kim's nuclear gamble
interview: lim dong wonHome
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A former intelligence chief for South Korea, Lim Dong Won was also adviser to the former President Kim Dae Jung, and chief negotiator with North Korea. He was the architect of South Korea's "Sunshine Policy," which calls for engaging with North Korea rather than isolating it, in hopes of reunifying the Korean Peninsula. Despite the Bush administration's rejection of this approach to North Korea, he tells FRONTLINE that he remains optimistic. The only alternative to engagement, he believes, is war. This interview was conducted on March 1, 2003.

How did you come to conclude that engagement [with North Korea] was the way to work?

Kim Jong Il, since the end of the Cold War, he has been isolated. North Korea's economy has been very difficult situation, because isolated from former socialistic market. So North Korea has to change its way. Kim Jong Il is changing his strategy from offensive strategy to survival strategy. So we have to seize this moment to encourage North Korea to open up and transform into market economy. We want to induce change in the North. That is the way to make peace on the Korean Peninsula.

There's evidence that the North Koreans were developing a highly enriched uranium project in spite of having been signatories to the Agreed Framework.

If  military actions  are taken, then it will automatically escalate into total war on the peninsula.

Well, yes. But only for 1 1/2 years, according to a CIA report. That happened [at the] end of the year 2001.

When did you first hear that they were purchasing equipment from Pakistan?

It was August of last year.

During the 1990s, you never heard intelligence reports that--

No, no. We only knew that they are pushing for technology for the enrichment of uranium.

But didn't that give you reason to lose faith or to distrust them?

No, no. So we were very careful, you know, to follow up that intelligence report. But at that time, we had only information about the pursuing technology -- not acquiring any materials.

They were acquiring the technology in order to take uranium and enrich it. This didn't make you distrust Kim Jong Il?

In North Korea, there are quite a lot of natural uranium mines. So they might try to pursue technological enrichment of uranium. We could guess that over the past several years. But that is different than acquiring equipment or materials or facilities. So we were just carefully watching any development at the time.

The Bush administration today takes a very hard line. They say that Kim Jong Il cannot be trusted, because he signed the Agreed Framework, and he proceeded to purchase equipment to enrich uranium in violation of the Agreed Framework. What do you say to them?

The Agreed Framework, [addresses] only the plutonium reprocessing. They didn't say anything about uranium. Of course, in the preamble, they said, "Non-nuclear proliferation."

It wasn't in the letter of the agreement. But the spirit of the agreement was that they were to hold to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

That's right. Yes. But--

And they didn't. They broke it.

Nobody trusted North Korea at the beginning. We didn't trust them, too. But we had to try. We have to try to let them give up that nuclear program or any endeavor for carrying nuclear things or weapons of mass destruction. We have to do that, although we don't trust them. If you say, "We don't trust Kim Jong Il," what can we do? Just a military strike? No, it doesn't work. We have to talk with them and persuade them to change their goals or intentions, and not to have that kind of things.

But if they cheat, what are your options?

We have to try to understand why North Korea is trying to get that kind of things.

Why are they trying to get these things?

It has been said by many specialists that they are trying to get nuclear things for deterrence, as well as a negotiation tool.

That's a major question. You've met Kim Jong Il?

Oh, yes.

You have a sense of whether or not he's acquiring nuclear weapons to assure his security? Or he is acquiring nuclear technology and weapons in order to bargain with them? Which is it? What is he telling you?

Well, he just denies. They are not trying to have nuclear weapons.

Do you think that the North Koreans held their end of the Agreed Framework? Do you think that the North Koreans kept their side of the deal?

So far. So far under the Clinton administration, both the U.S. and South Korea agreed that North Korea has honored that Agreed Framework.

But you don't think they cheated? You don't feel that they cheated [with the uranium enrichment program]?

Every country [tries] to have technology for research and development purposes, you know? But if they don't have facilities and they don't produce, then it is not violating the intention of agreement.

So he was acquiring technology that could be used for peaceful nuclear power production -- is what you're is what you're saying? That there was no suspicion that that the things that he was shopping for with Pakistanis and other places was to be used for any other purposes but peaceful?

