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Wariness on Bilateral Process With North Korea

Interviewee: Michael J. Green, Senior Adviser and Japan Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Associate professor, International Relations, Georgetown University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 26, 2009

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A former National Security Council adviser on Asian affairs in the George W. Bush administration, Michael J. Green, says the Obama administration is wary of appearing too "soft" on the nuclear disarmament process involving North Korea. Green says the administration has noted Pyongyang's failure to follow through with bargains made in connection with the Bush team's agreement to bilateral talks. North Korea has recently said it was willing to return to the Six-Party Talks on nuclear disarmament if the United States first agrees to bilateral negotiations. A major factor in Washington's reluctance to rush into talks, Green says, is that "the Obama administration sees far greater prospects of success with Iran so they don't want to let North Korea set a bad precedent." He adds: "They don't want to send any signal that there's going to be a loosening of sanctions in exchange for just talking."

Bring us up to date on relations between the United States and North Korea, particularly as it relates to the U.S. insistence that North Korea return to the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear disarmament.

Let me first premise my answer by saying that over the next few years, the shape of the negotiating table is largely immaterial because my view is that the North Koreans have made their decision and are not going to give up their nuclear weapons. So in some ways this question of bilateral versus multilateral is tangential, I'm afraid. As you know, the United States negotiated with North Korea bilaterally on the nuclear issue in the early 1990's when their nuclear facility at Yongbyon was discovered. We negotiated the so-called Agreed Framework, which the North Koreans subsequently cheated on with a secret uranium enrichment program. The Bush administration--I was there--in 2002, confronted the North Koreans, and they demanded various concessions. Rather than go back to a bilateral negotiation, the Bush administration said "we want to do this multilaterally to leverage the influence of China, Japan, Korea, and Russia." And that Six-Party process yielded an agreement in 2005, which the North Koreans promptly cheated on by testing nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the United States went back, at the end of the Bush administration, to a primarily bilateral negotiating process. It yielded a more modest agreement, for again freezing Yongbyon and for providing information on their nuclear program which the North Koreans then cheated on, and they tested another nuclear weapon, in effect to welcome the Obama administration. The Obama administration's engagement policy is still there, but they're much more sober about it. They are viewing the prospects of a negotiated dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program as slight at best. So they don't want to rush into a negotiating process that takes the pressure off of North Korea, because after the last nuclear test, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1874 putting pretty tough sanctions on the North. And the North would like to get the sanctions lifted for returning to the table. That's what they've successfully done in the past. The Obama administration is not going to do that, and so that's why they're insisting on North Korea agreeing to the Six-Party Talks before they do bilateral talks. The Obama administration from experience now knows the North Koreans are going to probably cheat so it would be a mistake to lift sanctions just to have a negotiation.

This discussion of bilateral talks got a big impetus when the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao went to North Korea in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of the Chinese People's Republic on October 1. He told a news conference on October 10 that, as a result of ten hours of talks with Kim Jong-Il, his biggest impression was that North Korea wants to improve relations with the United States as well as Japan and South Korea.

"The Obama administration from experience now knows the North Koreans are going to probably cheat so it would be a mistake to lift sanctions just to have a negotiation."

The Chinese have been arguing that now the U.S. has to go back to bilateral talks--"the ball is in our court" is what I heard in Beijing last week. And they're doing it not because they realistically think North Korea will give up nuclear weapons--all the Chinese officials and scholars I've spoken with are pretty pessimistic--but because they value stability over denuclearization. And they're focused on their economic developments, and frankly I don't think they feel the United States is particularly strong right now, and is unlikely to use coercive measures on North Korea, and they are busy with other problems and don't want to be using their leadership capital right now on North Korea; they want to be using it on economic development.

Obama in his campaign had talked about opening dialogue with everybody--Iran, North Korea--and so far, except for Bill Clinton, no one's had any real dialogue with the North Koreans.

