kim's nuclear gamble
interview: charles kartmanHome
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A longtime expert on Northeast Asia, Ambassador Kartman is the Executive Director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the international organization created to help implement of the 1994 Agreed Framework. KEDO was charged with providing North Korea with alternative energy sources -- heavy fuel oil and modern, proliferation light water nuclear reactors -- in exchange for the country's freezing and eventually dismantling its graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities. Before taking over the leadership of KEDO in May, 2001, he served as the U.S. representative to the organization, and as Special Envoy for the Korean Peace Talks. He believes that today, the Bush administration is making a mistake by refusing to engage the North Koreans. "Not talking to the North Koreans seems to have a higher priority than getting rid of a North Korean nuclear weapons program," he says. "I can't understand that. It seems to me that getting rid of this nuclear weapons program should be one of our very highest priorities." This interview was conducted on Feb. 20, 2003.

What are the lessons learned from what came out of the '94 talks? What does it tell us about North Korea's intentions and goals that's useful today?

I would have a hard time prioritizing this. But first, I think that they were very interested, intensely interested, in a changed relationship with the United States. Now back in '94, and running all the way through the year 2000, which covers my experience with them, that was probably their paramount interest, to the exclusion of most other things. Secondly, they were aware that they had to deal with their economy. And then of course, what everyone is aware of, which is the survival of their regime.

Were these surprises to us?

Not talking to the North Koreans seems to have a higher priority [for the Bush administration] than getting rid of a North Korean nuclear weapons program.  I can't understand that.

Surprises? Perhaps not surprises, but more an education, a revelation. You know, we just didn't know what we were dealing with. And we started to assemble a picture of what they were all about, and what was important to them. Now, one of the things that perhaps has interfered with our understanding is that in '94 Kim Il Sung died. And of course, his son succeeded him. But his son went into a very extended period of mourning, in which there really was very little substantive interaction. We negotiated out certain things. We were able to accomplish a few things. But you didn't have a blossoming of a relationship during that period. It wasn't until '98 that things started to move ahead.

Was the Agreed Framework a good deal?

Well, what the Agreed Framework did was it arrested at a critical moment, a crisis that was emerging that, in the words of people who were very close to it, seemed to be leading us towards war. So, that in itself is worth consideration. Preventing the war on the Korean Peninsula is a very worthwhile goal, if it can be done. That is, in fact, the whole reason why we have kept American troops forward deployed there for so long, to serve as a credible trip-wire deterrent, so that any act of aggression by North Korea could be confidently expected to result in the full weight of an American military response. It's worked. All these years, it's worked. And so even at that considerable cost of keeping all those troops on the Korean Peninsula, at the cost of the daily irritations in the lives of the South Korean citizens, this is a deterrence that has worked, and has been worthwhile.

Now, getting back to '94, not only did the Agreed Framework arrest the drift towards war, but it also froze a North Korean nuclear weapons program, which not only was under way at Yongbyon, but had more reactors in various stages of construction.

At Yongbyon?

At Yongbyon and Taechon. Now all told, those reactors, which would have been completed in relatively short time, a couple of years, would have been producing enough plutonium for well, let's just say off hand, a dozen nuclear weapons per year. So you can add up the hypothetical inventory they would have had today, if this had not been frozen back in '94. This is a tremendous achievement.

But there was a sense that this Agreed Framework was a bad deal for the United States, that we were actually giving them nuclear technology. It made no sense.

Well, the first thing to keep in mind about the Agreed Framework is that by the time North Korea had operational light-water reactors, which is what KEDO is building, they would have had to have already fully satisfied the IAEA. That would be a prior condition. So, let's imagine now that in the next couple of years, North Korea worked out all of the ambiguities, questions, suspicions that may persist about their past, present and future activities, to the full satisfaction of the IAEA. That means the IAEA would have a very thorough understanding of everything that was going on in North Korea that was nuclear-related. There would be a degree of transparency that has never existed in that country. So, that would be a first prior condition before anything got transferred to North Korea.

Secondly, the light-water reactors themselves would be more proliferation-resistant than the reactors they already had in place. We're not talking about something coming in, and replacing zero, but rather something coming in, and replacing something that is much, much worse.

So, we're stepping them down is what you're saying?

Precisely. Thirdly, if the North Koreans chose to break out, which I think any responsible person would have to admit is a theoretical possibility, they would do so, and be faced with precisely the same situation that existed in '94. So, I don't myself quite see how anybody could argue that you're worse off. To me, you're far, far better off with the KEDO program.

Did North Korea keep to their end of the deal?

Absolutely. Yes. They shut down Yongbyon and the construction at Taechon, the new construction, new reactors.

But the Clinton administration was not forthcoming on the commitments that they had made and agreed for. Is it fair to say that the Clinton administration reneged on the Agreed Framework?

No. Not at all.

They made minimal moves on the economic front. They made minimal moves on the diplomatic front, but in the immediate period, for the first four years of the Agreed Framework, at least in the eyes of the North Koreans, it doesn't look like the United States is willing to keep their end of the deal.

