kim's nuclear gamble
interview: thomas hubbardHome
who are they?
photo of hubbard

A career Foreign Service officer, Thomas Hubbard is the current U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Designated by the State Department to speak on behalf of the Bush Administration, he says the administration believes that the current problems with North Korea can be resolved peacefully through a multilateral diplomatic process and that bilateral negotiations are not in U.S. interests. He also maintains that North Korea violated the Agreed Framework by pursuing a uranium enrichment program. This interview was conducted on Feb. 28, 2003.

... Give me some sense of what it's like to negotiate with the North Koreans.

Well, of course, North Korea is a very isolated place, a very different place. The regime follows a philosophy that is totally different from ours. Often with North Koreans, and I think that remains true today, you have to try to read beyond the rhetoric -- the rhetoric is always very strong -- try to get beyond that to try to figure out what they're actually saying.

Our president feels very strongly about the nature of the regime in North Korea ... that builds dangerous weapons while starving its people.

There are some able negotiators in North Korea. The group of people that we dealt with were mainly competent diplomats, obviously following instructions that were very hard for us to understand and representing positions that were very hard to deal with. But they were able to conduct a professional negotiation.

So they're not crazy? They act rationally?

They act, I think, according to a philosophy and an approach that makes sense under their system. Whether that is rational? It's simply not rational, for example, for any regime in the world like the North Korean regime to pursue nuclear weapons, other dangerous weapons, while failing to provide food for their people. That's not a rational approach to national life. But within that philosophy they follow a course that makes sense in their terms.

Where I'm coming from with that question is that in the press, and through the language of the president, they're demonized. They're called names. Kim Jong Il is made fun of in the national press and the world press. So there's a sense that we're dealing with people that are incompetent, crazy and always irrational.

Well if you look back over the last decade or so since we began talking to the North Koreans -- Kim Il Sung, the father, was still in office at that time -- since then, the North Korean economy has declined by about 5 percent per year. That's not a rational approach to managing a nation, leading a nation, taking care of the needs of a nation. ...

You negotiated towards an Agreed Framework. What was that? And was that a good deal in your view?

I think it was the best deal we could have gotten at the time and it brought some direct benefits. In the absence of the Agreed Framework, if we had not frozen the nuclear facilities under the Agreed Framework, North Korea might have produced as many as 100 nuclear warheads by now.

The Agreed Framework also, I think, laid the groundwork for, created the basis for eight years of relative peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, an absence of tensions. Created the basis for the very dramatic efforts by President Kim [Dae Jung] to build bridges to the North and carry out his engagement policies. So it brought some very real benefits. But quite clearly it did not fulfill the basic purpose.

Our basic purpose was to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. And it has become very apparent over the last year that it did not fulfill that purpose that the North Koreans are still pursuing nuclear weapons. And in that sense, I think we have to call it a failure.

Why did it fail?

Because the North Koreans apparently still have not given up their hopes and their wish to produce nuclear weapons. The very premise of the Agreed Framework was that over a period of time, and through a series of steps, and in exchange for some security assurances, as well as economic assistance, that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons program. We were able to monitor their original plutonium-based program at Yongbyon. And that did remain frozen.

But the fact is, we discovered some months ago that the North Koreans were pursuing very, very seriously and at an advanced stage, a covert -- an entirely different nuclear weapons program based on highly enriched uranium. And in that sense, we weren't able to stop that process. The very purpose of the Agreed Framework was ending verifiably North Korea's nuclear weapon's programs. And it did not serve that purpose.

We've spoken to at least one of your predecessors and former defense secretary who say, that the United States reneged on that agreement and that was perhaps a factor in causing you know sewing distrust in the relationship.

I wouldn't say we reneged. ... The whole concept of the Agreed Framework was, of course, that we would move toward full diplomatic and economic relations as North Korea solved the various issues of concern to the international community. And they did freeze their nuclear program. But they continued to develop, produce, deploy and export dangerous missiles.

They continued to violate all international standards of human rights. And they continued to pose a very serious threat to South Korea through their array of conventional weaponry along the DMZ.

And so the whole expectation was that we would follow a continuum in which as they solved problems, we would also lift sanctions, move towards more normal relations. And so I do not, by any means, think we reneged on the Agreed Framework. Things moved more slowly than we might have hoped.

