kim's nuclear gamble

The Debate Over How to Deal with North Korea

The past 10 years have been marked by a contentious debate between Democrats and Republicans over America's North Korea policy. When the Clinton administration held high-level talks and negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework with the North Koreans, Republicans called it appeasement. Now Democrats are criticizing President Bush's approach to the DPRK, maintaining that labelling North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and refusing to engage in direct talks serves no useful security purpose. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Richard Perle, Thomas Hubbard, Madeleine Albright, Robert Gallucci, Stephen Bosworth and William Perry, in which they discuss the two administrations' contrasting approaches, the current nuclear crisis, and the U.S. refusal to talk with the North unless Japan, South Korea and China are involved.

who are they?
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richard perle
Defense Policy Board

Did the Bush administration move the goal posts, effectively, from what were the goal posts established during the Clinton administration?

read the full interview

Well, I would hope that we would move the goal posts because we didn't like the playing field that was established during the Clinton administration. It was a playing field on which we were expected to pay the North Koreans not to do dangerous things, and that is not a sound basis for a policy.

When Bush won the presidency, talks [with North Korea] ceased immediately. The criticism that comes from the Clinton camp is that there was no continuity in policy.

I think the break in continuity had to do with the belief that the policy had been wrong, that when you pay blackmail, you're asking for further blackmail. As it turns out, even while the decisions were being made not to pursue that policy, the North Koreans were already secretly violating the [Agreed Framework]. I honestly don't see how, looking back, the architects of that agreement can hold the Bush administration culpable for behavior that, in retrospect, should make us reconsider whether the original Framework Agreement was a sensible idea.

I think what they would say is that talks should not have been cut off, that open dialogue should have continued.

That there should have been more blackmail. They wouldn't characterize it in that way, of course, but that is, in fact, what it was and what it remains. It is the policy of the government of North Korea, in my judgment, to use its capacity to do harm to elicit support from those who might be harmed by actions they would agree not to take. That's blackmail, and it's going to continue. The shape of it, the timing of it, the form of it will change, but the basic structure of the relationship, implied in the Framework Agreement, is a relationship between a blackmailer and one who pays a blackmailer.

The criticism of the Bush administration would be that it, in all of this tough talk and rebuffing the Sunshine Policy, that they have failed to get to the negotiating table and that things have only gotten worse.

Ed Note: The "Sunshine Policy" is the policy endorsed by South Korea advocating diplomatic and economic engagement with North Korea.

Well, I don't agree with that, obviously. The Sunshine Policy, we now know, involves a lot less sunshine, a lot less light than heat -- massive payments, as I understand it -- in order to stage meetings that have political ramifications within South Korea, without any significant movement by the North Koreans in any direction that's any way helpful. So the Sunshine Policy has simply not succeeded. It's a failure.

But talking tough has resulted in them starting up the plant at Yongbyon again.

No, I think that's a kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc argument. It is true they have started up, or attempting to start up, the reactor at Yongbyon, but to attribute that to the statements and the policies of this administration, rather than a North Korean effort to apply blackmailer's pressure, I think is quite wrong. I think this is another step in the continuing process of threatening to do menacing things in order to elicit payment.

How did 9/11 change our foreign policy towards North Korea?

I think 9/11 changed American thinking about a great many issues, not simply how to deal with North Korea, and I think the essence of that change was the realization that it is possible to wait too long before coming to grips with a threat, a serious threat.

We waited too long to deal with bin Laden in Afghanistan. Everything we did after Sept. 11 could have been done before Sept. 11, in a practical, military sense, with one important difference: Had we acted before Sept. 11, we would have saved many American lives. We simply waited too long to recognize the magnitude of the threat and to take action against it.

Are you saying we should go to war against North Korea now?

No, but I'm saying we should not be dilatory in dealing with threats that are so clearly emerging and that we ultimately are going to have to find a way to deal with.

But if we're not talking to them, nothing's happening and they're building bombs, so what should we be doing?

Well, what I think we should be doing, and this, like I everything else I say to you, is my personal view, is I think we should be putting it to those countries who are in a position to bring great influence to bear on North Korea, the Chinese especially. Our proposition to the Chinese should be: We think the world will be a lot better off if the North Koreans choose not to proceed down this path, but we are determined not to allow them to proceed down this path, and we would like your help in resolving this peacefully. Because the alternative to resolving it peacefully is to resolve it as the Israelis dealt with a similar emerging threat in 1981, when they found it necessary to destroy the reactor that was going to produce the nuclear material that presented an existential threat to them.

