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Heginbotham: New North Korea Talks Look ‘Fairly Promising’

Interviewee: Eric Heginbotham
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 14, 2005

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Eric Heginbotham, the Council’s top expert on North Korea, says a number of recent events, including North Korea’s decision to end its boycott of the six-party talks on its nuclear ambitions, indicate there is “some hope” of a breakthrough.

Key to the shift, he says, was South Korea’s offer to supply a vast electrical grid to the North, a modification of U.S. rhetoric against North Korea, and a possible recognition by the North that time was running out for them in seeking a negotiated accord. “I think in general things look fairly promising,” he says. “Obviously, there’s a long way to go, and there’s no certainty, but there is some hope.”

Heginbotham, a senior fellow in Asia Studies and director of the 2003 Council-sponsored Independent Task Force on North Korea, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on July 12, 2005.


There have been a number of developments on the North Korean front in the last few days. North Korea has agreed to return to the six-party talks in Beijing at the end of July, South Korea offered food aid and a massive provision of electricity if the North gives up its nuclear-weapons program, and there’s positive rhetoric on all sides. Is a breakthrough in the air?

Well, I think this constellation of events is a bit more promising than what we’ve seen in the past. It is impossible to know really what North Korea’s motives are in all of this. It’s conceivable they’re coming back to the table for a bit of food aid from South Korea and to ensure they’re not the only party holding up the talks. In other words, they may be coming back to the talks for credibility and to string this thing along.

But I think from the U.S. side, and from the [diplomatic] partnership [between the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan], there seems to be a new seriousness about this. The Bush administration has certainly been quite disciplined in the rhetoric that it is using these days. The South Korean offer is fairly dramatic. It’s an offer to supply a massive amount of energy across the border with an actual plan for how it might be implemented, and the United States has indicated that it will certainly consider putting this into the mix [at the six-party talks]. In which case, we would have a much more tangible offer on the table of real assistance in exchange for ending the nuclear program.

There’s certainly some promise here from our side of the partnership, but there are some complications as well. The Japanese have said that they want [any North Korea settlement] tied to the resolution of the abductee issue [Pyongang abducted at least 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s], which certainly isn’t helpful for solving the nuclear dispute. But, I think in general things look fairly promising. Obviously, there’s a long way to go, and there’s no certainty, but there is some hope.

Since Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state, has the U.S. approach shifted? Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, the controversial nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has stepped back from negotiations, I assume.

Bolton, of course, wasn’t really taking the lead on this issue, but his presence in the State Department was a major impediment to progress on this since he had expressed himself quite clearly as being against any deal. So that, in and of itself, is significant. Obviously, it’s taken a while for Secretary Rice to re-organize and get set for this—not to mention the fact that the North Koreans hadn’t agreed to participate and were inactive for a number of months.

But, I think, despite what may certainly appear in hindsight to be some errors in her rhetoric with regard to the North, she now appears to be taking a fairly disciplined approach. She took one trip to Asia a month ago and is in Asia again now. She appears quite focused on what she’s doing. This isn’t the only issue she’s focused on in Asia, but it does seem to provide sort of the fulcrum around which other issues seem to be revolving. And it’s not just her trips to Asia, either. Her deputy [secretary of state], [Robert B.] Zoellick, is also headed to China shortly to talk about a range of strategic issues. And presumably, North Korea will be at the center of those talks, or close to the center of those talks, as well.

The North Koreans have had private meetings with U.S. officials in New York in recent months, right?

Yes, they have, and I think that’s significant. The New York channel appears to be active. And, of course, the United States has used these to send some signals to North Korea on issues of concern to it, such as whether the administration respects the sovereignty of North Korea, whether it’s serious about certain types of language, this sort of thing. I think one thing we need to watch as this moves forward is whether, and in what form, the working group talks are convened to support this set of negotiations.

Talk about the North Korean position. I’ve been intrigued by the statements from North Korea that they’d be ready to talk if they got respect from the United States. I noticed President Bush recently called Kim Jong-Il “mister,” rather than “tyrant.” That seemed to have some impact.