I don't know why they pursued technology. Of course, the question remains.

And you weren't suspicious?

I just told you -- that that's why we are carefully watching.

Most of your meetings with Kim Jong Il were-- when?

I met him in June, right before the inter-Korean summit meeting, 2000, June.

What kind of man was he?

He's very clever, and he has been experienced quite a lot. He was working for the Party right after the graduation of university. So he has been engaged in state issues for more than 30 years, and he knows quite a lot -- not only domestic issues, but also issues in the South Korea, too.

Was there anything odd about him or strange?

Of course, he's a dictator. He decides everything by himself. This is a very dangerous thing, of course.

Does anything jump out in your memory that was particularly revealing of his character?

He has a sense of humor. He has a very interesting personality. He's a wine drinker.

Cognac, I hear.

No, no. He kicked cognac. That's what he told me.

He told you that he quit drinking cognac?

Yes. Now just prefer to drink wines only, for his health. That's what he said.

Did you talk to him about the dire situation in the countryside? The starvation? The fact that he spends so much money on the military, and perpetuates these sort of problems in the country?

I didn't touch much of that kind of things.

Your feeling is that that the alternative to engagement would be war? And so "Sunshine Policy" is to explore the possibility of having some kind of engagement that opens up the North?

Reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea, and then opening up North Korea and transforming its economy into the market economy, so that we can build inter-Korean economic community, so that we can also expect arms control in the meanwhile.

What was the impact of the election of George Bush on the Sunshine Policy?

The Bush administration's view on North Korea was so based on hard-line position, as you know. They just distrust North Korea. After the 9/11, they connect North Korea as a member of the axis of evil and target of preemption. So, of course, North Korea was not happy to hear that. That's why U.S.-North Korea relations has been broken up over the past 2 1/2 years. Also that affected inter-Korean relations, too; since the inauguration of Bush administration, inter-Korean dialogue has been stopped.

President Bush came to Seoul, and met with President Kim Dae Jung. What Kim Dae Jung tell him?

The peculiarity of the Korean Peninsula's situation: If military actions are taken, then it will automatically escalate into total war on the Peninsula. This is the peculiarity of the Korea situation.

Then what did President Bush say?

He understood. and he said that he has no intention of invading North Korea. That means, he has no intention of any military action against North Korea, which was very important statement made by him. And second, every issue should be resolved through dialogue.

What happened when President Kim came to the United States to meet with President Bush? It was a disaster.

It was. It was. It was a real unfortunate thing. But with regard to that, I'd like to mention one point. Before President Kim Dae Jung's visit to Washington, my foreign minister went to Washington to prepare for this summit meeting. During that consultation with the Department of State and Secretary Powell, they assured us that new administration's North Korea's policy will continue where the Clinton administration took off.

He assured you that the policies of the Clinton administration would continue into the Bush administration?

Yes. Yes. So, we are very happy to hear that. Then President Kim came to Washington, D.C. I think, at that, time Bush administration has decided that the U.S., Bush, will not continue to talk with North Korea, and they are going to review North Korea policy in detail.

So what did President Kim say to President Bush at that point?

My president was trying to push for [an] engagement policy. But I think it wasn't accepted by President Bush at that time. That's why you said that it's a disaster, or as I said, unfortunate.

Was he angry? He'd been assured, in the one hand, by one half of the administration that there was going to be a continuation. And he learns from the president that, in fact, that's not true.

He was, of course, disappointed at that time. Yes. When he returned from Washington, D.C., North Korea immediately announced that [there would be] no dialogue with South Korean government.

So everything fell apart?

Yes. Everything fell apart.

Right now, how would you rate the relations between the United States and North Korea? Has it ever been worse?

The worst, I think, since the end of the Cold War, since 1990. But I think we can overcome. There is no way but to have direct talks between North Korea and the U.S.. Otherwise, war.

Bilateral talks?

Yes. Bilateral talks.

The Bush administration says they won't do it. You think that they will come around to change their view, and accept the bilateral talks?

Yes. What North Korea wants is the assurance of security by the U.S. They are not happy to hear preemption, axis of evil, etc. What North Korea wants is the normalization of relations with the U.S., so that they can improve their economy and survive. If these conditions are accepted by the U.S., then North Korea says they are willing to give up all the security concerns raised by the U.S. That's what they said.

