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No Crisis with North Korea, Says Council's Independent Task Force Co-Chairman Morton Abramowitz

Interviewer: The Honorable Morton I. Abramowitz, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation
Interviewee: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 1, 2002

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Morton Abramowitz, who is co-chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on Korea, says that despite North Korea’s disclosure that it has a secret nuclear weapons program, “we are not in a crisis” with that country.

In an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, Abramowitz says that there is “no question” but that North Korea has violated agreements with the United States and the world community, but that there is still time for diplomacy to persuade the North Koreans to stop the nuclear weapons program.

The interview took place on October 30, 2002.

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Q: The North Koreans acknowledge they have a secret program to enrich uranium, and intelligence circles believe that there may be one or two bombs lying around right now. What happens next? What should happen next?

A: We are not yet in a crisis, and the Bush administration is not treating it as a crisis. Still, we’re in a very serious situation in which a major commitment has been violated. We are deeply concerned about the North Koreans acquiring more nuclear weapons—the general belief is they only have two now—both because of the regional impact and the international implications for proliferation if we were just to allow them to proceed as they see fit.

Q: There’s no question they violated ...

A: There’s no question that they have violated three agreements, particularly the Agreed Framework of 1994. Moreover, while we say there’s no crisis, the United States—unlike 1994, when we had a similar development with the North Korean plutonium efforts—is not threatening military action. That is unrealistic in the Korean Peninsula. Instead, we have been trying to assemble an international coalition. We’re proceeding multilaterally, assembling an international coalition in which Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea are the key players. The European Union is also important because they provide assistance. We’re trying in every way get support from them first, [to get them to say that North Korea’s] highly enriched uranium program is a bad thing that needs to be rolled back. We’re also preparing the ground if necessary to try to urge them to hold back on aid; Japan, South Korea, and China are the principal aid givers.

Given the fact that the North Koreans have admitted they’re violating an agreement, we are at the point of not being willing to enter into a dialogue with them until they show some serious effort about dismantling their new effort. On the other hand, we also said we are prepared to have discussions with them in New York—that is, we will not send anybody to Pyongyang.... And at the same time the president himself has encouraged the Japanese and South Koreans to continue their dialogue with the North Koreans but asking them to insist that this problem must be dealt with.

Q: Do the Japanese and the South Koreans share the American concern over the security ramifications of all this?

A: I think the Japanese would be deeply concerned that North Korea would have more nuclear weapons and that they could marry those weapons to delivery vehicles. And it will certainly raise demands in Japan, in some quarters at least, for Japan to acquire a limited nuclear capability of its own, which Japan does not want to do as a government. The Japanese, however, have other fish to fry with North Korea now, of which the biggest is getting an adequate response, in their terms, to the question of the abductees from Japan. There are 13 known ones—five are alive, and eight died in circumstances which have never really been fully explained, which has gotten the Japanese very angry. They also would like to see the families of the Japanese who have come back—those family members left in Korea—to return. That has not yet been agreed on, but I suspect—given the tensions in Japan on this issue and the great North Korean interest in aid from Japan—that North Korea will allow family members to go to Japan.

In any event, they are engaged in normalization talks, and I don’t think those normalization talks will go very far until they resolve this abductee problem. Now, the Japanese have also said that they will not normalize relations—the foreign minister repeated it recently—until the North Koreans have met their nuclear obligations on both their highly enriched uranium program and on their plutonium program.

We have been trying to find out how much plutonium was available, and they haven’t really answered that in a detailed way. And that’s supposed to be what the International Atomic Energy Agency will be trying to do when the North Koreans will let them. They haven’t met those two obligations, and the Japanese have said they will not normalize relations until those two obligations are met. Whether the Japanese hold to that remains to be seen. I suspect they will, but it may very well create tension between the Japanese and the United States.

On South Korea, you have a somewhat different mind set. Whatever their political persuasion, [South Koreans think] that war on the peninsula is unthinkable because of North Korea’s capacity to exact great damage on South Korea, particularly Seoul, even if North Korea is destroyed ... and that’s not a trade they want to make. And South Korea, under President Kim Dae Jung, has pursued that in a way which tries to basically encourage North Korea to come out of its shell, become part of the world, make them dependent on Western or South Korean economic assistance, and encourage their good behavior by various forms of economic assistance. That effort has run into very, very bad political trouble in South Korea because of what appears to be North Korean non-reciprocity to the South Korea’s openness and willingness to help them.

On the other hand, and this is the important thing, no South Korean political leader can espouse any other policy but engagement with the North. Now they can change the terms of engagement, but none of them will ever avoid dialogue, and none of them will ever avoid being prepared to trade off things if they feel the trade-off is in their interests. Ten years ago, the South Koreans were terribly afraid that the Americans would take over and be the principal party in negotiations... Now it’s totally different. They want desperately for the Americans to talk to the North Koreans and to engage them. And Kim Dae Jung—not necessarily all South Koreans—is very unhappy with the Bush administration because he feels that Bush’s policy of antagonism—the “axis of evil”—and reluctance to seriously engage North Korea has been a major factor in undermining his policy.