But the situation is quite different here, in that a strike on Yongbyon is likely to produce another Korean War, with hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, people dead.

Well, we don't know whether it would produce another Korean War.

But that's a risk.

Of course, it's a risk. There's a risk in everything we do. There's a risk in doing nothing. There's a risk in continuing to pay blackmail to the North Koreans. I believe that we should be in a position to impress upon the Chinese their interest in a peaceful solution to this.

The Chinese have said that would cause them to resort to force. They've said U.N. sanctions would cause them to resort to force.

What's at issue here is whether we will be intimidated by threats from the North Koreans or whether we will examine a range of policies, all of which entail some risk that North Korea might use force.

Can the North Korean regime be stopped from building nuclear weapons?

There's no question there are a variety of ways in which the North Korean regime could be stopped. It could be stopped by enough pressure from countries surrounding it, with or without a blockade, to prevent nuclear weapons from leaving the country and winding up, possibly, in the hands of terrorists. It could be prevented by a precision strike against the facilities that are producing these weapons. There are a variety of ways in which they could be stopped.

What would be the consequences of a strike on Yongbyon, do you think?

Well, I think it's very difficult to answer that.

But it's a question we have to ask before we do it.

It would depend, importantly, on the circumstances surrounding it, on whose support we had gathered and whose we had not gathered, on how military forces were arrayed at the time. There's so many issues involved that it's simply not possible to say. And let me be clear, I have not come to the conclusion that we should take military action against North Korea.

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madeline albright
U.S. Secretary of State (1996-2000)

The hawks, people like Richard Perle, will say you cannot negotiate. You shouldn't talk to people like Kim Jong Il. You can't negotiate with them, that, essentially, it's appeasement.

read the full interview

I completely disagree because I believe that it is essential to see whether there's a way to have some agreements. We talked to Stalin, we talked to Mao, we talked to Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. We made agreements. I don't consider talking appeasement. It depends on what it is you agree to, but I think it is very much worth having conversations and delivering a very tough message. ...

Why is there so much antipathy towards the Clinton administration? Why were you guys so reviled by the incoming administration?

I honestly don't know. I think that campaigns are always bad and hard. I think some of it had to do with the fact that President Clinton defeated President Bush's father and that that's one part, more personal.

Some of it is ideological. I think that we had a different view of what the 21st century could be like, with much more of a sense, from our perspective, of trying to have an interdependent world, looking at solving regional conflicts, having strength in alliances, operating within some kind of a sense that we were part of the international community and not outside of it. And I just think that basically many of them, saw the world quite differently.

And the other part is that, because they did not take seriously what we had done in eight years -- and those were a very significant eight years -- to a great extent, they have gone back to thinking the way that they thought in '92-'93.

And that means?

Well, just a much more zero-sum view of the world. ...

Where do things stand today?

Well, I think it's very, very dangerous because we don't know at what stage the Yongbyon fuel rods will actually be reprocessed. There are all kinds of rumors about that. There are rumors about a number of other things that are potentially out there, and I am not sure at how sophisticated a brinksman Kim Jong Il is.

And there's clearly an impact in terms of how the war in Iraq is going, will go, what the spillover and the message from that is, both negative, in terms of Kim Jong Il may be thinking, "If they're doing this to a country that doesn't have nuclear weapons, what are they going to do to a country that does?" And one doesn't know, basically, what the spillover effect is, but at the moment, I think things look pretty bad.

And we're not talking to them.

As far as I know, we're not talking to them, because what we are insisting on is that the regional powers get more involved. Now, this is a tough issue because there's no question that the Chinese should be interested in whether there's a nuclear Korean peninsula, and I know that one of the things the administration wants to do is to get the Chinese to take more responsibility for this. It is also true that, since the issue is being studied by the Security Council, there has to be some interest by a wider community about the fact that a country has left the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] and is developing nuclear weapons.

I think that there are a variety of ways to go about this. I think one very good one, suggested by Bob Einhorn, who was one of my assistant secretaries, and that what should happen is that the North Koreans should freeze whatever they're doing, and we should freeze whatever military buildup and various things we're doing in the area in order to negotiate something new, which would be beyond the Agreed Framework. That has been kind of dubbed "more for more," that there would be a wider approach to what would be part of some kind of an agreement.

The Bush administration is saying we shouldn't have to give them anything. They're violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, they're in defiance of the world. They should be held to task; that appeasement leads to more aggressive behavior.

Well, It depends on if you decide that direct talks are appeasement.

Well, if you hand them concessions, that would--

It's not a concession. ... I think that I would not give concessions. There's no reason to. What you do is that you have various quid pro quos in any agreement, but if you decide up front that just having the direct talks is a concession, you're pretty much stuck. That's the problem.

