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The Korean Nuclear Crisis: Finding a Solution

Jack Pritchard recently returned from a trip to North Korea with an unofficial American delegation that toured the country’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. The delegation confirmed that 8,000 spent fuel rods stored at one of the facilities as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework had been removed. The North Koreans claim these rods were reprocessed to extract plutonium, but the delegation was unable to verify that assertion. The delegation was also shown what appeared to be plutonium metal. Pritchard spoke with the Center for American Progress about future prospects for the resolution of the nuclear crisis. He served as senior director for Asia on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, and was, until recently, President George W. Bush’s special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.c=

1. What is your impression after touring the facility and talking with North Korean officials?

I spent nine hours with [vice foreign minister] Kim Gye Gwan talking about the six-party process. There is a good deal of frustration among the North Koreans about the inability to have a serious discussion with the United States. The North Koreans, in my mind, are still at a point in which they are prepared to resolve the process in a diplomatic way, meaning that they go to a completely non-nuclear Korean Peninsula… While the North Koreans are not satisfied with the six-party process, they are prepared… to have a serious discussion, within the context of multilateral discussions, but directly with the United States, to resolve these outstanding issues… [Look at] Libya and [the] talk [in the State of the Union] about nine months of negotiations with the British and the United States: I think the North Koreans would be satisfied with nine minutes of serious discussion.

The North Koreans… cited an example in which they tried to communicate with the United States through what is called the New York channel… We would exchange messages – we didn’t do any negotiation – but, nonetheless, it was an open channel of communication. [The] North Koreans now are sending or trying to send messages to the United States for which there is no return communication. They cited as an example [a situation] in which the United States had some questions that they wanted the North Koreans to answer. They were substantive questions… on the six-party talks… but the United States sent the questions to China to be delivered to the North Koreans. The North Koreans were livid… There is an opportunity to simply deliver such messages directly through the New York channel, so they are unhappy at what they see as an amateur approach.

2. Is it a policy or ideologically driven assumption that we cannot have direct bilateral discussions with North Korea? And does the administration assume that, by using China, we don’t have to?

It is first and foremost an ideology that started with [a] basic mantra: We will not reward bad behavior… From the very beginning in 2001, direct senior level discussions were deemed a reward and therefore prohibited. An example: I was brought in specifically to be the negotiator with the North Koreans. My predecessor, Ambassador Chuck Kartman, was special envoy for the Korean Peace Talks. That [title] was changed – the term peace talks was [deemed] unacceptable – and so they changed it to [special envoy for] negotiations with North Korea.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding in this administration [about] the role the Chinese will be willing to play absent a significant role by the U.S… The idea is that if all of this fails, [the Chinese], because of their overlapping interest… will on their own exert pressure to bring the North Koreans in line… The Chinese won’t do it… they are willing to do their part in this, want to see it resolved, but are not going to be the ones to cause instability on their border and disrupt northeast Asia when we won’t talk to the North Koreans directly.

3. What did the Axis of Evil reference accomplish, if anything?

The Axis of Evil caused… a huge furor worldwide, particularly in East Asia. It did nothing to enhance the opportunity to resolve things peacefully. The North Koreans are masters at latching on to derogatory comments and then throwing them back in your face time and time again. In fact, in this case, they were very offended by it, but they have begun to use it tactically in terms of justifying things they do, or [as an example of] the insincerity of the United States… The other nations – Japan, China, South Korea… were aghast at this uncoordinated comment.

4. Is it your opinion that North Korea restarted its nuclear activities as a direct result of the Bush administration’s threatening posture or was it something they would have done anyway to get more international leverage?

While the North Koreans have said that they entered into the HEU program (what we believe they said in October 2002), because of the threatening and hostile policies of the Bush administration, [that], chronologically, is nonsense… [I]t was after October 2002, in which we believed we heard an admission of their HEU program, [that] the United States, leading the KEDO board, suspended heavy fuel oil shipments beginning in December to North Korea. [These shipments were] part of the Agreed Framework – 500,000 metric tons of delivery each year in exchange for the shutdown of the facilities in Yongbyon. So, when we announced on the 14th of November 2002 that we were no longer going to supply heavy fuel oil, the North Korean response was, well, if you are breaking the Agreed Framework that obligates us to freeze our facilities, [then] we are going to restart those facilities that were frozen as a direct result of the 1994 Agreed Framework. It was in that sequence of events that the North Koreans rationalized restarting their facilities, not simply as a response to what they perceived as an overall threatening posture of the Bush administration.

5. Do we know that they have an HEU program?

The entire intelligence community, for a change, believed [this assertion] to be valid. So it was the intelligence that they had HEU which should be seen as driving U.S. policy, not the admission [that we think the North Koreans gave in October 2002]. It wouldn’t have mattered if they admitted or not. Ultimately, the North Koreans have backed off and said, no, we never admitted to it, we said something else. In this particular trip they flatly denied any HEU program.