In other words, they'll give up their nuclear program?


And you do you trust them?

We have to try it.

But they're starting up the Yongbyon plant.

This is because the U.S. has stopped providing heavy fuel oil to the North. That's why they did it.

But the Bush administration says that plant is a five-megawatt nuclear reactor, that it can't produce much electricity. So this has nothing to do with electricity. This is an attempt to build nuclear weapons.

Maybe so. Maybe so. But it also can produce electricity.

I spoke to a defector, who had, unfortunately, harsh words for you. He felt that anybody who even gives them the benefit of the doubt, anybody who thinks that the North Koreans aren't dead set on getting nuclear weapons is foolish. They can make any deal they want, but they are determined to get nuclear weapons.

Maybe he can think so.

That's what a lot of people in the Bush administration seem to believe, that your President Kim Dae Jung and the Clinton administration were basically fooled by Kim Jung Il.

I don't agree with that view.

That has a lot of weight, because you're an experienced military man, and an experienced intelligence man. You've seen the intelligence reports. You've had access to that information. So what you're saying is that the intelligence is not so clear?

There are a lot of intelligence reports. Some of them is worst-case scenario report. You know? That could be right, or sometimes, that could be wrong.

Such as Kumchangri?

Kumchangri is a good example. So we have to very careful to [evaluate] intelligence reports. We need the hard evidence.

Do you think that Kim Jung Il is building nuclear weapons?

He may be trying to have a nuclear weapons.

It's not clear to you that he is?

Since we don't have any hard evidence he has nuclear bomb or not, yet -- he might have intention to build nuclear bomb. We are not sure whether they have them already or not.

Do you believe the Bush administration is driving him to acquire nuclear weapons, because that's his only choice?

I don't have any answer for that question.

Some people believe that isolation will create a situation in North Korea where they have no choice but to arm themselves with nuclear weapons.

Could be.

That would seem to be sort of at one of the rationales for the Sunshine Policy. The Sunshine Policy says, "If we isolate them, they will be more dangerous. If we engage them, they will be less dangerous."

Yes. That's right.

Given the United States being so far away right now from the Sunshine Policy, having taken another tack, what are the prospects for its success under President Roh?

I think many Korean people, more than 70 percent, maybe 80 percent South Korean people are supportive for that policy and that kind of approach to avoid a recurrence of war on the Peninsula. If we want to avoid the war, there is no way but engagement policy.

But the Bush administration's opposition to the Sunshine Policy makes it very difficult for President Roh to succeed. What are the prospects for his success?

Since he has strong support from the Korean people, I think he can succeed. I think he can have a consultation with the Bush administration, and they can cooperate in the future.

Will it be necessary then for the government of South Korea to distance itself from its alliance with the United States?

No, I don't think so. Yes. We need strong alliance with U.S. We are for U.S.-Korea alliance for the security of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the security and stability of the Northeast Asia region. That's why most of the people are supportive for American troops stationing on the Korean Peninsula, including myself. But the difference of the view towards North Korea or difference in the North Korea policy can be adjusted.

But U.S.-South Korea relations are very strained right now.

I don't think so.


Yes. I don't think so.

Bush did not like President Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy. Why is he going to like the Peace and Prosperity Policy of President Roh [which is basically the same policy with a different name]?

We have to wait and see what happens from now on.

What do you think will happen?

I'm cautiously optimistic about the U.S.-South Korea relations in the future. I don't think it's going in the wrong direction.

Are U.S.-North Korean relations going in the right direction? They're going in the wrong direction.

After some ups and downs, I think both can find the way to improve relations in the future.

You are an optimist.

Yes. I'm rather optimistic.

I'm struggling to find out what there is to be optimistic about. The North Koreans have just fired a missile test on the eve of the inauguration of the new South Korean president. They started up the plant at Yongbyon. What is there to be optimistic about?

As I told you already, North Korea said that they are willing to give up any nuclear plant when they can have normalization of relations with the U.S. So I think that can be negotiated. Otherwise, we may face disastrous results.



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