But a quid pro quo presumes concessions.

A concession, at least to me, is if one side concedes and the other doesn't. I mean, I think that there are ways that there are things we want, and there are things that they want.

When Vice Marshal Jo came to Washington before I went to Pyongyang, we signed a communique in which we agreed that there was no hostile intent between our two countries. They wanted that reiterated. As far as I know, we have no hostile intent towards North Korea. Why would it have been such a big deal just to reiterate that? It's things like that where this administration has kind of dug its heels in and said anything that we did vis-a-vis North Korea is appeasement. Once you define it that way, it's very hard to unpaint yourself, and I think that's where we are now.

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Thomas hubbard
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (2001-present)

[Has the Bush administration been willing to pursue negotiations with North Korea?]

read the full interview

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. He indicated the themes we would like to talk about. But he also said we're prepared to have a dialogue. Let's sit down and talk together. We don't have to have an agenda in advance. Let's have an ice breaking session, unconditionally.

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.

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. By June we had a policy announcement which made clear that we were prepared for a dialogue. It did enumerate a broader agenda than, 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.

But there is a debate going on within the current administration between career folks like yourself and ideologues who choose to take a much tougher line on Kim Jong Il.

I wouldn't portray the discussions in Washington exactly in that light. There's always discussion. There's always debate. There was debate in the Clinton administration as well. One of the lines of debate in pursuing Korean policy is whether our focus should be on nonproliferation or whether our focus should be on regional stability. These are two different ways of looking at the North Korean problem.

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.

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. ...

I believe the [Agreed Framework] 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 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.

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.

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." That's a pretty apt phrase. I think it is a phrase that fits the situation in North Korea.

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william perry
U.S. Sec'y of Defense (1994-1997); U.S. Special Envoy to North Korea (1999)

read the full interview

I must say that I thought the review [of North Korean policy by the incoming Bush administration] was not an unreasonable thing for a new administration to want to do. I thought it would be done quickly. Then, I thought, they would have to go through the same logic that we went through, and I thought they would probably end up with the same conclusion. Well, it was not done quickly. It dragged on for about a year and a half. It did finally end up with somewhat the same conclusion, namely that it would be have to be some sort of dialogue with some sort of engagement.

But it was on paper. But in practice, the administration was going in the exact opposite direction.

That's right. Whatever the review turned out to be, whatever thought there was that they might reengage the North, turned out to be academic because, in the meantime, the President himself was referring to the North basically as one of the one of the three countries in the axis of evil. And whole sets of disparaging remarks were made about the North.

Were you surprised by the administration's language and approach?

I was surprised. I'm not surprised some people in the administration thought that. I'm surprised they'd take that policy approach to North Korea. I thought it was counterproductive.

Why? Why not show that you're tough, that you're not going to be the appeasers that the Clinton administration was? They say, "Look, you know, we had to make an impression on the North that the jig was up, that we were gonna be tough, that they weren't gonna be able to blackmail us anymore."

Yes, I've heard that language. As I mentioned before, I had already gone through, as thoughtfully as I know how, what the alternatives were. And I'd thought very seriously about the "Let's talk tough, and let's act tough" alternative. Let's put pressure on North Korea. Had I believed that that policy could get anywhere, I might have been more sympathetic towards it. My reaction now is the same as my reaction at the time we did the study, which is that talking tough and acting tough and putting pressure on North Korea is not an effective policy. It may be therapeutic for us to to talk that way, but does not accomplish our objectives, and does not enhance our security. Indeed, as it's turning out, I think it's putting it in some danger.

I have recommended to the administration, and continue to recommend to the administration, that they begin a dialogue with the North Koreans. I'm not opposed to bringing other nations into the dialogue. But I think the fundamental issue is a bilateral dialogue between United States and North Korea where, on the one hand, we're looking at the North Korea nuclear weapon program, and on the other hand, we're looking at a possibility of American security assurance. To the extent the North Koreans are being honest where they say the security assurance is the major issue that's propelling them forward, that's an assurance which no one can broker for us. It's one we have to do ourselves if we're willing to do it. That's what we have to be considering. That's going to take a dialogue.

Now I want to also be clear: I think it's quite possible that the North Koreans have already decided that they're going to become a declared nuclear state and that no amount of dialogue will stop them from that. I think that's entirely possible. But I'm not sure that's right. And therefore, I think the most urgent thing we have to do is put that to a test. And the way only way we can put it to a test is to undertake a dialogue with them to find out if they're open to reasonable offers to stop to stop that nuclear program in a verifiable way.

