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N. Korea Expert: U.S. Should Engage Pyongyang in Wide Dialogue to Defuse Tensions

Interviewee: Peter Hayes
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
October 27, 2003


Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, a nonprofit organization in Berkeley, California, says that President Bush’s latest offer to North Korea may lead to another round of multilateral talks aimed at resolving the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. But he urges the administration to consider using the North’s economic plight to pressure the isolated regime to end its nuclear arms program.

Hayes, who has visited North Korea seven times and written several books and articles about its nuclear program, says it would be worthwhile to test whether there “may be a price that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il will accept to trade in his weapons to get an economy.”

Hayes was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on October 27, 2003.

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Last week, President Bush said, “In return for [North Korea’s] dismantling the [nuclear] programs, we’re [the United States, China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan] all willing to sign some kind of document” forswearing an attack on North Korea. After first ridiculing the offer of a so-called multilateral security agreement, the North said it would consider it. How would you describe U.S.-North Korea relations, given the latest statements? Is there movement toward more of a dialogue?

Overall, relations are at their worst since tensions in the demilitarized zone at the end of the Ford administration produced a so-called near war in August 1976. This is not to say that war will break out tomorrow. [But] we have drifted into a very bad situation. Are we about to start talks? Maybe. The North Koreans are nibbling at the bait. The bait is not in itself very attractive to [them]. They’re after the principle of simultaneous action, but the United States has not enunciated a program of what it would consider in the way of simultaneous action that would bolster Bush’s rhetoric at the APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] conference last week. China has yet to buy in, and China is a necessary ingredient for this formula to work. We are at a very early stage toward reconvening talks, and anything can happen.

What caused President Bush, during his trip to Asia last week, to say what he did, after for a long time insisting that North Korea had to end its nuclear program first?

At this juncture there is zero trust, zero confidence between the two sides. This latest bit of rhetoric [came] from the president primarily because China and the other powers that are involved in the Korean peninsula had made it very clear to the Bush administration that it is pointless to continue the six-party talks [among the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia to resolve the crisis] without putting something tangible for the North Koreans on the table. And with the APEC meeting coming up and the political pressure, the perceptions of American leadership failing became very obvious. My understanding is that Secretary of State Colin Powell and his advisers impressed upon Bush that this was actually now beginning to spin out of control.

And, at a time when body bags are coming back from Iraq and with the political pressure from the pending [U.S.] elections in [2004], Bush made a strategic move. He decided to grapple with the issue. But the problem is that when you probe below the surface of this rhetoric, you find that there is no substance. Part of the problem is trying to figure out what is meant by a multilateral security commitment.

If you were asked for your advice, what would you propose?

If the administration were moving in a direction such that China and Japan, Japan and Russia, Russia and the two Koreas, and the United States with all the players in the region were all going to address each other’s insecurities and accept some binding principles, that would work. But that is a long-term project. If the Bush administration manages to transform this bilateral antagonism between North Korea and the United States into that kind of multilateral security regime, I’d be the first to blow their trumpet. But the problem with that approach is the timeline. Developing a real multilateral security regime in this region will take not days and months, which is the timeline of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, but years and decades to evolve. Yet without such a binding regional security regime, it is very unclear to me as to why a Lilliputian North Korea would allow five great power Gullivers to tie it down.

If we had somewhere between two and 10 years to come to grips with these issues and treat North Korea on an equal basis with all the other states in the region and negotiate all these insecurity dilemmas, we could go down that path. But if we try to do that and don’t engage the North Koreans bilaterally at the same time, then in the future we will have to accommodate another nuclear weapons state at the center of that regional architecture. And that will be a failure.

Is Bush’s vague statement good enough for the North Koreans?

No. The North Koreans were extremely clear in their August 29, 2003, statement which came after the first six-power talks. Not only did they give probably the most accurate public summary of what happened in the Beijing talks, delegation by delegation, but they also outlined their own road map, [which is] really very simple. They’ll freeze and refreeze their uranium enrichment and plutonium activities respectively in return for the resumption of the heavy fuel oil energy supplied under the Agreed Framework [the 1994 deal that gave aid to North Korea in return for Pyongyang’s promise to halt nuclear activities] and the resumption of the light water reactor construction [established by the framework and funded by South Korea, Japan, the United States, and the European Union]. And then, over time, they propose a set of contingent actions, what they are calling the principle of “simultaneous actions.” They want the United States to normalize political and economic relations, and they want the security guarantee. In return for that, they’ll settle the missile issue— they have developed missiles that have the ability to threaten Japan and possibly the United States— and they’ll link that to diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea.

