kim's nuclear gamble
interview: donald greggHome
who are they?
photo of gregg

Gregg was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989-1993. Prior to that he served in the CIA and the National Security Council, and as national security adviser to Vice President George H.W. Bush. In this interview, he is critical of the current approach to North Korea, telling FRONTLINE that the Bush administration "never had a policy. It's had an attitude -- hostility." He says that the relationship between the two nations could be resuscitated by an expression of high-level interest on the part of the U.S. and a non-aggression pact between the two countries. However, he warns that time is running out to start a dialogue before North Korea becomes a nuclear power. This interview was conducted on Feb. 20, 2003.

Let's just start by talking about what it is that the North Koreans want.

I think the regime in North Korea wants to survive. I think a coterie around Kim Jong Il has a plan or a hope for North Korea becoming a more normal country, perhaps making widgets instead of missiles, perhaps taking part in the economic integration of northeast Asia.

We're saying two things: We're not going to attack you, but we won't talk to you. And to me, that really does not make a particularly coherent policy.

I think he is in thrall to the North Korean military, who feels threatened by a process of openness, which may endanger their preferred status. So the more they feel threatened by us, the more demands they place upon Kim Jong Il.

So we now, I think, have two options: We can either give North Korea some kind of a security guarantee in terms of a non-aggression treaty, or we can see them within a year become a pretty significant nuclear power. ...

What do we know about North Korea? You had made some statements about your experience there as a CIA officer in the embassy in the 1980s.

I refer to North Korea as the longest-running intelligence failure in the history of U.S. espionage.


They were very difficult to recruit. I think the reason being that they came from a country that had a tradition of being the Hermit Kingdom, trying to shut out the incursions of foreigners. They came from a Confucian tradition -- very tight family structure.

Then there was the overlay of self-reliance and the overlay of the particularly virulent kind of Marxism which had been adopted in the North. They were just extremely difficult to get at. Then there was a very difficult problem: If you did get one to agree to help, it was almost impossible to do anything with him once he returned to North Korea.

I was in Japan in 1968 when the [USS] Pueblo was seized [by North Korea]. I was with CIA at that point. We were trying to figure out a way to retaliate for the seizure of the Pueblo. We could not figure out anything to do that would not have gotten the crew's throat cut and probably started a second Korean War. So we swallowed our pride, and eventually we got the crew back.

It's just always been an extraordinarily difficult nut to crack. I think our intelligence is better now. We certainly have much better satellite coverage ... and we fly U2s and so forth. But we still are not able to get inside their heads.

So that presents a major obstacle for anybody formulating policy, because we don't know what they want. We can't get inside their heads. How do we decide what we should do?

That was why I was motivated in March last year to write Chairman Kim Jong Il a letter. With the encouragement of Kim Dae Jung, the president of South Korea, who had asked me to plant the flag of the Korea Society in North Korea, I had been cultivating relationships with the North Koreans here in the United States. I'd met with them offline.

It had been arranged for early last year for four of us former ambassadors to visit North Korea under the leadership of Bob Scalapino, the renowned Asian scholar from U.C.-Berkeley. Then after the "axis of evil" rhetoric in the State of the Union message, that visit was cancelled.

I went to a conference in Europe and was so appalled at how little our European friends understand our frame of mind after 9/11. I thought, "My Lord. If these people don't understand how angry we are, how vulnerable we feel, how concerned we are about weapons of mass destruction, the North Koreans can't have a clue how we feel."

So I wrote the Chairman Kim Jong Il. I just was impelled to do it. Nobody told me to do it. I did it. I took it to the North Korean mission here. A man I knew read it, and had a wonderful reaction. He sort of read it and cocked his head and said, "How dare you write my chairman that way? Who do you think you are?"

