kim's nuclear gamble
interview: stephen bosworthHome
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Currently dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Bosworth was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1997-2000. From 1995 to 1997, he served as the executive director of KEDO, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, an entity created to implement some of the agreements made in the 1994 Agreed Framework. In this interview, he describes how the Agreed Framework became a "political orphan" despite his argument that U.S. engagement would modify aggressive North Korean behavior. He acknowledges criticism that this may mean the U.S. would be rewarding bad behavior, but tells FRONTLINE, "Much of diplomacy is rewarding bad behavior. You're trying to figure out how you can stop the worst of the behavior at the lowest possible price." This interview was conducted on Feb. 21, 2003.

What was the Agreed Framework?

The Agreed Framework was put together in 1994 between the U.S. and North Korea. Basically, from our point of view, it was a deal whereby the North Koreans froze their nuclear facilities, which we believe were nuclear weapons facilities, and agreed to eventually dismantle those. And in return, they received what we called alternative energy: 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil a year and the construction of two 1,000 megawatt light-water reactors. Now, the deal was done between us and the North Koreans. But both South Korea and Japan were, in effect, partners to the agreement as well, partners of [ours], because they were very directly engaged with us in helping to implement it. ...

It's extortion.  And we're rewarding bad behavior.  But much of diplomacy is rewarding bad behavior. You're trying to figure out how you can stop the worst of the behavior, at the lowest-possible price.

From our point of view, this was an energy deal. Nuclear for nuclear, if you will. From the North Korean point of view, I always thought it was much more than that. It was a deal that they believed should have taken them to a normalized political relationship with the United States.

And indeed, the agreement itself specified the easing of sanctions, the establishment of diplomatic liaison offices, various other things, which had they been implemented, I think would have taken us to a very different destination.

Was it a good deal?

I think under the circumstances it was the best deal we could do. As we see now, there are no good options with North Korea. We can't ignore them. We would like to, but they won't let us. They believe, probably correctly, that we are, in effect, their only lifeline. We don't really have a military option other than to maintain a strong posture of deterrence in the south, which we've been doing for the last several decades and which I think we will continue to do.

But a military option in terms of doing to the North Korea nuclear facilities what the Israelis did to Iraq, for example, doesn't really exist, because the risk that the North Koreans would strike back and cause devastating damage to South Korea is just too great.

So we're left with a bad option, but the only one that's feasible, and that is to try to engage with them, to try to figure out deals that will constrain them and prevent them from developing this nuclear option.

Right after the Agreed Framework is signed in October of '94, there's an election in the United States. And you guys that were endorsing this Agreed Framework, were hammered.

Well, the framework was hammered. You're right. Within 10 days after the framework was signed, it became a political orphan. The Democrats, President Clinton, lost control of both houses of Congress. And conservative Republicans, particularly in the House, who hated the Agreed Framework, believed that it was basically an example of the U.S. paying extortion, began to oppose it very fiercely.

And in fact, there was very little follow through. We managed to scrape up enough money to continue to provide heavy fuel oil, as we were required to do, but beyond that, there was little appetite in the administration, no appetite in Congress, for the sort of political moves that would have been necessary to implement the broader Agreed Framework beyond the energy aspects.

You hold the administration equally responsible as the Congress in letting this agreement become a political orphan?

... In my judgment, the administration was not prepared to expend very much political capital on behalf of implementation of the Agreed Framework. No, they had other priorities. It would not have been easy -- I don't have any illusions about that. But basically, the Agreed Framework was an orphan. And to the extent that we had a policy toward North Korea from '94 to '98, the policy in effect consisted of waiting for North Korea to collapse. ...

We're talking about a small country with a limited capacity to really, at that point, inflict harm on us, moving in a direction so that it could, perhaps, inflict harm on us. And we're entering an agreement, and ... we were dragging our feet.

Well, we were certainly not marching briskly along, no. I think your use of the phrase, we should be the "adult" in the relationship, is a very accurate one. And it was not until 1998 after the North Koreans had fired the Taepodong [missile] out over Japan, and Bill Perry was brought in to conduct his policy review, something we worked on for more than six months, that I think we began to put together something that we could legitimately call a North Korea policy. Before that, we really didn't have one.

Were you personally going to your friends in the State Department and saying, "Look, we've got to pay more attention to this or the North Koreans are going to simply turn their backs on us?"

Yes, I was doing that both when I was at KEDO and I was doing it from 1997 on, when I was then ambassador in Seoul.

So, tell me what arguments you made.

That first of all, this was an attempt to draw North Korea out of its dark cave, out into the world, to help them, or assist them in engaging with the outside world. There was, I think, reason to believe that that kind of engagement would, over the long term, moderate their behavior and that it was in our interest to break down that isolation in which North Korea existed.

