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Former Envoy to South Korea Urges Direct U.S.-North Korea Talks

Interviewee: Donald Gregg
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 10, 2003

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Donald Gregg, U.S. ambassador to South Korea in the first Bush administration, says the situation with North Korea is “quite dangerous” and that immediate direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang are necessary to stem North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.

The president of the Korea Society, Gregg says he has repeatedly advised the White House to begin “direct talks” with North Korea but has been rebuffed because Washington does not want to appear to cave in to nuclear blackmail. Gregg says that virtually every expert on North Korea agrees that only direct talks can resolve the crisis.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on March 7, 2003.

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How would you describe the current crisis with North Korea?

The problem hinges on a fundamental misreading of the Korean character. I think that the president has always had real animosity toward Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader. He’s made that quite evident. I think the problem is that Koreans are very different from Americans in terms of the way their psychology works. If you push Koreans into a corner and don’t talk to them, they’ll behave worse and worse. They will go right to the brink, and I think they would go down in flames if they were given no alternative.

You’re talking about North Korea’s demand that the United States hold direct talks with them.

That’s right. When I went to North Korea last April, I found an accumulation of questions on the North Koreans’ part. Why is George Bush so different from his father? Why does George Bush hate Bill Clinton? Why does George Bush use such rhetoric against us? Why don’t you understand us better? Why do you threaten us with your nuclear weapons? As I sought to deal with those questions—I told them that my only ground rule was I wouldn’t criticize my president, any more than they would criticize Kim—I could see it was just tremendously cathartic for them to ask these questions and have some kind of dialogue.

Then I was invited back last November and a general, who had been just bristling at the first meetings, greeted me as an old friend. He said, why haven’t you sent me a picture of our first meeting? He said you know we are making great progress. We are cutting down 50-year old trees in the Demilitarized Zone, and I have multi-channel communications with my South Korean counterparts. We are improving relations with the Russians who want to build a gas pipeline. What’s the matter with you Americans? That’s the line. So I just feel we need to talk to the North Koreans. And the Koreans, I think, understand us better than we understand them.

I think the situation is quite dangerous. The president feels that Kim Jong Il is evil. There is a demonization process that goes on. Mike Wallace did a horrible job on Kim Jong Il on “60 Minutes.” Newsweek had a miserable column. And Kim really is easy to demonize. As I told the Senate when I testified on February 4, I almost feel like a Quisling, saying we ought to talk to this guy. But I think that talking to him is the only way to avoid a very dangerous situation.

The Bush administration’s position is that it will talk only within a multilateral context and only if North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear weapons program. What would happen if the United States simply announced it was sending an emissary to meet with the North Koreans at location “X” and all subjects were on the table?

It would depend who it was, what he brought with him, and how the Koreans judged his stature. They are very rank-conscious.

How high would it have to be?

Very high. I was dealing with a vice minister of foreign affairs. He said to me, you know, you and I get along very well, but you and I can’t solve these problems. It’s got to be somebody at a much higher level. That was in April. When I returned to Washington, I said the North Koreans are afraid of us, they don’t trust us, they are insulted by our rhetoric. They are mystified why we didn’t pick up where Clinton left off. They have no stake in the relationship with the United States. I said if the president were to send a high-ranking emissary with a letter, he could re-engage the North Koreans immediately.

Do you take the North Koreans at their word that they have no plans for nuclear weapons, and they would allow U.S. inspections if the United States would agree to a nonaggression treaty?

That certainly needs to be tested. They lived up to a number of the stipulations of [the 1994 aid-for-nonproliferation pact known as] the Agreed Framework. That immediately raises the issue: why did they start the highly enriched uranium program [to make weapons-grade material], based on [a deal] with the Pakistanis? My answer is that they had quite a long relationship with Pakistanis, selling them missiles to which the Pakistanis were affixing their own infernal machines. I am sure they heard from the Pakistanis how much more secure they felt having acquired a nuclear counterbalance to that of India. I think that was a tremendously seductive song to the North Koreans, particularly when they had seen a series of hostile statements out of the United States, including the Pentagon report making them one of the seven countries eligible for a preemptive strike, and various other things said by the president and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and other hawks.

Are the North Koreans fairly convinced that if the United States defeats Iraq, they are next?

Yes. I talked to Kofi Annan’s special envoy, Maurice Strong, who had been in Pyongyang in January, who came out with exactly the same feeling.

What is your feeling? Are they next?

A new factor has entered into the scene, and that’s the new South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun. I was at his inauguration at the end of February and was very impressed by him. He’s comfortable in his own skin.

