Eric Heginbotham, the Council on Foreign Relations’ senior fellow for Asia studies and director of the Council-sponsored Independent Task Force on North Korea, says the recent six-nation talks in Beijing on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program ended “as expected” without any real progress.
He says that if the United States truly wants to achieve a negotiated agreement, it will have to be more forthcoming at the bargaining table. “If we’re serious about negotiating this and finding an agreed solution, then certainly the United States has to show more flexibility. Otherwise we can talk, but nothing will be settled,” he says.
Heginbotham was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 2, 2003.
When the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program ended last Friday, the host country, China, announced that there would be a follow-up round, probably later in the fall. A few hours later, the North Koreans said they saw no use in further talks. Today, Tuesday, North Korea said the talks were still on. What do you make of North Korea’s conflicting statements?
Well, it’s impossible to really know. But it appears to be part of Pyongyang’s negotiating strategy, although one can’t rule out other possibilities. Certainly, if it is bluster, it is consistent with North Korea’s historical record of fairly extreme statements designed to give them an edge in subsequent negotiations.
I know information is still not widely available on the talks, but what’s your reading of this first round?
I think it went as expected. All the sides put their positions on the table, or made statements about their positions. There wasn’t a whole lot of real negotiation or probing for flexibility among the parties. And I think that’s pretty much what most people thought might happen after a period with so little contact between the parties and given the positions that North Korea and the United States have taken over the last several months.
What’s the United States’ position?
Well, the U.S. position seems to be that North Korea needs first to make an unambiguous statement that it will dismantle its nuclear program and take concrete steps toward that end. The United States is willing to make concessions and is willing to talk about aid and other issues if North Korea does that, but not until then.
And North Korea’s position?
North Korea’s official position is that the United States needs to move first. The United States would sign a binding non-aggression treaty with North Korea; then North Korea would take steps to dismantle its [nuclear] program. Both sides want the other to move first. And so, unless the two sides are willing to seek a middle ground and demonstrate flexibility on their own parts, it is pretty tough to see how an agreement might be reached.
Are the other four countries at the talks— China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan— trying to serve as intermediaries, or are they just spectators?
The Chinese took a more proactive position than they have in the past. They are trying to play the role of intermediary and prod both sides to make concessions and find the middle ground. The Russians, too, have tried to play an intermediary role. But each of the four countries has a slightly different position. The Japanese, for example, have many common interests with the United States, but they also have a separate agenda. They place great emphasis on getting a missile development freeze and on resolving the abduction issue, which would allow the [North Korean-born] children of Japanese citizens [abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s] to join their parents in Japan.
What kind of role can South Korea play?
South Korea plays a critical role in providing a long-term motivation for North Korea to settle. They are a primary aid donor and investor in North Korea and if the nuclear crisis is settled, they are certainly in a position to move fairly quickly to help the North. There has been a lot of friction between the United States and South Korea over policy and the South Koreans are much more hesitant to take tough action, such as supporting the proliferation security initiative the United States has sponsored.
How would you describe the “proliferation security initiative?”
It is ostensibly designed to interdict North Korea’s export of contraband goods. It has been sold at least in part as an effort that would allow the United States and its partners to interdict plutonium or highly-enriched uranium, should North Korea begin to export it. But it also applies pressure on North Korea in other ways. It utilizes all the laws that are already on the books to put pressure on the North by impeding its ability to obtain hard currency. This includes efforts to intercept illegal goods like drugs and perhaps counterfeit money. But it would also impede North Korea’s trade by cracking down on technical violations of ship safety regulations–-laws that are often not strictly enforced. So, in a sense, it is an interdiction effort that is certainly not total, but seeks to put pressure on North Korea and provide additional motivation for it to come back to the fold.
Is this legal under international law, or do you need a U.N. Security Council resolution?
Well, the U.S. argument has been that it is legal, since it involves strengthening the enforcement of existing laws and regulations. North Korea, of course, sees it in a different light. It sees it as a de facto blockade, even though most of its measures would be undertaken in distant waters. On strictly legal terms, I think the United States has the stronger case, though this selective and targeted enforcement of international law raises questions about what we are really about. Apart from that, there are questions about the initiative’s effectiveness. Some key nations, like South Korea, are quite hesitant to participate.
The Chinese representative at the talks said that the biggest problem was that the United States was not being clear on what incentives it would offer North Korea in return for abolishing its nuclear weapons program. Do you think the United States will have to come forward at the next round or even sooner with more indications of what it might give the North Koreans in return for an end to nuclear weapons activity?