Let's say that you've got a few minutes with the president of the United States, and you're in a Cabinet meeting. What are the lessons of history and where would you counsel we go?

The best lesson of history, [from 1994], is coercive diplomacy, which means diplomacy backed with a credible threat of military force. But we cannot have a credible threat of military force by ourselves. It requires at minimum, a strong agreement and cooperation from our ally the Republic of Korea. And we also require some support from Japan for that. So, it requires the three allies, the United States, Republic of Korea, and Japan, to be agreed on what the what the threat is, what the danger is, and to be agreed on the strategy, a course of diplomacy for dealing with it. That's what we that's what we were able to achieve in '94. It was successful in '94.

They are pursuing that. I mean, that's why Colin Powell was here, to try to talk to the new president of South Korea, to try to get some kind of common agreement.

Yes. I applaud Colin Powell for coming, applaud him for trying to achieve that agreement. I think we are quite far from that agreement right now. I hope that we are able to achieve it in the near future.

The world is running out of time.

The world is running out of time. We have, I think, months -- not years -- to resolve this problem before it reaches as point of no return, in terms of North Korea becoming a major nuclear power.

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Stephen Bosworth
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (1997-2000)

Sometimes great powers, even the United States, have to make choices that are not palatable. We cannot ignore [the North Koreans], 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.

read the full interview

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, 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 through South Korean eyes, their president was disrespected, as one might say.

[U.S.] 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.

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. ...

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robert gallucci
Chief U.S. Negotiator with North Korea during the nuclear crisis of 1993-1994

What's the lesson that should be learned from what happened in 1994 for the folks that are trying to handle the crisis now?

read the full interview

I think the North Koreans are truly concerned about their security. I think they worry about what we will do. I think they're worried about the survival of their regime, independent of what we would do, because they know that they are in deep trouble, in terms of their economy.

We have to face a fact about lessons here. We did a deal with North Korea called the Agreed Framework, and it stopped the plutonium program. If we hadn't done the deal, North Korea would have, without question, more than 100 nuclear weapons.

Did they cheat on it? Absolutely. They cheated on it. And that's a lesson, too. They will cheat. They cheated by having a secret uranium enrichment program because they're still not confident their security will be guaranteed. Now, it may be that they're unalterably committed to acquiring nuclear weapons, in which case, we gotta deal with that fact, if it is indeed a fact.

I think you have to assume that they're committed to nuclear weapons. And you have to do deals that make sense, even if that's true. There's no trust here. It's not just a line, "trust but verify." It's "No, you don't trust, and you get as much verification [as possible.]" Those who criticize the deal because they cheated on it, I think are not understanding the nature of international politics. We have done deals with people who we expected might well cheat. And indeed, the Soviet Union cheated on all kinds of deals, massively in the biological weapons convention. You look at the deal and say, "Okay. What can you monitor? What can you watch? What can you verify?" And if they cheat, will you catch them? And if you don't catch them, are you still better off with the deal, than without it?"

The question for this administration is, what do you do now? Do you say, "Wait a minute. They're a rogue regime. You can't talk to them." I wouldn't think that would be the best answer.

That's what they're saying, aren't they?

The administration's position is a bit nuanced. It is: Within a multilateral context, we'll talk. Because within a multilateral context, it will not be the North Koreans extracting concessions from Washington, blackmailing us. We will not be guilty of appeasement. We will bring the whole international community's concerns about North Korea to bear. And the North Koreans will, in a sense, cave to this international pressure. And if it worked, I'd have no problem with it. There's nothing wrong with the rhetoric. The problem is, it hasn't.

Day after day, the North Koreans turn up the heat another notch. [Kicking out the IAEA] inspectors, then restarting the five-megawatt reactor. Then some movement about spent fuel. Then the action against the aircraft. Every day, it's something else to tell us they are not gonna wait while we go to war in Iraq, and then focus our attentions on them. So, I think the lesson from '94 is that you can talk to the North Koreans. It is not that you can trust the North Koreans. It is that you can talk to them. And you can get certain benefits out of a negotiation.

If you ask the next question: Would I provide benefits in order to get performance? The answer is, absolutely yes. This is not a morality play for me. This is international politics, and the national security of my country and our allies. If you strike a standard [that says] "We don't talk to these rogue regimes," and feel good about that, people may die because you failed to deal with this in an effective way, in a diplomatic way. It is not a concession, in my view, to the North Koreans to pay for performance on their part. You can call it a concession. You can call it appeasement. It is dealing with the problem as it is. It is preferable to me than the use of force.



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