said anything that we did vis-á-vis North Korea is appeasement. Once you define it that way, it's very hard to unpaint yourself, and I think that's where we are now.

I hope very much that there can be some way to get off of this escalation.

How much time do we have?

It's very hard to tell. I mean, first of all, I don't think everything's in the public sphere, but they have said that they want to reprocess the fuel rods, and we know that that would allow them to have the material for, some people say, two to three bombs in a short period of time.

And then the other part that we mentioned earlier is they could become kind of the retail store for selling all kinds of stuff to all of those nonstate actors that are interested in acquiring various pieces of technology.

You mean terrorists.




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