That is a very clear road map. It’s the first offer. I don’t think it is their final negotiating position. But it’s not a completely unreasonable, outrageous, or counterproductive offer. What they need to know is the U.S. road map. The United States should display publicly, now, a schedule of steps contingent upon each other so that the two sides can go forward.

A North Korean statement issued October 25 says, “It is premature to talk about the six-way talks under the present situation unless the will to accept the principle of simultaneous actions is confirmed.” What does that mean?

They want separate but contingent interdependent steps that are sequenced: “You do this, and we’ll do that. When we’ve done that, you do this.” What the United States needs to do is to accelerate this process. The North Koreans have been playing dirty on the inspections issue. We need to be tough and they have to resolve the plutonium issue much faster than they are proposing now, and they will have to make a complete declaration of their uranium enrichment activities at the outset. Conversely, we have to realize that this is a sovereign state and they will make their moves in ways that their realistic options allow them to.

In your latest article in Arms Control Today, you say North Korea’s economic situation is crucial. Can you elaborate?

Their economy is their key dilemma. If you’re Kim Jong Il, you have to figure out how to stay on top. You have two key dilemmas. One is your external insecurity, and your domestic perceptions of that insecurity; the other is your collapsed economy. You occupy your own country and control your own population by relying on the military. These military people have to be kept happy. What does the conventional military care about? It cares about having an economy by which it can sustain itself and by which it can modernize.

That’s our pressure point: Kim Jong Il has a choice to make. He can sit at the bottom of a black hole, a non-economy, atop a small pile of nuclear weapons. Maybe he can survive for a while by extracting some surplus from his starving population. Or, he can trade in those weapons rather quickly and get a kick-start toward climbing out of the hole, with reparations Japan owes from its World War II era occupation of Korea. The reparations are administered by the World Bank; the United States plays a role here because, as long as North Korea remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, they don’t get to join the World Bank, and they don’t get access to Japanese money, and they don’t get private firms coming in behind Japanese money.

It’s a very clear logic, and it is well understood by the North Koreans. The United States has the key to that door. That gives us leverage. It gives us the chance to play those dilemmas off against each other. How bad is the economic problem for the North Korean leadership? And can we play on how bad [the economy] is with China in a very calibrated way? Because China provides the bulk of North Korea’s fuel and food, and if China likes the way we are playing our hand, they will play that game.

A very senior Chinese communist official, Wu Bangguo, is visiting North Korea later this week. What do you think will happen?

The mistake in Washington is to overestimate the Chinese leverage and power and influence in Pyongyang. Since the early 1990s, when the Chinese [gave diplomatic recognition to] Seoul without the cross-recognition of Pyongyang by Washington, the Chinese have been viewed as traitors to the cause, and there is no love lost. They don’t trust each other at all. We have to understand that the Chinese cannot bring the North Koreans to their knees militarily before the North Koreans deploy nuclear weapons and aim them at Beijing. There are limits on leverage from Beijing. The Chinese can squeeze, but they cannot actually force the North Koreans to capitulate.

Why did the North Koreans go ahead with the secret uranium enrichment program, which is the stated reason the Bush administration gave for, in effect, walking away from the Agreed Framework?

I don’t believe it was secret. I was told about their active interest in uranium mining and enrichment in Pyongyang in October 1991 by Kim Chol Ki, director of the Science and Technology Bureau, Ministry of Atomic Energy Industry. At that time, they had already contracted with the Soviet Union to buy four 400-megawatt reactors that would have used enriched uranium. Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] has known about their active interest in the front and back end of the fuel cycle all along. The North Koreans were not hiding their interest in uranium.