A lot of other South Koreans think that Kim’s been much too soft, that the United States has rightly stepped in and been much tougher, and that the results are probably beneficial: the North Koreans suddenly realize they can’t trade things for goodies, and that they’re going to have to produce things, and that there are going to be some penalties if they don’t produce.

Q: Why did the North Koreans continue this nuclear arms program after they had agreed in 1994 not to do so?

A: I don’t have a good answer to that; I can only speculate. My speculation is that you had two pariah states, North Korea and Pakistan, who had what each of the other wanted: highly enriched uranium capabilities for North Korea and missiles for Pakistan to deliver its nuclear weapons. North Korea was still very much a pariah state, not accepted by the United States, not easily dealt with by any other country, and Pakistan had become a pariah state because of its nuclear weapons program—particularly in the United States, which had once been Pakistan’s big friend.

And [then North Korean leader] Kim Il Sung died in 1994—I believe shortly after the Agreed Framework had been established. After the mid-term elections in the United States in 1994, it probably seemed to many in North Korea that the prospects of what they had expected under the 1994 Agreed Framework might not materialize.

Q: They expected what?

A: Eventual normalization, goodies, and that kind of thing. And Kim Jong Il was then new in power. Given Pakistan’s interest in North Korea’s missile capabilities, there was a deal proposed. And—here I’m guessing—the security types came to Kim Jong Il and said, “Look, we don’t know about the Americans. It’s much cheaper to pursue a nuclear capability. It counts for more than improving our conventional arms, which are very expensive and draining us.”

And I think Kim Jong Il—being new, probably not wanting to offend his security types, and maybe, of course, believing it desirable—decided to go ahead with it. What we don’t know is the extent of the relationship from 1997-98 on. We do know that, according to the U.S. government, evidence in 2002 indicated that there was a serious program.

But also there was perhaps some feeling [about] what they thought what was the hostile policy of the Bush administration, and they expedited their effort to get equipment. That effort may have been recently discovered. The details of that effort became available this year. That’s all speculation. That’s the best I can do.

Q: Why did President Bush include North Korea in the same “axis of evil” asIraqandIran?

A: My belief is that it’s a deep personal feeling. North Korea in many ways is a far worse state than Iraq, and they have allowed a large portion of their public to die. Iraq has done some of that too, but the extent of the deaths have probably been greater in North Korea. It is a terrible totalitarian state, much like Iraq. Hence it is an evil state, in my view. And I believe George Bush had deep feelings about this. Now some will say, “Well, we can’t have just two Muslim states, Iraq and Iran, on the axis list.” I don’t put much store in that. I honestly believe [North Korea’s inclusion in the axis] reflects Bush’s deep concern. It also reflects a concern that had been growing with people like Don Rumsfeld and, for a long time, Paul Wolfowitz: that the North Korean missile capabilities presented a potential threat not only to Japan but ultimately to the United States, and it had to be dealt with.

Q: That’s interesting. Now many people who are not in favor of the U.S.effort to overthrow the regime in Iraqhave been saying, “Why are you getting so excited?” So why is the administration getting so excited about Iraq’s nuclear potential when it doesn’t even have any nuclear weapons and North Korea probably has two?

A: I think the United States is excited about the ... Korean situation. But it realizes—quite correctly—that among those deeply involved in the Korean situation are our closest friends, particularly South Korea, which would suffer great damage if there was a war. So Korea has to be dealt with differently. I can’t preclude the possibility that ultimately, if things got worse or if we felt that the North Koreans were proceeding and getting nuclear weapons in a way that really endangered us, we might be back again into a military problem—as [former Defense Secretary] William Perry has often declared, both in writing and speaking, about the 1994 crisis. But at this point, we cannot rally any support if we decide to try to handle this policy militarily. This is aside from the fact that we’ve got enough on our platter already in dealing with Iraq.

The second thing, of course, is Iraq’s other weapons of mass destruction, as well as the possibility that Iraq could get a nuclear weapon, which would change our ability to deal with Iraq. That might give them an opportunity to blackmail a lot of other countries. Of course, we’ve got history with Iraq for the past ten years. You can’t just say, “Hey, let’s forget about Iraq because we’re not doing the same thing in Korea.” That’s a nice debating point, but I think the situations are very different.

Q: So what would be the prognosis for the next several months?

A: I think the U.S. government is being very cautious here. It will proceed in a multilateral way. It will let the Japanese and the South Koreans see what they can do in trying to stimulate a North Korean response. But in the end—and I don’t know when that end is—I think the United States will have to make up its mind as to whether it is going to continue to isolate North Korea or work out a deal of some sort that will end their nuclear arms program and provide adequate verification. When we get to that, I don’t know. But it’s very hard politically for the United States—as many think we should do—to say, “Hey, they violated an agreement, let’s have another agreement.” You get murdered for that sort of stuff.

Q: Is this going to need secret diplomacy, do you think?

A: At some point, perhaps, but it’s not likely. For the next three or four months, we’re going to have to have extraordinary communications and close cooperation, especially with the Japanese and South Koreans, on how to handle this. And to be frank, the United States right now feels that they’ve got to deal with the Iraqi problem and that they don’t want any trouble with North Korea. And so our current policy fits both the nature of the problem and our common need right now not to be distracted.

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