I said, "Well, I'm writing him because I think I understand how his mind works." He said, "How can you understand how my chairman's mind works?" I said, "I've talked to Chinese and Russians and South Koreans and Americans who have seen him in action in China, in Russia, in North Korea. What I get is a very consistent picture of a man who wants to change the way North Korea relates to its neighbors. I'm all for that. I think we need to change the way we relate to North Korea. I think it's very important that we talk about your weapons of mass destruction, because we're particularly concerned about them falling into hands of people hostile to us after 9/11."

He said, "That's a good answer. I'll send your letter." Two weeks later, I was invited to come.

[Did] you do this with the blessing of this administration?


You do this with the disapproval of this administration?

I informed them after I wrote the letter, and I informed the South Korean government. They were very pleased that I had sent the letter, and I did not get any rebuttals from the Bush administration.

Well, get back to that. I want to go back to understanding the mentality of the North Koreans. They see us as a nuclear threat. Is that a fair statement?

They see us as a military threat.

We've threatened them in the past, historically, since the war.

Yes, we did. We threatened them with nuclear weapons during the Korean War, and they haven't forgotten that. ...

Let's go back to the crisis in 1994. Give me some sense of how serious of a crisis this was. This is not something that most Americans remember.

Bill Perry, who was a magnificent secretary of defense, calls it the most dangerous moment by far of his tenure as secretary of defense. Jim Laney, the distinguished former president of Emory University, who was my successor as ambassador, said he felt we were going to war. He was on the verge of calling for the evacuation of all civilian personnel, which you do only if you are about to have hostility start. It was he who suggested to Jimmy Carter that Jimmy Carter activate a standing invitation that he had to visit North Korea. ...

So Carter went, and at the last moment, really pulled the chestnuts out of the fire. He found that Kim Il Sung, who had lost the support from the Soviet Union after its collapse, could no longer really count on China, which had recognized South Korea was very anxious [for] improved relations with the United States.

So when Carter said to him, "We're worried about your nuclear reactor at Yongbyon," he said, "Well, I'll shut it down if you'll build be two light-water reactors and give me oil to compensate for the power we'll use." That was the germ of the Agreed Framework, which was negotiated a few months later.

What's the lesson?

I think the lesson is that if you send somebody of serious stature with a serious message, you will be taken seriously. ...

That almost happened at the end of the Clinton administration. After Bill Perry's excellent work in defusing the missile crisis of 1998, the North Koreans sent Jo Myong Rok, their second-ranking man, to the United States. He stopped in San Francisco, and asked to be taken to Silicon Valley, because he said, "We need to move to a wireless economy." He visited the White House in uniform, invited Bill Clinton to visit North Korea. A very important statement was issued at that time, saying, "We two countries do not harbor hostile relations toward each other. We will work toward the improvement of relations."

The North Koreans have always wanted a reiteration of that statement from the Bush administration, and they've never gotten it. I think that's the cornerstone of their anxiety about what the Bush administration has in mind.

What happened with this administration that they've taken another tack? If those were the clear lessons of 1994 and 1998 -- that talking to them seriously, cooperating with them where possible, works -- why have they failed to learn that lesson?

I think two reasons. I think that President Bush, as he acquired a worldview as he ran for office, came into office with very hostile feelings toward four or five world leaders: Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Arafat, Castro, Chavez of Venezuela. He also had a very strong antipathy toward Bill Clinton for some of the things Clinton had done while he was president, and for the fact that Clinton defeated his father in 1992.

Colin Powell's first statement on North Korea was, "We're going to take up where the Clinton administration left off," and that statement did not stand. When Kim Dae Jung pressed for an early meeting with President Bush in Washington -- he got it in, I think, March 2001 -- President Bush said, "I don't trust Kim Jong Il. We're going to have a policy review. And we're not going to do anything until we've finished the policy review." So there was just really a cutoff of the progress that had been made.

When the policy review completed in May or June, they said it validated the attempt to improve relations with North Korea. But the stacking of the issues had changed. The issue of conventional troop deployments, which is the most difficult issue, had been raised to a much higher position.

So this was laid out for the North Koreans, who did not respond immediately, because I think they felt we had moved the goalpost. The agenda had changed from what it had been at the end of the Clinton administration to what it had become at the beginning of the Bush administration.