Clinton stuck to the script pretty carefully, and the symbolism was a bit of a victory for the North Koreans, but it was not a bilateral negotiation. The administration is prepared to have a meeting, but unlike Iran, they see much less prospect of a meaningful result, because the North Koreans have so publicly and adamantly forged ahead with their nuclear weapons programs. And so, the administration is being quite realistic and sober, and they are conscious that if we appear overly eager, we'll get even less out of the North Koreans and we'll upset our allies who worried that at the end of the Bush administration the negotiators were far too eager to get an agreement before the clock ran out and that the United States was willing to sacrifice Japanese and Korean interests to get there.

The deputy North Korean nuclear negotiator Ri Gun is in the United States for some conferences in San Diego and Washington. I guess the State Department when asked about this says, "Well maybe we'll meet with him, but there's no negotiation plan," right?

Yeah, it reminds me of when I was in the Bush administration; it's all the same machinations. Some people say, "well why not just do the talks, why not just sit down with them?" and the reason is because the North Koreans will use the negotiation process to argue that there should be sanctions lifting, and pressure should be taken off. And there may be some merit in that if you think the North Koreans are serious about some level of denuclearization, but the new administration knows they're not, so they don't want to send any signal that there's going to be a loosening of sanctions in exchange for just talking.

Do you think the Obama administration worries that now that they're deeply involved in trying to get a serious negotiation with Iran to halt its nuclear program, that allowing North Korea to go ahead with its nuclear program will undercut that?

I think so, and the Bush administration towards the end was not sufficiently conscious or focused on the interplay between Iran and North Korea, and the Obama administration sees far greater prospects of success with Iran so they don't want to let North Korea set a bad precedent. That's part of the reason they're being quite firm. They don't want to send any signal that there's going to be a loosening of sanctions in exchange for just talking.

It's interesting that the North Koreans don't just say "all right, we'll go back to the talks." I mean they can stall there too.

On the one hand, the North Koreans don't want the talks to go anywhere. The last time the bilateral talks got down to brass-tacks--and it was a very small deal, very modest, but nevertheless we were talking about specific verification protocols where they were going to tell us what plutonium they had extracted and so forth--they insisted that we lift sanctions first, and a year ago the Bush administration said "okay," and lifted two sanctions on North Korea.

The North Koreans then walked out of the talks, did not provide any of the verification they were supposed to. Then they tested a nuclear weapon to welcome the Obama administration, which had promised more engagement. So, another angle here is that the Obama administration does not want the North Koreans to think that they are soft. The Bush administration went quite soft on North Korea toward the end to try to get a result, and a lot of former Bush administration officials like me were saying, "we have made far too many compromises and have gotten nothing back." After that, Obama came in promising even more engagement, and the North Koreans, rather than behaving and taking some positive steps to make that possible actually took an even harder line (tested nuclear weapons and missiles).

When you were in China, what do you hear from the Korean watchers on Kim Jong-Il?

The Chinese were worried that he was not long for this world, and that the succession problem could cause instability because Kim Jong-Il's likely successor, Kim Jong-un, his twenty-seven-year-old son, is untested and politically weak. However, on this trip the Chinese went out of their way to say that Kim Jong-Il seems to be doing okay, that Wen Jiabao saw him and he was fine. The Koreans and the Japanese have also revised their estimates, but we're talking now about a situation where people thought he had months to live; now they think he has a few years. So, the basic problem has not gone away, and that basic problem is that this is a communist dynastic sect where the succession is somewhat uncertain. And Kim Jong-Il clearly suffered the effects of a major stroke, and although he's functional, he's exhausted. Whether he's able to survive much longer depends on how much he's smoking, and how much he's working out and people aren't sure about either of those things, but the medical experts around the region looking at actuarial tables generally say he has about a 10 percent chance of dying each year, and then those numbers start to go up dramatically. But if he's smoking or not taking care of himself, those numbers go way up, so I think he's probably going to be around for two to five years, but the fact that he is demonstrating his mortality and that the signs of his stroke are quite visible has to have some internal effects, as North Korean generals and other leaders begin positioning themselves for a change they know is not too far off.

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