Moreover, that it was very much in our interest, since this was North Korea's first agreement, in effect, with the outside world, to make sure that we complied with the agreement in a meticulous fashion, to demonstrate to the North Koreans that they could enter into agreements with us and others and be confident that the commitments that we made in those agreements would be implemented. So, those were the strongest arguments.

The other argument, of course, was that failure to basically deal with the North Koreans would cause them to do increasingly irresponsible and dangerous things -- firing missiles, sending submarines south, or, as in the case now, ending the freeze on their nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.

And beginning a uranium-enrichment program.

Well, the uranium-enrichment program, I think there is good evidence that they started that some time in the second half of the '90s. I don't know when. I also, at this point, don't know how vigorous a program that really was or is.

I've always thought, from the beginning, that the North Koreans, in all likelihood, were hedging their bet. They did not have complete confidence that the Agreed Framework would do what they hoped it would do -- provide a normal relationship with the U.S -- so that they would retain something in reserve, to use in the event that the Agreed Framework broke down, or was not implemented in a satisfactory fashion. So, I've always considered that there would be a program of that sort, in all likelihood. And I think that the enriched uranium program was [that] program.

You made some pretty compelling arguments that this was important for us to hold to this agreement. What were the responses that you got back?

People said, "You're right." But nothing ever really happened. Again, in the Congress, by this time, the conservative Republicans, again, particularly in the House of Representatives, were very dug in, and entrenched in their opposition to the agreement. ...

What's that about? Why?

I think it's about a lot of things. First of all, it was about a kind of instinctive opposition to anything that the Clinton administration had done. The antipathy between the Republicans in the House and the president was really remarkable.

Secondly, it was a rejection of the notion that the United States, as powerful as we are, should enter into an agreement which some considered to be extortion. That we should not have done what we did, with regard to signing the Agreed Framework. People didn't like the way in which it was put together, starting with President Carter's visit to Pyongyang in '94. It was just a kind of visceral reaction to the Agreed Framework.

And of course, nobody likes Kim Jong Il, and the North Korean regime. I mean, these are not nice people. It's a vile regime. But there was a kind of moral absolutism, which one sees now. This sense that these are evil people, and you can't and should not deal with evil people. But as I said earlier, the alternatives are not very attractive.

Well, what was the alternative [offered by Congress]?

They really didn't offer one. And that has been consistently the problem, since this whole issue began to arise in the early 1980s, and certainly after the Agreed Framework. Every time people would say, "We don't like the Agreed Framework," when asked what their proposal would be, there was several moments of dead silence, because they had no real alternative to the Agreed Framework that was acceptable.

Well, perhaps that was the policy. To do nothing. To isolate them.

To isolate them. To hope that they would collapse. And basically as I said, I think from '94 to '98, until Bill Perry came in, and sort of revamped our policy, that was the Clinton administration's policy and the preferred policy of those in the Congress. And I think from 2001, to last October, waiting for the collapse was in effect the policy of the Bush administration.

Who paid attention to this in the Clinton administration? Was [Secretary of State Warren] Christopher or the president or [National Security Adviser] Anthony Lake engaged in this? Or did it die at a lower level of the bureaucracy?

My sense is that after the signing of the Agreed Framework, which Bob Gallucci was instrumental in engineering, that basically the seventh floor of the State Department forgot about North Korea.

Until the Taepodong missile.

The Taepodong missile, and in a growing suspicion in the U.S. intelligence agencies that the North Koreans had something going in this underground facility up at Kumchangri, which several people believed was probably a nuclear-related program.

So, we began these intensive negotiations with the North Koreans that Chuck Kartman conducted. And eventually, they agreed to give us access to that site. Of course, as soon as they agreed to give us access, we were fairly confident we wouldn't find anything when we went there. ...

We didn't find anything there.

We did not find anything. It was a big empty cavern. Huge cave, dug into the mountain. ... We don't know what they intended to do with that tunnel. But I am pretty confident that there was no nuclear-related program in the tunnel in the period before we gained access to it.

So, it was bad intelligence or badly-interpreted intel?

Badly-interpreted intelligence. I mean, remember, in the case of North Korea, we know very little about that place. We look at what is available to us on the surface, on the ground. We have some sense of what they're doing, in that regard.

But we have almost no information about how decisions are made, who makes them, and moreover, what their real strategy is. It's all guesswork. And you take two or three data points on the screen, and you try to construct a whole picture. And you're gonna make mistakes sometimes.