[The Chinese statement] certainly puts more pressure on the United States to show some flexibility. The assumption by the administration seems to have been that if we go to these talks and state our position that North Korea needs to move first, North Korea will show its intransigence and refuse to move and all of the other countries then will have little choice but to gravitate toward the U.S. position. I think if the Chinese or others take a fairly clear position that the United States also has to show flexibility— and this statement by the Chinese is clearly a sign of growing frustration on their part— then it does put some pressure on the United States to do something new and maybe put a significantly modified proposal on the table.
There’s a lot of talk about divisions within Washington on North Korea policy, of hardliners battling against moderates. Can you define who’s who in the administration, and what their positions are on North Korea?
Well, it is a little bit tough because administration officials don’t want to show much light between them. There is an effort to at least publicly present a united front. But the statements made by various officials differ quite a bit in tone, if not in the concrete policy provisions they put forward.
There are those who came into this administration with the idea that we could negotiate with North Korea to arrive at a larger, more comprehensive agreement on a range of strategic and security issues. Those people included the current Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage— and I think they had brought Secretary of State Colin Powell along to a great extent.
There are others who believe or seem to believe that it’s almost impossible to negotiate with North Korea and that the United States should instead place higher priority on regime change. Folks who take a harder line include [Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security] John Bolton, and probably Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Everyone comes to this with different specific preferences, but it is fair to say there are different camps.
Of course, President Bush himself was quoted in Bob Woodward’s recent book, “Bush at War,” as saying: “I loathe Kim Jong Il. I’ve got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people. And I have seen intelligence of these prison camps...that he uses to break up families and to torture people. It appalls me.”
The president has a fairly strong personal dislike for Kim. The question is whether he still thinks that the United States can reach a negotiated settlement with North Korea on nuclear and other issues. It does appear that his personal views have had a significant impact on the administration’s willingness to negotiate, at least by the traditional definition of that term. It’s a little unclear where the room for agreement lies between North Korea and the United States if President Bush takes the position that North Korea really has to move first and far before we’ll even talk about concessions.
What do you think the United States should do?
If we’re serious about negotiating and finding an agreed solution, then certainly the United States has to show more flexibility. Otherwise we can talk, but nothing will be settled.
Are the hardliners really seeking a “regime change” in North Korea? That doesn’t seem conducive to a negotiated agreement.
No, it is not. You pretty much have to decide on one or the other. If you are going for regime change in the shortest possible amount of time, then you probably don’t want an agreement, and you may not even make preventing North Korea from going nuclear a priority. On the other hand, if preventing North Korea from going nuclear is your number one concern, then you will have to make compromises on your negotiating position and on your willingness to allow North Korea to get aid, or investment, certainly from other countries and probably from the United States, to some extent.
My personal view is that the North Korean regime is ultimately doomed, even without our pushing for it in the short-term. Our priority should be on preventing it from acquiring a large nuclear arsenal or exporting nuclear material in the meantime.
Do you think it is certain that North Korea has a couple of nuclear weapons?
It is not certain. The intelligence community has, since the early 1990s, estimated that North Korea may have one or two nuclear weapons. That judgment was based on inferences about how much plutonium North Korea may have produced through reprocessing between 1989 and 1991 and a further inference about how much plutonium would be necessary for North Korea to make a nuclear weapon. The intelligence community’s estimate was, generally, a worst-case estimate. It has been contested by independent analysts, though in this game, it is certainly reasonable to assume the worst and plan accordingly.
North Korea may have reprocessed additional spent fuel and produced some additional plutonium recently. It is likely they have reprocessed at least some. We don’t know how much. At this point, there are major uncertainties about the status of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
What is the likelihood of a military confrontation between the United States and North Korea, given all of these factors?
I don’t think the United States will attack North Korea. On the other hand, I do think there certainly is a possibility that this situation could get out of control. There is a real possibility of war, and given the stakes, we should be very concerned about the prospects.
What could trigger a war?
I think a series of escalatory steps, the chain of which may not be anticipated from the start. For example, if the United States were to impose a blockade on North Korea, North Korea might lash out with a limited strike. We might retaliate. And North Korea might escalate further, leading to full-scale war. This is just an example of the many possible scenarios one might consider. Certainly, the possibilities are sobering, especially given that North Korea may have nuclear capabilities.