Is it indicative of a Cold Warrior kind of mentality taking hold in the administration to move the conventional forces issue up to the top of the agenda?

Yes, I think so. And that is the biggest threat. I mean, the threat that North Korea has to this day is the 10,000 to 12,000 artillery tubes that are heavily bunkered and can rain 300,000-400,000 shells an hour into Seoul. ...

The 1994 Agreed Framework -- chestnuts are pulled from the fire. Good agreement, in your view?

Very quick and dirty negotiation, ably done by Bob Gallucci. It's almost impossible sometimes to deal with South Koreans alone or North Koreans alone -- to deal with them both at the same time is almost impossible.

So he basically worked out what the North Koreans would sit still for, and then sold it to the South Koreans, who where not very happy with the result. But they went along with it.

But a good agreement for the United States?

I think a good agreement, because it shut down the plutonium weapons process.

The plant at Yongbyon?

At Yongbyon. And it got fuel rods stored under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Administration] inspection. If we hadn't had it, North Korea would have produced far more plutonium and would have had enough material for several weapons. So I think it was a good agreement. But the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in November 1994.

A few days after it was signed?

After. And Newt Gingrich began to wave the bloody shirt immediately, saying, "It's a bad agreement. We're giving away too much."

I think McCain came forward and called it appeasement. You know all these analogies are made that Kim Dae Jung is another Chamberlain and the United States is engaged in appeasing North Korea.

Right, and the North Koreans remember that. A number of the ancillary agreements, such as getting North Korea off the terrorism list and improving relations between the United States and North Korea -- they were just dropped.

But there was an agreement. The administration had an obligation to hold to an agreement. Are you blaming Congress, or the administration?

I am blaming, I think, both. There were some delays in the heavy [fuel oil] shipments. These separate side agreements that were supposed to come along to try to improve the overall relationship between our two countries did not get much tender loving care from the Republicans, and the North Koreans are aware of that.

Then in 1998 came the Rumsfeld report on missile threats to the United States. Then came their Taepodong [missile].

But if I can take us back, 1994, to 1997, 1998, is a key period. Now we're sending what kind of message back to the North? What kind of message are the North Koreans getting as to our willingness to keep a deal?

That's a very mixed period, because during that period, the North Koreans send their submarines down the east cost of the Korean Peninsula. ... This was a--

Deliberate action?

Deliberate action, showing the North Koreans still had a very bloody-minded tentacle that they were extending toward the South. I think that has stopped. Kim Jong Il apologized after the last sea fight in the Western Sea.

But at that point, I think things were not fully coordinated, and that kind of hostile activity inflames Republicans, inflamed the people of South Korea, caused some delay in the oil shipments, and accounted for a lot of the delay in building the light-water reactors.

The North Koreans never acknowledged that. They say, "It's all your fault." But it's very good to remind them of these things they did that also contributed to the delay and to a poisoning of the atmosphere.

So they poisoned the atmosphere. But on the letter of the agreement, did they hold to the agreement?


The North Koreans held to the Agreed Framework?

They did.

Did the Americans hold to the Agreed Framework or did the Americans renege?

... I think there was some foot-dragging on our part. I think that the oil shipments came later, and there was, as I say, a real lack of enthusiasm for the issue of getting them off the terrorist list.

It became an orphaned policy at the State Department.

I wouldn't say we reneged. But it was not implemented with any great enthusiasm.

Were we perceived as reneging?

I think the North Koreans can say with a straight face that, "We think that you have never really been enthusiastic about improving relations with us. We think you have contributed to the delay of the building of the [light]-water reactors. This has contributed to our power shortage, and you are to blame for the sad state of our economy." That's the line I got, both in April and November.

Now somewhere along the way, U.S. intelligence starts to report that they're on shopping trips.


That they're in Pakistan. Tell me about that. They're buying high-frequency modulators, aluminum tubes.