So, we knew that they were building something there. They were carrying a lot of dirt out of the side of the mountain. There was a suspicion that it was nuclear-related. As it turned out, I don't think it was. So, it was badly-interpreted intelligence. You're exactly right. ...

Is there a tendency to be overly pessimistic about the situation we're facing?

Well, I think there is, to some extent. And I certainly don't object to the notion that we should be proceeding, to some extent at least, on the basis of a kind of worst-case scenario.

In other words, it would be clearly a massive error to assume that they would never have a missile that would be capable of reaching the United States. But I think it's also important to get our facts right. And I'm not sure that at this point, we have them exactly right.

You've talked about the North Koreans as being somewhat rational. There are many people who would say that's a big mistake.

Well, they're not crazy. I mean, these are human beings. They have the same basic instincts that you and I have. They want to survive.

They live within a construct that is very different from ours. They've been living in this black cave for the last 50-odd years, so that, what they see of the world outside is a little bit like what Plato's people saw of the world outside the cave. But they're not crazy. Within their context, they operate in a rational fashion.

Now, they're sitting up there with a collapsed economy. They basically have ceased to function as a national economy. They have very little left in terms of instruments of national power. Basically all they have is their military. The only way they can get our attention -- and they think they need our attention -- is to rattle their military and pull our chain. And they will continue to do that, until they get what they think they need.

Well, that's what bothers people, that they continue to pull our chain, and blackmail us, essentially, is the word that's being used often in Washington.

But, go back to the basic options available to us. And sometimes, great powers, even the United States, have to make choices that are not palatable. We cannot ignore them, because they will not let us ignore them. They think that they need our attention, in order to relieve them of what they consider to be this awesome threat from the United States. So, they want desperately to get our attention.

We don't have an acceptable military option. For us to strike militarily at North Korea, given the risk that we would be incurring for South Korea, would be one of the most immoral acts conceivable.

So we are left, then, with only the option of engaging with them. Trying to negotiate structures that will constrain them. Not giving them everything they want, but giving them some, perhaps, of what they want, in return for us getting things that we want, with verification, inspections, all of the things that are standard on our menu.

But yes. It's extortion. And we're rewarding bad behavior. But much of diplomacy is rewarding bad behavior. You're trying to figure out how you can stop the worst of the behavior at the lowest-possible price. And that's basically what we're dealing with in the case of North Korea.

So, George Bush wins the election. What happens to our Korea policy?

Well, our Korea policy comes to a screeching halt in effect. I believed at the time that there would probably be some sort of a policy review -- only natural when you get a change of administration -- but that eventually the administration would continue on more or less the same track that the Clinton administration had been on in its final months.

You gave assurances to the South Koreans that that was the case?

I told the South Koreans that foreign policy did not change from administration to administration all that dramatically because national interest did not change that dramatically from administration to administration.

What were you smoking?

I was wrong. And I think it is a startling example of something that is not normally the case, that in most instances foreign policy doesn't the change that much. And certainly Secretary Powell and others in the State Department thought up until March that they would continue the Clinton policy. Powell, in effect, said as much.

I think that basically what happened was that we all kind of underestimated the sort of predilection for what has been called "moral clarity" within the Bush administration. And this is a phrase that one heard earlier this year and last year in Washington at various gatherings on the subject of North Korea, that there was a need for moral clarity and that we should recognize North Korea for what it is, an evil regime that is injurious to its own people in massive ways, etc. And that I think has been a governing principle of the evolution of our policy toward North Korea over the last two years.

So, we recognize it as evil, we call it a member of the axis of evil, we call the leader names. Great, so what? But what's the policy?

That's not a policy. That's the problem with it. It's not a policy. And I think finally, well, middle of last year Secretary Powell met with the North Korea foreign minister at an ASEAN Conference in Asia. [Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs] Jim Kelly geared up to go to North Korea.

And at about that same time apparently the intelligence information regarding their enriched uranium program became so compelling that Kelly used that trip basically to explain what we thought we knew about what they were doing and to challenge them on.

However, it seems to me [that] should have been done in the context of some analysis of how they were likely to react, what was it that they were likely to do in response to our confronting them about enriched uranium. And it seemed to me at the time and still seems to me now that for us the red line, both for them and for us, should have been to prevent at all costs their unfreezing the plutonium facilities at Yonbyon. Because enriched uranium could produce fissile material but not for a long time. Plutonium facilities can produce fissile material very quickly.

So, what has [the Bush administration] accomplished?

I think they've not accomplished much that's good. I think that had we had a dialogue, a negotiating process under way with the North Koreans and been able to confront them about the enriched uranium program in that context that probably our ability to deal with it would have been greatly enhanced. And we probably could have prevented them from breaking out of the Agreed Framework, which is in effect what they have done.