6. Do we now, for all intents and purposes, treat North Korea as a member of the nuclear club? What does that do to our calculations? What does that do to regional calculations?

I believe that we ought not to treat them as a member of the nuclear club. There is still in my mind a window of opportunity to negotiate this away, including whatever they have done with the plutonium. Whether they have made it into metal and are prepared to make it into bombs to add to… their arsenal of what we believe to be one or two bombs or whether in fact they have made six additional bombs… quadrupling the number they may have originally had – that can be undone, and because it still has the possibility for resolution, we ought not to treat it as if it were a de facto final new status in northeast Asia.

The problem with the region is that all of the players – Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan are very skeptical about the HEU and also very skeptical about the North Koreans’ nuclear program, some of them believing that the North Koreans don’t have the capacity to do it. They are coming around to the point where they believe that [the North Koreans] can reprocess and may have some plutonium, but they are downplaying this in hopes of a resolution. For example, the Chinese do not want to officially and above board declare that North Korea is a nuclear power. For them, that has the potential of setting off, whether [in the] near-term or longer-term, a chain [arms race] reaction that begins with Japan… that brings in the question of Taiwan, and it snowballs from there.

7. You have a somewhat hopeful perspective that resolution is still very possible. What do the North Koreans ultimately want?

First and foremost, they want a dialogue. They have in fact changed their goals. Up until recently, their goal was to establish a more normal, possibly positive, relationship. They have now changed that to simply asking for a non-hostile, non-interfering relationship… [That is] significantly different, but, nonetheless, acceptable, both to them… and, ultimately, to us. I am optimistic that there is still a window of opportunity. I am not optimistic that the [administration] can take advantage of that unless they fundamentally change their approach to how they do diplomacy, and take advantage of the next six-party talks [later this month]. In my opinion, the failure of the next round may very well close that window of opportunity.

8. What is the minimum necessary to change the current dynamic and take this to a next level? Also, what is your vision of the shape of ultimate success?

The first one is simple: A level of serious discussion that is relatively sustained. [The Bush administration could] open a secret, non-public discussion, with credible people involved, that tries to lay the groundwork for something that could be acceptable as a solution. [This could then] be touted by the administration as a breakthrough that gives them the opportunity to go into a serious parallel, bilateral public discussion with the North Koreans within the six-party framework.

In terms of what the outcome is or where this is going… we [should] go back and look at the policy options that would develop under a bold approach… [and] spell those out to the North Koreans, say, here’s what the U.S. views as the long-term relationship… It is not a relationship in which we give them a free pass on humanitarian issues and political prisoners, but [is] open and honest in terms of what the relationship will be and spell[s] out what the possibilities are in terms of energy assistance. You lay this down so the North Koreans have a fair understanding of what is at stake if they don’t [cooperate]. Then you enter a series of tough negotiations to eliminate the nuclear environment.

9. What is holding back positive change?

My harshest criticism is the lack of discipline within the National Security Council. The idea that if you take the president at his word, that he wants a peaceful diplomatic resolution to this, and that he is prepared to do such things as a multilateral security guarantee, then where in the world is the discipline within the NSC to bring [together] the competing parties that are in open disagreement with the president’s vision? Where [is]… a single coherent policy that can be implemented?

10. How many people within this current administration do you believe think that regime change is a viable solution?

All but Secretary Powell.

11. Based on your experience there, do you think regime change is realistic?

No, I don’t. Look at the facts. Unless something extreme happens, the South Koreans are not going to cut off the minimum level of business and joint ventures going on. It is in their domestic interest to keep that open, [to bring] the tension down on the peninsula. Nobody wants to go back to the military provocations that were occurring in 1996 and 1997. The Chinese will not cooperate in a PSI venture. The Japanese may, but that is questionable in the near term. The idea that North Korea is in a vulnerable state in which this kind of a blockade would have universal support in the region [to] bring down the regime is nonsense. If you did this in 1996 or 1997, at the height of the famine and the military provocations, you might have been able to cause the downfall of North Korea. That is no longer the situation.

If [this next round of talks] fails, I can almost guarantee you that the blame will rest with the United States – from a Chinese, from a Russian, from a South Korean, from a Japanese point of view. So bringing them back together, in a failed six-party situation, and asking them to coalesce, go to the United Nations to apply sanctions… in an attempt to blockade or bring down the regime won’t work. It hasn’t worked yet in a more cooperative atmosphere, and in a failed environment [these countries] will not cooperate. So what you will end up with, I fear, is the North Koreans walking away from the process… declaring themselves a nuclear power. I don’t believe they will demonstrate this [nuclear] power. Demonstration will undercut the empathy factor within the region; it creates a visible danger and is unnecessary, so I don’t think that they will demonstrate it.

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