Yes. I don't really know much about it. I only know that when [Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs] Jim Kelly was supposed to go to North Korea in June of last year, then there was a sea clash that delayed that trip. He says he was carrying with him a bold initiative. I'm not quite sure what that was, but it was a talk about economic aid and assistance if North Korea would back off its interest in all things nuclear.

Then between June and his trip on Oct. 3, apparently we got definitive aerial photographs of equipment from Pakistan being delivered to North Korea.

But we knew about this long before.

I don't know when we knew about it. I don't know when we knew about it. But it became a matter of certitude in July or August. So as Kelly geared up for his trip, apparently there was a dogfight within the administration. Should he mention it? Should he not mention it?

Those who said he should mention it put it right at the top of the agenda. So that really was the only thing that was discussed at his Oct. 3 meeting. Then, interesting enough, the North Koreans, after caucusing overnight, came back and said, "Yes, we do have that program."

They said that? Or they said, "We have every right to have such a program?"

They said, "We have every right to have any kind of weapon we want to design, because of the threats you have mounted against us. We will adopt a 'neither confirm nor deny' policy as to what we actually have."

But that's an important difference, isn't it? I mean, they didn't say, "Yes, we have this program. You've caught us."

What they said is repeated in their Oct. 25 statement -- that is, [that] North Korea is entitled to develop any kind of weapons system it wants to, in view of the threats that it perceives from the outside. ...

When you went on your trip and he said, again, "We have every right," did you ask him point blank, "Do you have a uranium enrichment program?"

No, we did not. We said, "Why did it take you all night to decide how to answer Kelly's charge?" "Well," he said, "I, for one, didn't know all about that program, so we have to pull together everybody who did know about it and then decide what we were going to say about it. What we decided to say was what's in the Oct. 25 statement."

We then said, "What does that do to the Agreed Framework?" He said, "It's hanging by a thread." That thread was cut on Nov. 15, when Washington cut off further oil shipments.

So Washington cut the Agreed Framework, not the North Koreans?

Right. ...

You made an observation to me when we first spoke on the phone about the demonization of Kim, the damage that that does, and that you had remembered that we had done that in history.

Right, with Ho Chi Minh. Yes. I think when we have an antagonist whom we don't understand, we have a very dangerous tendency to fill our gaps of ignorance with prejudice. We did that with Ho Chi Minh and we are doing that with Kim Jong Il -- a perfect example being a cover story on Newsweek calling him "Dr. Evil." ...

Well, they could spend less on their military and more on feeding their people.

They could. Absolutely.

They could spend less on a nuclear weapons program, and more on feeding their people.

That's correct. I think the reason they don't is what I said at the beginning of the program -- that the military feels threatened by a process of openness, and lays the demands on for a continuation of the very generous resource allocation to them.

Some people are going to listen to this, and say, "You know, Donald Gregg, conservative, former CIA, national security adviser to George Herbert Walker Bush -- where did you become a dove on North Korea? Where did you begin apologizing for the North Koreans?"

I don't [think] I am apologizing for North Korea. I think nothing I've done in the 25 years since I retired from CIA is so reminiscent to me of my CIA work. I always saw intelligence work as an attempt to cut behind appearance to reality, and I always felt that if you were going to be effective in dealing with a problem, you had to know what actually was going on, not what appeared to be going on.

So, what I am trying to say is, yes, there are people starving in North Korea. Yes, there is a misallocation of resources. But there is a group in North Korea that has a hope that North Korea can do better by establishing better relations with their neighbors, by, as I said, building widgets instead of nuclear weapons. I think that that plan ought to be encouraged, and by threatening them, by calling them a terrorist state, by calling them the other things that this administration has called them -- the axis of evil, pygmy, etc.

The president called Kim Jong Il a pygmy?

So it is reported. We make it much harder for them to change the allocation of resources. We make it much harder for them to become a normal nation.

They are very proud people. They have said to me, and they have said to others, "Do not confuse us with Iraq. You're not going to be able to do to us what you probably are going to try to do to Iraq."