He’s very friendly, very direct, not very experienced, but very sharp. He is, however, determined to prevent military action by the United States against North Korea. And I know most experienced United States military men would not support armed action against North Korea if it was opposed by the South.

This may make for a very difficult meeting between Roh Moo Hyun and George W. Bush. I’m not sure that that meeting is going to take place. I think sooner or later, some face-saving device has to be worked out where we can start talking with the North Koreans.

When Don Oberdorfer [a Korea expert, who accompanied Gregg on his trip to North Korea in November] and I returned from North Korea with a concrete offer to start talks at a high level, we were told by the White House then, that no, that would not happen because that would be rewarding bad behavior. I wrote a memo the next day saying we were caught between Scylla and Charybdis, in our desire not to reward bad behavior and their desire not to be humiliated for launching the enriched uranium program.

Why don’t we do two things at once? We say we will move toward a non-aggression treaty and they say, all right, we’ll take our first step back from our nuclear programs. I said don’t stop the oil shipments. But the White House did not take my advice. The oil was stopped and the cascade of events followed.

The president seems convinced that to meet with them directly would be a form of nuclear blackmail?

That is what [presidential spokesman] Ari Fleischer says, and that is the feeling. You have to admit that the North Koreans have a bad record of sort of piling on. You start with a non-aggression treaty for a nuclear pullback and then there might be the question of compensation and various other add-ons. That is certainly a legitimate source of concern. But on the subject of a nonaggression treaty, there was some new ground broken I think at the Senate hearing where Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified on February 4. I was there. Rich said to the committee, you know the North Koreans say they want a nonaggression treaty. But we’re not talking about that because we don’t think there is a chance of getting that ratified. And Joe Biden [the Delaware senator who is the committee’s ranking Democrat] said he’d bet $1 million the Senate would ratify a non-aggression treaty, if President Bush proposed one. I think that is a very significant statement.

Was it at that hearing that Armitage also said we would be willing to talk to the North, and was later rebuked by the White House?

Yes. He got pulled back in line.

In an interview, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Winston Lord said the United States should deal with North Korea only in a multilateral framework. He was very concerned about the new South Korean government. He repeated the story about Mr. Roh’s emissary being at a dinner in Washington recently and saying South Korea would rather have a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons than a North Korea in disarray.

On the latter point, the South Koreans are embarrassed by the statement and are pulling back from it. I had a meeting with Mr. Roh at Blue House [the South Korean presidential residence] with several other people, and he said that he’s made some mistakes and that his people were going to have to learn to be much more careful about what they say.

Maurice Strong, the United Nations representative, is trying to set up a multilateral forum under the aegis of the Security Council, which could be a foundation for talks. I’m all for that if that can happen. I’m for anything to get us talking on a direct face-to-face basis. If it doesn’t happen, we have to figure out some way we can do that ourselves. Certainly, if a multilateral basis can be found, let’s do it that way.

Are you concerned about these latest incidents, the missile testing, the harassment of the reconnaissance plane?

They are quite predictable. I heard [Secretary of State] Colin Powell’s press conference in Seoul [in which he said the missile test was insignificant]. He handled it very well. He downplayed it. But there are only so many of those things they can do without getting into the really significant stuff, which would be to start reprocessing [the North’s stockpile of] plutonium rods.

As far as we know, they have not started that yet?

That’s right.

We don’t know where the rods are?

Once they’ve moved them, we don’t.

The president is obviously preoccupied with Iraq. From what he seems to say, I get the impression he hopes North Korea will just go away, but it won’t go away. If you were going to give him advice now, what would you say?

I would advise him to find some way of starting direct talks. The last thing I sent to the White House was on December 31, and I said: “It is the unanimous opinion of every Russian, Chinese, South Korean, and American expert I have talked to that the only way to stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power is direct talks with the United States.”

There was an appalling story in the press recently saying that the United States is going around Capitol Hill saying there is nothing we can do about it, so we are preparing to deal with North Korea as a nuclear power. I think that the people in the White House are saying, once they really begin to reprocess, the Chinese will be galvanized into taking more action. The Chinese, who supply North Korea with most of its oil and most of its food, could play real hardball by cutting back on that, causing people to starve. I don’t think the Chinese want to do that.

Everyone wants us to step up to the plate and start the talks because they know that it is we who threaten North Korea. North Korea knows that. And we’re looking for cover. I think partially it is a face problem because of the things the administration has said about North Korea and there would be all kinds of questions asked, “Well, Mr. President after all the things you have called Kim Jong Il why is it you are now talking to him?”

Why does North Korea want direct talks instead of meeting in a forum?

Because I think they feel that only through direct talks can they get to the nub of the problem, which they believe is our intention to come after them after we are finished with Iraq.

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