Could we have done a better job of holding to the letter of the agreement? I'm not saying that we necessarily need to, you know, heap blame on the United States. But is there, in assessing the Agreed Framework--

Well I think as a negotiator, for example, I expected that we would have lifted more of our sanctions vis-á-vis North Korea more quickly than we did. Of course lifting sanctions involves new legislation. Of course we had to get the understanding and the approval of Congress. And we didn't always get that understanding as we needed it.

That's an understatement.

Well that's maybe a fact of life. You know, you have to bring Congress in. And, in fact, we were in a Democratic administration with a Republican-controlled Congress.

But the fact -- let's just get back to the facts here -- is that North Korea was not abiding by this agreement. ...

I want to talk about the Sunshine Policy. There's a great divergence that begins to take place between the policies of President Kim Dae Jung and the policies of our current president in the United States.

I would say that the divergence wasn't nearly that great. The Kim Dae Jung government pursued very actively its engagement policy, the so-called Sunshine Policy vis-á-vis the North. And the Kim Dae Jung administration attached great importance to the continued fulfillment of the Agreed Framework through the activities of the KEDO, the Korean Peninsula Development Organization.

But when he came to Washington, he was basically blown off by the president.

I think the perception was created of a greater divergence that actually existed. What the president actually told him was that we continued to support the Agreed Framework and would abide by it, so long as the North Koreans did; that we continued to support Kim Dae Jung's engagement policy vis-á-vis North Korea.

What the president did say that differed from what President Clinton might have said was that as for U.S. contact and engagement with North Korea, we want to study this issue and carry out a policy review and decide whether we want to continue our direct dialogue with North Korea. That, I agree, was a difference.

A huge difference.

But I would argue that our continued support for the Agreed Framework and our support for Kim Dae Jung's engagement policy were more important elements of the policy at that stage. They got lost in all the shuffle.

Now by June of 2001, President Bush had announced that we were prepared to have a dialogue with North Korea, a dialogue without conditions and virtually whenever and wherever the North Koreans wanted it. And the North Koreans did not respond. ...

Yeah, but ... he had called North Korea a member of the "axis of evil." He had used various epithets and said he loathed Kim, detested Kim. He called him a pygmy when he was in Shanghai. You're not arguing that this administration is continuing the policies of the previous administration. This is a much tougher line on North Korea.

I am arguing, however, that this administration continued the fundamental policy elements of the approach of the last administration in the sense that we continued to support the Agreed Framework until it was clear the North Koreans had violated it. We continued to support South Korean engagement. And, you know, I think there's been entirely too much focus on words and too little focus on the substance of the policy.

But words matter. You're a diplomat. I mean you know that. Powell announced that the current administration would continue the same policies. And the White House said, "No, no, no, no. We're going to review this."

The White House said we will continue to support the Agreed Framework and that we would continue to support South Korean engagement. What we were going to review is what role the U.S. might play in dialogue with the North. I was actively involved in that review in Washington by June.

This was March when President Kim was in Washington. By June we had a policy announcement which made clear that we were prepared for a dialogue. It did, as you say, enumerate a broader agenda, for example, the approach directed by former Defense Secretary Perry. The so-called "Perry approach" was focused primarily on WMD -- did not embrace changes in the conventional force alignment, or did not embrace human rights issues. Not because the Clinton administration wasn't concerned about those issues, but because they thought a better approach was to try to hone in on those most dangerous aspects of North Korean policy.

The Bush administration thought, tactically, and perhaps strategically, it made more sense to have a comprehensive discussion with the North Koreans rather than focusing on particular aspects of our problem.

But within that we weren't saying, you know, "We'll talk after you withdraw your troops." We were saying, "Let's talk. And during those talks let's discuss these issues." That seems to me a logical approach. ...

A concern is that the policy has been, in a way, stagnant. In the words of a former ambassador, there is no policy at this point. There's simply an attitude.

(LAUGHS) I think that's an exaggeration. The clear policy of our government is that we find nuclear weapons in North Korea to be unacceptable and intolerable. Nobody wants nuclear weapons in North Korea.

So why not talk to them?

We also believe that this is a threat not just to the United States, this is a challenge to the entire international system and certain regional players like China, Japan and South Korea should be involved. But we also think many other nations in the world have a stake in this. ...

I think that people are beginning to worry that we're going to hold to this multilateral framework while time ticks away. I mean this commitment, this predilection towards multilateral talks, meanwhile the fuel rods are being moved out. The plant is being restarted. Who knows if, by the time this program goes on the air, the reprocessing plant won't be operating. And we're still not going to talk to them?