Well, the North Korean take on this would be that the U.S. was obligated to immediately move into very broad sanctions lifting, back in '94. And in fact all the administration was able to do was very nominal sanctions lifting. But in reality, it was understood by both sides of the negotiation that sanctions-lifting -- and indeed the whole process of normalization -- was going to be connected to the ability to resolve issues of concern.

And the first of those issues, which was well understood to the North Koreans, the first of those issues was missiles, restraints on missiles. The North Korean inability, because of the period of mourning [following the death of Kim Il Sung] to seriously undertake a negotiation on missiles didn't make it easy for the Clinton administration to go out and do a big sanctions-lifting effort with the newly Republican Congress. They could have conceivably. But there's a little more to that story than just a failure of nerve at the last moment.

Some people have characterized it as a failure of political will to go up against political opponents. Once the crisis was calmed down, once the plant was shut down at Yongbyon, basically the Clinton administration, not willing to counter sentiment on the Hill, walked away from implementing this agreement.

It could have been done with difficulty and at political cost. Or the North Koreans could have done things to make it easier, so that it could have been done more easily, at less political cost. The North Koreans didn't do any of what they might have done. And the Clinton administration chose to let it sit there for the time being. Now, that decision to let it sit there created problems as the North Koreans started to scratch the agreement, and express their dissatisfaction with it. But there were other problems that came up, that had nothing to do with the Clinton administration's implementation. The submarine, the missile launch over Japan, these were North Korean decisions for unrelated reasons.

But you can say that we weren't doing a great job of building confidence.

I think that that's correct, that neither side was really ready to embark on that new relationship, was prepared for the hard decisions necessary to take 45 years of mistrust, and build something different.

There's been a lot of complaints about the delivery of the fuel oil.

While the North Koreans were waiting for electricity from light-water reactors, they were supposed to be getting this heavy fuel oil (HFO) to produce electricity. The HFO program was always administered in sort of a cranky way. People were never completely comfortable with it. Finally after the Perry process, the Congress decided to, in effect, get behind that, and support the HFO program. But up until that time, the combination of North Korean bad behavior and general dissatisfaction with the whole Agreed Framework made every appropriation just one of the rings of hell.

And you would have to go--

On hands and knees.

--to Congress?


Asking for the money?

Repeatedly. I can't really complain just because various officials were sent to the Hill to, you know, sweat blood over this process. It worked. We got the money. We delivered the HFO. Your original question was, "Weren't there problems with delivery?" Yes, there were. That is, we couldn't deliver the HFO on the ideal schedule. But we always delivered all of the HFO promised.

Did you hear complaints from the North Koreans though?

Oh, all the time. Yes.

Some believe that the resistance on Congress' part led to a lack of faith from the North Koreans that led them into other directions. Some would postulate that even led to the uranium enrichment program that starts up in, as best we know about, in '97.

Well, I don't think that I can point a finger at the Congress here. I think that the real problem is that the U.S. didn't fully comprehend the importance of normalization of relations to the North Koreans.

Why not?

I can't answer that. I don't know why not. It seems very clear to me in retrospect. But it's quite obvious that there was so much [attention] being spent on other aspects of the agreement that this part of it just got short shrift.

[In October, 2002, Assistant Secretary James Kelly visits Pyongyang, and during that visit, the North Koreans basically admit that they have begun a uranium enrichment program. In response, the U.S. decides] to cut off fuel oil. You immediately get a call after that October visit of Kelly. How did that go down? You're told to slow down your shipments, right?

I should say that the operative word was a suspension of heavy fuel oil shipments. They were not terminated. But meanwhile, construction continued on the light-water reactor. So I think that at that point, there still is every reason to pursue some sort of discussions directly with the North Koreans.

Are we going in that direction? Is this current administration pursuing talks? It doesn't look like it.

Well, there are repeated public statements to the effect that we are pursuing a diplomatic solution and that a direct dialogue will eventually play a role. Piecing all of that together in time to have an effect on North Korean actions seems to me to be the critical question, and I have no knowledge at all about what kind of very quiet contacts may have taken place. I'm hoping that there are some.

Where does this leave KEDO?

We are continuing to work at our site in Kumho. As you understand, KEDO was created to implement a part of the Agreed Framework. And the Agreed Framework is all about convincing the North Koreans, over time, that there is a better alternative for them than the pursuit of nuclear weapons. What the Clinton administration learned only with very great effort, and over a period of years, was that making that alternative route seem real to the North Koreans was going to take some maintenance. It was going to be a rather high intensity effort that ultimately came to involve even the secretary of state going to Pyongyang.

I think that [the Bush] administration has challenged intellectually some of those assumptions. We'll have to wait and see where they come out after this round has moved a little further.

Unpack that for me a little bit. They've intellectually challenged those assumptions?

Well, I think they believe that North Korea is weak, we're strong. We can tell them what to do.