Director Kim had visited Australia three years earlier and had gone to the Jabiru mine and yellowcake extraction plant. Now, the North Koreans were committed [not to pursue] uranium enrichment in the Agreed Framework only to the extent [outlined in] the terms of the ROK-DPRK Denuclearization Declaration [a February 1992 agreement between the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic Republic of North Korea banning nuclear arms on the Korean Peninsula]. If you read the Agreed Framework text you will find there is no specific reference to uranium enrichment. The reason for that is that Robert Gallucci, the American negotiator of the framework, correctly understood the limits of American power. We could not insist on monitoring and verifying every underground facility in North Korea to check that they didn’t have uranium enrichment under way.

We could not therefore have any confidence if they made that commitment in the Agreed Framework. All we could do was tie the Agreed Framework to the legal and binding commitment— unlike the Agreed Framework, which is neither legal nor binding— made in the North-South February 1992 Denuclearization Declaration. That declaration specifically states that North and South Korea will forego reprocessing and enrichment facilities. So at this point, the strong statements out of Washington are political interpretations based on intelligence about [North Korean] acquisition activities related to enrichment technology. They are incorrect to characterize this activity as a violation. The right way to characterize it is that the North Koreans have all along had a second track which gave them another weapons option.

This is not to suggest that there is an innocent explanation, just the opposite. I believe that the U.S. intelligence community was monitoring this pulse all along, and that the pulse quickened in 1998 when the Agreed Framework first nearly fell apart due to North Korean frustration at the slow pace of American fulfillment of U.S. commitments therein. The North accelerated the second track as they saw a disastrous outcome in their relationship with the Bush administration unfold, a view confirmed when Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in October 2002 [at talks in Beijing] read them the riot act and refused under instructions to respond to the North Korean counteroffer to negotiate the issue.

The North Koreans were just about to return the USS Pueblo [the U.S. Navy spy ship that was captured in 1968] to the United States in an attempt to move the agenda forward with Washington when the North Koreans were completely ambushed by Kelly. They were quite shocked. In short order, the Iraq war followed. At the same time, strong statements in Washington were being made about regime transformation in Pyongyang. The United States fired a bomb with Saddam Hussein’s name on it. The North Koreans, not irrationally, read the worst case in all this.

What’s happened this year?

Around February of this year, I and a few others who watch the North Koreans closely concluded they had gone berserk. We believed they had truly climbed up on the cliff and would jump off. In late March and early April, they published their extraordinary military-first announcements, which called for giving priority to military issues over everything; they represent a line, a strategy, of putting the army before the working class. These documents got very little attention in the West at the time.

At that point, it was extremely bleak in Pyongyang, and any reform effort appeared to have been put on hold. By the summer, however, the economic reformers came roaring back, with the appointment of a new premier, who is a former chemicals industry minister. And they are now center and front. The military appears to have been subordinated. There is real movement, there is really vicious infighting going on in Pyongyang as to what the correct external line is at this point and who will take the lead in controlling the new relationships associated with opening up the economy. We shouldn’t assume we are dealing with a monolithic state right now…. Yet the Bush people have been incapable of responding in a meaningful way to those dynamics, and have kept the pressure up in a way that is quite counterproductive to those North Koreans who believe they should explore American intentions.

You don’t think the new statement by Bush changes anything?

No, because there is no substance there. The economic agenda has not been properly staffed at the interagency level. There’s no driving logic here, no czar in charge of North Korea policy knocking heads. There is no one in the White House asking, “What’s the underlying premise in our policy?” As far as I can see, the hardliners with closed minds believe that the Kim Jong Il clique survives primarily off criminal and military exports and will never give that up and will never take the risk of shifting to a normal, commercial economy.

If you make that assumption, you don’t have the option of negotiating with the North Koreans because they’re assumed to be hell-bent on one thing, acquiring nuclear weapons to keep the rest of the world at arm’s length while they continue their criminal activities. Our options then become to squeeze them as hard as possible to force a coup, or to force them through some unspecified means to capitulate and, hopefully, they’ll just collapse. Our short-term options are reduced to: negotiate for time, contain them, or squeeze them. But if you look, you find that many empirical indicators suggest it is worth testing the contrary argument— that there may be a price that Kim Jong Il will accept to trade in his weapons to get an economy.

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