So what happened to U.S. policy towards North Korea when the new administration--

It's never had a policy. It's had an attitude.

What's the attitude?


Who's driving it?

I think it came from the original orientation that the close advisors to President-elect Bush, and Governor Bush, the candidate, laid out for him.

You've long time been a supportive of Kim Dae Jung.


He came to the United States to talk to the president. What happened?

He came very early in President Bush's term. President Bush did not have in place the Asian specialists -- Jim Kelly, [Deputy Secretary of State] Rich Armitage had not been confirmed. The people in place in the White House were proliferation people.

Kim Dae Jung has quite a lot of hauteur. He may have lectured President Bush on why he ought to support Sunshine Policy. Anyway, the meetings did not go well, and President Bush said, "We're going to have a policy review on North Korea." His father had done that. He had a policy review on the Soviet Union when he was elected in 1988. So this was a perfectly legitimate thing for him to do.

The South Korean mistake was in pushing too hard for a meeting that came too early. If perhaps it had come a little later, with some people who knew more about Asian face and Asian history in place, maybe it would have gone better.

When you met with President Kim Dae Jung after that meeting, what did he tell you?

... He said as a result of the meeting in Washington, where it was publicly stated that President Bush said, "I don't trust Kim Jong Il. We're going to have a review of our policy before we take any forward steps," that that had reverberated very strongly in North Korea, that there was no ongoing dialogue between North and South Korea until this policy review was completed.

This seems like a textbook case in discontinuity between one administration and the other, to the detriment of foreign policy.

[Yes]. That's not unique. I was in the White House when Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, and there was the same kind of hostility there. There was the same kind of discontinuity. When there is a hostile campaign, and the two candidates are from quite different parts of the political spectrum, I think that's quite natural. But I think sooner or later things veer back towards the center, and the process goes on.

What were the consequences of 9/11 for U.S.-North Korean relations?

I think it became the most time-consuming issue. It validated a great many of the sort of Manichean theories that people like Richard Perle and [Paul] Wolfowitz, and [William] Kristol and [Lewis] Libby had been laying out: that this is an evil world, that we are under threat.

I think the North Koreans were a little slow in condemning what had been done. They did. They signed onto two or three U.N.-sponsored anti-terrorism measures. There's never been any indication of a tie between North Korea and terrorism. I think the biggest thing that it did to North Korea was just suck up all the time and attention of the White House, and the North Korean policy was just sort of left to wither.

Didn't it also leave the United States more fearful that a North Korea, which we know sells missile technology to the Middle East, could be selling to any customer, including Al Qaeda?

We knew that North Korea had sold missile technology to Egypt, to Syria, to Pakistan and perhaps to Libya. But beyond that, they had no track record of that sort.

But you're right. This became a fear. That was the reason that I wrote the letter to Kim Jong Il that I described earlier -- because I knew that that was a fear, and that any country with a nuclear technology became of great concern to us, because we did not want that technology to fall into the hands of those who had no compunction about using it against us.

You wrote the letter. What did you learn from those meetings that you had with the North Koreans?

I came back and I wrote a report, saying, "The North Koreans fear us. The North Koreans don't trust us. The North Koreans are offended by our rhetoric, and they have no stake in their relationship with the Bush administration. That could be changed, however, if a high-level emissary were sent to North Korea with a presidential letter indicating our interest in working towards a better relationship, reviving echoes of the statement made at the time of Jo Myung Rok's visit."

I said that I felt that the things that had been in play during my time as ambassador, and during the end of the Clinton administration were lying fallow, but they could be resuscitated by a genuine expression of high-level friendly interest from the president, conveyed to North Korea by someone of real stature, known to be someone trusted by the president. ...

But this notion that they cheat on their agreements with us -- why should we be rewarding them with any kind of concessions, with any kind of olive branches? They're apparently double dealing.

That has come into full bloom after the highly enriched uranium program with Pakistan has become known. That's the hardest thing to explain, if you are still saying these people are someone that we ought to negotiate with. My guess is that the North Koreans and the Pakistanis had a long relationship involving the sale of missiles to Pakistan, which were somehow being mated up with Pakistan's nuclear weapons. ...