Let's go back to the earlier approach in '93, '94. I think we got the best deal we could have at the time. But there were a number of flaws in the agreement that subsequently came to the fore. And I think one of those flaws was that this was an agreement that was basically negotiated bilaterally between the U.S. and North Korea.

I believe the agreement would have been more effective if other players had been more directly involved. We'll come up with a better agreement if we go at it multilaterally. And I think a case can be made that even from the North Korean perspective that their prospects for achieving the kind of international support that they want, would be enhanced by having countries like Japan, China, South Korea, maybe Russia and others involved directly in the negotiations so that they could buy into the agreement and participate in the benefits that might flow from it.

They just want to talk to the United States.

Well, do we have to give them what they want all the time? I think that's one of our concerns, that it might be tactically attractive for the North Koreans to try to isolate us and put pressure on us in a bilateral negotiation. But that's not necessarily in the interest of the United States. We think a multilateral approach would be much better.

The Cold War was based on give-and-take diplomatically. The Cuban Missile Crisis was solved by giving concessions to the Soviet Union. I mean at what point does a hard line become self-defeating, I guess, is the question.

Well, we're not talking about the Soviet Union here, we're talking about North Korea. We have a track record of negotiations with North Korea that leads us to believe that a multilateral approach would be better.

Do you think that the demonization of Kim has been a problem for diplomacy?

Well what is clear to me is that our president feels very strongly about the nature of the regime in North Korea. After talking about the axis of evil, the phrase he used about North Korea was this is a regime that builds dangerous weapons while starving its people. And that's a pretty apt phrase.

I think it is a phrase that fits the situation in North Korea. North Koreans complaining about words? Have you ever read the press statements, the governmental statements that they put out? They have a very imaginative thesaurus, which is filled with words to use about the United States. So it's kind of hard, I have trouble understanding--

But we shouldn't let them set the moral standards.

Of course not, of course not.

I mean aren't we just getting down into the ditch with them?

I wouldn't say that. I think we're trying to deal with this in a practical matter as a serious problem. ...

Was the Clinton administration nave?

I don't think so. I think the Clinton administration went at this problem with a great deal of purpose and intensity. And if there was any navet perhaps, I don't think it was in our assessment of North Korea. It might have been in our assessment of our own ability to deal with a highly complex problem.

You mean to interpret the intelligence, or--

No, to actually bottle up a nuclear program. If you think about it, in order to verifiably put an end to North Korea's nuclear problem, you had to not only take care of the specific site at Yongbyon that we were focusing on, but to be sure they weren't doing anything anywhere else would have required an incredibly intricate complicated agreement. But, you know, perhaps you can't really do that that perfectly.

But I felt we went at this problem with a great deal of purpose and energy. It was a complex problem, a problem of a kind we had not faced in the past. We had never dealt directly with the North Koreans since the negotiations at Panmunjom that ended the Korean War. There's probably no country in the world with which we've had less contact.

And so the fact that we were actually sitting down to the table working with them, trying to work through -- you asked earlier about their diplomacy -- trying to find a way to work with representatives of a very isolated country to come up with a concrete approach to a serious and practical problem. That was something that had never been done before.

But didn't the United States misread them? Gallucci felt, [others] felt that these guys wanted out, that they wanted to integrate with the rest of the world. And in fact, it now appears that all along they wanted to get nuclear weapons.

... You have to start out on the assumption that there is some point at which the North Koreans would be willing to trade those weapons for other things that they want from the international community. If you don't have that, if you don't start from that premise, then why negotiate? Why have a dialogue?

Somehow they've got to be persuaded that it is in their interest to give up these programs. We have been working for a decade on the premise that this can be done through diplomacy. We have not dropped that premise.

We aren't sure it is entirely possible that North Korea is bent on having nuclear weapons and, you know, there's nothing that the world can do for them that will steer them from that course.

That's what Dr. Perry's suspicion is.

You have to in one part of your mind suspect that.

And if that's true?

But you also have to test it. And that's why the point comes in about negotiations. And I do share the belief of the administration I now serve, the Bush administration, that the best way to test the premise is North Korea prepared to give up these weapons is through a multilateral process in which, you know, the international community is represented and the countries most deeply concerned are directly involved.