It’s hard to know, in the case of North Korea, what the real drivers are. It’s fair to say that, yes, they are quite sensitive to signs of respect or disrespect. They are quite sensitive to the language that’s used, particularly with respect to their leadership, and of course, to Kim Jong-Il. So that could, in fact, have been significant. Certainly, the administration’s taken it seriously enough that President Bush referred to him as “mister,” and Secretary Rice, as well, has been fairly careful in her language. So it’s a sign of respect. It’s a very explicit statement that the United States respects North Korea’s sovereignty. It is not clear whether or not these were the major obstacles and if their correction now may cause a breakthrough. And whether or not that was the case, I think the administration doesn’t want to be perceived as having obstructed progress simply through its use of language.

Secretary Rice is now in South Korea. Presumably she’ll speak with the South Korean leadership about negotiating strategies.

Exactly, and I think there will be a lot of back and forth between Secretary Rice and [South Korean] President Roh [Moo-Hyun], and the other chief policy-makers on North Korea, to see whether and how to incorporate the South Korean offer [of 2,000 megawatts of electricity if Pyongyang ends its nuclear weapons program] into a U.S. offer or policy.

And, of course, it’s complicated because Beijing plays a major role as host for the talks, and Beijing and Washington are having a delicate dialogue of their own right now on trade-related issues such as the Chinese bid on U.S. energy company Unocal.

I think there’s concern that the frictions now evident—particularly any possible congressional action on trade issues—may impact Beijing’s willingness to actively pursue and cooperate with the United States on North Korea. [But] I think the Chinese are certainly not making any explicit linkage on this. And both sides are capable and sophisticated enough to see that they have interests [in these talks moving forward], regardless of how the rest of the relationship is going. But I think, in particular, Zoellick’s trip to Beijing, and some of the language that Secretary Rice has used recently, reflect a concern that both sides have serious interests at stake here and that the administration doesn’t want to see congressional action or popular pressures on the trade front or other issues damage the overall relationship, in particular, cooperation on the North Korean issue.

What’s your guess? What do you think will happen next?

I think it’s really impossible to predict what North Korea’s going to do now. This is where we learn what their priorities are, I think. The allies’ offer is better than any offer that’s been put on the table to this point—assuming that this energy package is incorporated into it. I think even the North must understand that, as far as the negotiations are concerned, we’re getting close to the end here. So now we see whether they will, at a minimum, nibble and at least put a specific counter-proposal on the table, or whether, in fact, their priority here is to continue to build nuclear weapons and try to work around the United States to maintain their economic viability.

I thought it was interesting that the North Koreans out of the blue invited the publisher of the New York Times and columnist Nicholas Kristof to Pyongyang. Kristof so angered the North Koreans several years ago that he was “banned for life” from the country. Clearly they’ve been trying to send messages to the United States through nongovernmental channels.

Well, it’s fairly clear that they’ve been trying to send messages through, for example, other members of the six-party talks—through the South Koreans, and to a lesser extent, the Chinese. And, at least in past months, through other Americans as well. Part of their message to Kristof, or maybe their main message to Kristof, was about the commencement of work on other nuclear facilities which, if true, would certainly be very significant and force Washington’s hand one way or another.

Kristof wrote that North Koreans were going to bring back to life the reactors they had closed down.

They’re big reactors. They dwarf the size of this little experimental reactor that’s working now. So, looking forward, this is a big issue. Of course, North Korea might be bluffing, but it’s certainly something to watch. If they’re really building these things, we either have to negotiate more on North Korea’s terms, or else we have to go bomb them, because this is no joke.

Are these the plutonium reactors they closed down in 1994?

What happened, basically, is that in 1994, they only had one functioning [plutonium reprocessing] reactor, the five-megawatt. But two others were under construction. One was 50-megawatts, and I think the other was 500-megawatts—a hundred times as big as their existing reactor. All of that construction was suspended. I have no idea whether they have the capability to bring the new reactors online without, for example, Russian assistance. But if they do, or if we think they do, and if we think they’re moving forward, then that puts a definitive end date on everything.

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