We have certainly complicated our relationships with South Korea. And in many ways I think that is perhaps the greatest political casualty of this whole affair. Kim Dae Jung came to Washington in March of 2001 prepared to talk with the president about his policy toward North Korea, about his hope that the United States would continue to engage with North Korea.

And viewed from South, through South Korean eyes, their president was disrespected, as one might say. President Bush said that he didn't trust North Korea, didn't believe that one could deal with North Korea.

He brushed him off?

He basically blew him off, yes. And that is something from which the relationship has yet to recover. After the axis of evil speech and after some public discussion about a revision of our nuclear policy, after public discussion about preemptive deterrence, the South Korean public began to conclude that the United States was pursuing a very hard-line policy toward North Korea, one that aimed very explicitly at a change in that regime. ...

Are you against regime change in North Korea?

No. I'm not. Not against regime change at all. But I am against regime change that we try to bring about because I think that our track record in that regard is very, very bad. And certainly to try to do that in contradiction of the wishes of our ally, South Korea, which after all would be the party exposed in that situation to possible retaliation from the North, to do that, to try to change the regime in contradiction of their desires would be I think very, very bad.

But they'll say that you had a kid gloves approach to North Korea, it failed, they started a uranium enrichment project. The policy that you're advocating was a failure.

Well, I'm not sure it was. I mean, for eight years they did not produce any plutonium at Yongbyon. Had they been producing plutonium at Yongbyon, hypothetically at least they could have produced enough for several dozen nuclear weapons. Those nuclear weapons don't exist largely as a result of the Agreed Framework.

There has been the beginning of a process of dialogue between South Korea and North Korea. That was a result fundamentally of Kim Dae Jung's policy, the Sunshine Policy. But it was also a result of the efforts of the U.S. and others to draw North Korea out into the world.

Through the Agreed Framework?

Through the Agreed Framework. ...

So, where are we going?

... I think basically we've got to resume a dialogue with South Korea about our policies toward the North, that's where this all should start. The beauty of the Perry process was that we formulated with South Korea and Japan a common strategy with an agreed set of goals, and then an allocation of responsibilities as to how we would achieve those goals through our individual dialogues or negotiating processes with North Korea. And that indeed is what we need now.

Now, when one raises this with South Koreans, particularly in the context of their new government that's about to come into office, what they say is, "Sure, we would like to do that. But we don't want to appear to our own publics that we are being dictated to and ordered around by the U.S. And secondly, if we're going to have a common policy we need to know what the U.S. policy is. And what is U.S. policy toward North Korea?"

Donald Gregg says that we don't have a policy, we simply have an attitude.

I think Don is right. We've had an attitude for the last two years and not had a policy. I hope that the current problem or crisis depending upon how one wants to term it will force us into developing a policy. And that policy should be very carefully tailored to take account of the wishes and attitudes and desires of South Korea, our ally.

It's not called the Korean Peninsula for nothing, and we should be prepared to give them at least co-leadership in determining how we're going to deal with the North. They're the guys who are under the gun most immediately literally. So, we should try to impose our agenda on them. We should develop a common agenda.

It strikes me that the whole policy promulgated by Wolfowitz and others -- preemptive war, preventive war -- kind of runs up against its match in the Korean peninsula?

That's right. And that's why the administration has been criticized for basically having a dual standard. Why are we doing in Iraq what we're not trying to do in North Korea? Why do we say there is a diplomatic solution in North Korea and not in Iraq, etc., etc.? And that's the whole problem with one, the axis of evil concept and two, the doctrine, if it is a doctrine, of preemptive deterrence. That there are some things that you can't preemptively deter. And North Korea I think is a classic example. ...

I am fundamentally convinced that we have a compelling national interest over the long term in Northeast Asia. And I fear very much that what is happening now, particularly with our regard to our relationship with South Korea, is very detrimental to our long-term interests in the region.

Look at what we're doing. We're saying in effect to the Chinese, "Look, you guys are better able to solve this problem with North Korea than we are." So, we're stepping back, we're giving the Chinese sort of a lead role in maintaining stability within the region.

Now, that may be the right thing to do. But it will have long-term consequences. And given our relationship with South Korea, I think that as the threat from the North recedes, as it will one way or another, that our troop presence in South Korea will probably come under greater and greater pressure. And at some point we will probably begin to draw it down. That will have very strong repercussions for what happens with regard to American military forces in Japan.

So the ultimate outcome of all of this could be that the forward-deployed U.S. military that has been such an important part of our strategy in the region basically since the end of World War II will be no more. Now, these are long term considerations that it doesn't seem to me are being factored into our -- as Don Gregg says -- our "attitude" toward North Korea. ...



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