There may not be time enough to get to multilateral negotiations.

You know, I think you're falling into the trap that the North Koreans want to put us in, that is, "Stop me before I kill." That the North Koreans are racing off in a direction that it is not in their interest, and that somehow we have to come up quick, quick with a fire hose and a lasso and somehow stop them before they jump off a cliff.

I think the approach we're trying to say to the North Koreans is, "Stop. Think hard before you do that because whatever your interests are, whatever your concerns are, they're not going to be served by having nuclear weapons. And they're not going to be served by putting on the kind of pressure that you're trying to do by racing towards the precipice."

Why not? Why isn't it in their interest to have nuclear weapons? They can sell nuclear technology into the Middle East, they--

The message I think we're trying to sell to them -- and we tried to sell to them through the Agreed Framework -- is that if what they're looking for is security, if what they're looking for is funding for international development, help from the international community, that the way to get all of that is to drop this nuclear weapons business and cooperate, collaborate with the international community.

Continuing to pursue these nuclear weapons will simply ensure that they don't get the kind of assistance that they need to survive and bring about any betterment of their people. ...

What worries you most about all of this?

The fact that we could eventually wind up with that circumstance in which the North Koreans are bound and determined to produce nuclear weapons. And we have to make some very difficult decisions about how we stop that from happening. ...

Assistant Secretary Kelly comes through here in October. ... What was on the agenda?

... He went at them really with two messages. One, you know, we caught you, we know what you're doing. And two, you know, if you dismantle all of your nuclear programs, including that one very visibly, then we would be prepared to talk about a bold approach, but we can't talk about it now.

Was there a debate over how to approach the North Koreans? I mean, this was the first time that the United States and the North Koreans were going to talk after a long period of time. This was a very tough, bold approach.

... The judgment was made that this highly enriched uranium program was so serious a matter and so clear a violation of all the confidence that we had had with them that we had to raise that first and get that cleared up first before we could go any further.

But that didn't result in going any further?

No. In fact, to our surprise, the North Koreans admitted that they had the highly enriched uranium program, said they had a right to do these things and would continue doing it. So that did cut off any avenues for further discussion. ...

You had intelligence that they were shopping in Pakistan.

There were some pieces of intelligence that made us believe that there was perhaps some research and development going into a highly enriched uranium program.

What changed over just the last, really six months, was our perception of the stage and scale of that program, which took this from being, you know, a potential problem that we have to worry about sometime in the future to a much more immediate problem that had to be dealt with.

So the administration's taken a hard line, brought up the highly enriched uranium project, and things have devolved since then in the relationship. Any second thoughts?

No. No, we did the right thing. We simply could not go in business as usual in light of our discovery of this program.

So where are we going?

We're hoping that the North Koreans will realize where their interest lies -- that their interest lies in the complete and verifiable dismantlement of their nuclear programs. That they would be prepared to enter into a multilateral dialogue discussion of this issue with a view to resolving that problem so that we can go onto other issues.

What prevents them from going nuclear? If they don't want to talk except bilaterally and the United States refuses to talk, what prevents them?

If they're determined to go nuclear, they're going to go nuclear and then we have to deal with that problem.

So there's nothing that the United States can do at this point to stop them?

We think we have offered a dialogue. We have indicated that we'll play a very active role in that, that we're prepared to talk to them. Talk to them about how they can dismantle this program and, based on that, about how we can go on to the kind of bold approach that we'd talked about earlier.

If the United States can do nothing to stop North Korea, a country that possibly has a couple of nuclear warheads already and can develop five or six more by the end of the year, has missiles that can reach the United States, why isn't this a crisis?

Because we believe that this is a problem that can be solved. That we can find a way to enter into some kind of diplomatic process, hopefully on a multilateral basis that will allow us to stop the North Koreans before they take some of the fateful next steps. And hopefully create a basis, a framework in which the international community can go on and fix this North Korean nuclear problem on a permanent basis, on a permanent and verifiable basis.

We don't have a precise formula for that yet. But we do believe it is still possible. ...

Here's a question that Americans have. If we're willing to go to war in Iraq, why aren't we willing to go to war in North Korea? It's a bigger threat.

Well, these issues have been well answered by a whole variety of people. But, you know, we continue to believe that you can't just follow a cookie-cutter approach. We continue to believe that the North Korean problem is one that can be resolved through diplomacy. ...



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