Why is that not correct?

Well, North Korea is weak in many dimensions. But it's not weak in some of the dimensions that really count. They have a nuclear weapons program. They have long-range missiles. They have a million-man army. They can directly affect the lives of one of our closest allies in Asia. If something really bad happened on the Korean peninsula it would have economic ripple effects that would reach us too. It would have military effects that would touch us very directly because of the 37,000 people we have forward deployed there.

I believe that there is no downside to engaging with North Korea. That part of what this is all about is the reassurance that it's necessary for North Korea to believe that even if they give up their nuclear weapons program, they can be safe. Now I don't believe that a discussion that leads to that outcome with them should be characterized as appeasement. It should not be characterized as rewarding bad behavior or any of the other shoelace-tying exercises that people have been going through. A U.S.-DPRK dialogue -- even if it becomes negotiation -- I think it's necessary. I think it should have happened a couple of years ago.

Various people have said that to examine this administration's priorities, not talking to the North Koreans seems to have a higher priority than getting rid of a North Korean nuclear weapons program. I can't understand that. It seems to me that getting rid of this nuclear weapons program should be one of our very highest priorities.

[What was it like negotiating with the North Koreans?]

The backdrop is that Marshal Jo Myong Rok had come to Washington, and made a rather important proposal on missiles. But the key ingredient of it, according to the North Korean side, was that it would have to be concluded between President Clinton and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Il was still pretty much of an unknown to us. We had the report from Kim Dae Jung about him, but we didn't know him. And so we felt that there was an intermediate step that would be very important if we were going to do this in a serious way, and that would be for Secretary of State Albright to go to Pyongyang and see what was there. So she agreed to do this, and she and Ambassador Sherman and a large team went off to Pyongyang to take the missile negotiation a step further, but principally to take the measure of Kim Jong Il. And we spent about 12 hours, all told, with Kim Jong Il.

At one of those sessions, Secretary Albright was negotiating with him and he concluded -- obviously preplanned, but to us, appearing to be impromptu -- by inviting her to go with him to see something that would reveal something about North Korean culture to this group of American visitors.

He just says, "I want to take you and show you something?"

Exactly. "I want you to cancel whatever you were doing this evening and come with me to see this cultural performance." And without any further information about it, we proceeded to climb into this long motorcade that his limousine headed. And we went off to this stadium.

Now we pulled it up to the stadium and it was pitch dark. No cars in the lot, no people walking around, no sound. You could have heard a pin drop. We walked into the stadium, and just like any athletic stadium, walked in through the arch. And then all of a sudden, the lights all flashed on and this wall of sound from a quarter of a million North Koreans hit us all at once. And everybody was on their feet with their hands in the air and they were all screaming and shouting their hosannas to Kim Jong Il. We all were walking in with him and this hit us and it made me feel pretty grand, I can tell you.

Now, Secretary Albright has said she knows these socialist countries and how they do these things and she was able to discount it. But I don't know how much you discount and how much of it is actual North Korean pride at what they can put together in these mass games. It is, in fact, one of their achievements.

Did she turn to you and say, "I'm not that impressed?"

No, but she said it to the press that she takes all of this with a grain of salt. And I believe her. I take her at her word on that. But this show -- there were a quarter of a million or so in the stands and then there were another 100,000 or so out on the field doing things in synchronization. It was spectacular. Now if I was a North Korean, I would have been proud to show that. So I think some of this is genuine feeling. I don't think it's all just because they had to be there, had to shout.

When you first met Kim Jong Il, what did you think of him?

I was very privileged to be involved with all of our talks with North Korea: those that I conducted, those that the secretary conducted, those that the president conducted, Marshal Jo Myong Rok's talks and then Kim Jong Il's talks. Throughout all of these negotiations, at all of these levels, I found the North Korean side to be serious, well prepared. Not always easy to understand, but in Kim Jong Il's case, perhaps clearer than in lower levels.

This is a guy that's characterized by many people in America, by the press, by politicians, as a madman. George Bush calls him a pygmy.

Well, President Kim Dae Jung had reported that Kim Jong Il was a reasonable man whose rationality was well grounded, he was well connected to the world. Seemed to be well informed. And was able to negotiate seriously. We had no other way to evaluate him other than, you know, years of reporting about him as being different, and then this one report from President Kim that he was pretty reasonable.

So we went into it skeptical, to say the least. And he was exactly as President Kim had described him. That is, he's a reasonable man, who was fully engaged with us for that very extensive period that Secretary Albright was with him. She spent roughly six hours of intensive negotiation with this man and I never saw his attention wander. I never saw him lose the thread. I always found him to be completely on the point and with a lot of energy, and able to make decisions. So, you know, that doesn't disprove anything, it just says that our observation, if that's what you go on, was that this is a man you could do business with. He always seemed to be somebody who had a sense of humor, was personally attentive to the people that he was hosting.

Gracious, in other words.

I hate to use the word, lest I be criticized later, but yes, I would say he was gracious.



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