Do you think that, had we been more rigorous in holding to the letter of the Agreed Framework, had we not delayed on opening the economic and diplomatic relations and what-not, would the North Koreans still have gone forward with a uranium enrichment program?

That's really speculative. I think the key thing that the Bush administration did not do was not reiterate the joint statement issued at the time of Jo Myung Rok's visit in October 2000, where it said we no longer have hostile intentions towards each other and we will work towards establishment of a better basis, of a better relationship.

That is what North Korea has always wanted to hear from the Bush administration. And they so far, they haven't heard it.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist as we look down the road? You want to be an optimist?

I want to be an optimist. I'm hearing more and more from Colin Powell and Rich Armitage, and less and less from people like [Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security] John Bolton. I was part of what I thought was a very good testimonial before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 4. That committee has very, very fine personnel, Senators Lugar and Biden. The two chairs get on extremely well. They have Chuck Hagel, Senator Rockefeller, Chris Dodd, Senator Chafee. Some really fine people.

There was not a single partisan note struck in the session Rich Armitage testified in, was complimented on his testimony. I was very glad to see the Senate becoming more involved in what, up to now, has been something that there really only the executive branch has thought about, and that is, "How do we deal with North Korea from here on?" The interest on the part of the Senate seemed to be, "Why aren't we talking to them?"

Why aren't we talking to them?

That is seen by the Bush administration as rewarding bad behavior. Why should we talk to them, when they've cheated on the previous agreement we have with them?

But yet it's a very dangerous situation. We say we care about nuclear proliferation. We're going to war over the issue of weapons of mass destruction, proliferation in Iraq. But yet we won't talk to the North Koreans? What sense does that make?

Well, in my Senate testimony, I said, "We're saying two things: We're not going to attack you, but we won't talk to you. And to me, that really does not make a particularly coherent policy."

It does nothing to inhibit them from moving towards the acquisition of full nuclear weapons capacity, which I think they intend to do, unless we give them a security guarantee. It was very interesting in the testimony of Secretary Armitage. He said the North Koreans want a non-aggression treaty from us.

We think that's very difficult, because we don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell of having it ratified by the Senate. Senator Biden said, "Mr. Secretary, if the president came before us and said he was very interested in having a non-aggression treaty with North Korea ratified, I'll bet you a million dollars we would do it." I thought that was new ground being broken, and I was very glad that that exchange took place. ...

If we don't talk to them, do you think they'll build nuclear weapons?

In my view, yes, and that changes the balance of power in northeast Asia. We already have a very difficult relationship with South Korea. ...

It doesn't seem that the lessons of the 1994 crisis are being absorbed.

I think that what we're missing is the real change in chemistry between North Korea and the United States, which would still be possible if a truly sincere, high-level message were sent from Washington, saying, "We want to improve relations with you, and we are willing to guarantee your security." That was a very interesting approach put out by Jim Laney and--

Former ambassador.

--former ambassador to South Korea in this month's Foreign Affairs written, co-authored with Jason Shaplen. They suggest that a first step be a guarantee of North Korea's security by China, Russia, Japan and the United States; that we sit down, the four of us, and say, "We all have no hostile intent towards North Korea."

This might then encourage the North Koreans to make a first step, in terms of eschewing further development of nuclear weapons. That might pave the way for the kind of direct talks that the North Koreans want to have with us. I think it's all for the good that that kind of new idea is being floated.

How much time do we have?

... I think we have six months.

We have six months to do what?

To start a dialogue with North Korea that they feel can lead to a guarantee of their security by us.

And if we don't?

They will become a nuclear power.



home : introduction : analyses : the north koreans : chronology : nuclear capabilities
interviews : readings & links : discussion : producer's chat
teacher's guide : tapes & transcripts : press reaction : credits : privacy policy
FRONTLINE : wgbh : pbsi

photograph copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation