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Oberdorfer: Nuclear Test Spurred Negotiations

Interviewee: Don Oberdorfer, Chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 6, 2007

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Don Oberdorfer, a leading expert on the Koreas who met with the top North Korean negotiators this week, says that “important progress” has been made toward normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea. “They may be willing to give up part or all of their nuclear program,” he says. Still, Oberdorfer points out that caution is prudent, at least until more key issues are resolved:  “Like anything with North Korea, nothing is simple. There are a lot of moving parts of this agreement that are going to have to be addressed before reduction or abolition of their nuclear weapons program.”

Don, you’re a longtime observer of the Korean scene; you’ve been to North Korea, and I gather on Monday you were in a meeting—sponsored by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Korea Society—with members of the North Korean delegation in New York to discuss normalization of relations. “Normalization” seems a long way from the tense relationship we were in just a few months ago. Where do we stand now?

Some very important progress has been made toward normalization, which is the most important desire of the North Koreans, and the thing for which they may be willing to give up part or all of their nuclear program. But like anything with North Korea, nothing is simple. There are a lot of moving parts of this agreement that are going to have to be addressed before reduction or abolition of their nuclear weapons program.

How do the North Koreans see it? What has to be done?

The agreement made in February in Beijing really spells out a series of things that have to take place, including the shutting down of the North Korean nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which produced the plutonium used in their first nuclear weapons explosion. The North Koreans are also to shut down other aspects of their nuclear facilities in North Korea, which are attendant to the reactors. And there is to be some kind of discussion leading to the end of the Treasury Department sanctions against the bank in Macao that handles much of North Korean business. Everyone agrees that these things need to happen.

“The negotiations and what led to them, in Berlin and in Beijing, are a good first step and the first positive step that we’ve seen in a very long time.”

The complications are going to come, and are already coming, in the question of how things are phased. Which happens first? How do you determine when a certain action will happen? The North Koreans are very suspicious of the United States, because they have the experience of the United States government agreeing to a variety of things, including normalization of relations—which was in the Agreed Framework agreement of 1994 but never happened.

Some other things happened. We supplied fuel oil under the agreement, but from the U.S. standpoint, the North Koreans cheated on the agreement by accepting from Pakistan some centrifuges, which are the basis of the charge that they are secretly trying to make nuclear weapons material based on highly-enriched uranium, in addition to the plutonium reactor. But the point is it’s pretty well agreed what things have to be done on each side. What is not agreed on is which things happen first, whether the U.S. waits until “X” happens, or whether the North Koreans wait until “Y” happens. [Assistant] Secretary [of State Christopher] Hill was quite aware, even before this week, that there would have to be a lot of negotiating over how these steps actually take place.

In other words, they don’t have a timetable yet.

They have an overall timetable of what should happen within thirty days and what should happen within sixty days. But they don’t have it agreed, within that period of time, how these things happen. Who moves first on various aspects. You know the famous phrase: “The devil is in the details.” These are some of the details that with goodwill can be surmounted, but are going to take some negotiating and some compromises on both sides.

Now on the Macao bank, there have been discussions which started even a couple of months ago. Are they close to completing those or is it still up in the air?

As I understand it, Secretary Hill has promised the North Koreans that within the first thirty days this Macao bank issue will be taken care of. That means thirty days after February 13 when the agreement was reached in Beijing.

So that will be the next ten days or so?

There are news stories that the Treasury is ready to release some of the marked funds and so forth to the monetary authorities. It actually hasn’t been done, and it’s not clear, at least it’s not clear to me, whether that is all of the funds blocked by the treasury. They’d have to be released in the first instance by the Macao monetary authority, not by the Treasury. But the Treasury has to give them the green light. If not all are released, it’s possible that the North Koreans may say, “Well, if you haven’t completely fulfilled your end of the bargain, we may pull back on some at our end.” It can be very sticky.

The North Koreans are supposed to close down the Yongbyon reactor in sixty days?

Yes. In the first sixty days they’re supposed to shut it down. And the agreement calls on them to do the following: “The DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment the Yongbyon nuclear facility, including the reprocessing facility, and invite back IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] personnel to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications as agreed between IAEA and the DPRK.”

And “the DPRK will discuss with other parties a list of all its nuclear programs as described in the Joint Statement, including plutonium extracted from used fuel rods, that would be abandoned pursuant to the Joint Statement.”

On the question of enriched uranium, which was in the news last week, the North Koreans in 2002 reportedly accepted the American contention that they were working on enriching uranium through this hardware that was supplied to them by AQ Khan of Pakistan. But then subsequently, as I recall, they have denied it. Can you elucidate?

What happened was that the North Koreas in October 2002 told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in Pyongyang that they were entitled to have this kind of program all the more because of U.S. hostile intent [President Bush had called North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address that year]. And they said other things the U.S. team interpreted as an admission that they indeed had this program. I was in Pyongyang with former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg exactly one month after Jim Kelly, and the North Koreans said to us that they were entitled to have any kind of nuclear program they want because of the U.S. hostility to them. They never denied for one instant that they have had a highly-enriched uranium program. At the same time, they never made a declarative sentence saying, “We have this program.” But we were talking about how they should get rid of it. Only later in the spring of 2003 they began vehemently denying it. But in the early months, they did not deny it.

And their position today is?

Their position, as they have expressed it publicly and privately, is that “We are willing to discuss this issue with the United States, in the chance to reach some accommodation to settle the question.” But exactly how this is going to be done, what their requirements would be and whether simply a discussion is going to be sufficient is another question.

When you were there you came back with a message from Kim Jong-Il.

When Ambassador Gregg and I were there in November 2002, they gave us something that was called a “verbal message.” Actually it was in writing, from Kim Jong-Il, leader of the North Korea, to President Bush. It said, in effect, “Let’s get together and talk about this.” What it said was, “In keeping with the new century, our countries should come to some understanding.” They asked us not to make it public until it reached the president. They didn’t want this to be a press story. They wanted it to be an actual document that President Bush could consider. So we did not say anything about it as we came out of Pyongyang and went to Beijing and came to Washington.

“I think that some very important progress has been made toward normalization … and they may be willing to give up part or all of their nuclear program. But like anything with North Korea, nothing is simple.”

We took it to the White House and we gave it to the then Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. And we gave it to Richard Armitage, who was then Deputy Secretary of State. Hadley said to us, “We do not want to reward bad behavior.” I did not take it at the time as an absolute rejection of this letter. I said, “No matter what this letter said, even if it was the contents of the telephone book, you can respond to it. You can be in contact with the only person in North Korea who has any authority to make an agreement.” But the Bush administration at that time did not wish to be in touch with those of the “axis of evil.” Secretary Armitage said that he and Secretary of State Colin Powell were very interested in it and hoped it would go somewhere, but it was turned down by the White House, and it was never answered.

What do you think explains the president’s decision to go ahead at the Six-Party Talks and get an agreement and his approval of bilateral discussions with the North Koreans?

As late as last spring, the White House refused to allow Chris Hill to meet with Kim Kye-gwan, the North Korean negotiator, in Tokyo, because it wasn’t strictly part of the Six-Party Talks. Yet in January, Hill was permitted to meet with Kim Kye-gwan in Berlin for two or three days, which actually was the basis of the February agreement later ratified by all six parties.

I think many people were surprised by the February agreement. Were you? What brought it about?

For more than a decade there has been great concern about the fearful day when North Korea might get nuclear weapons. October 9 of last year, the day came when the North Koreans exploded a nuclear device under their soil in the northeastern part of their country. But instead of bringing forth a dangerous struggle and angry rhetoric and even possibly a clash of arms, it was received with relative calm by the United States and other powers in Asia and around the world. Instead of leading to intensified struggle, it led to intensified diplomacy.

But it also led to United Nations Security Council sanctions, right?

It also led to sanctions, but beyond the sanctions were intensified diplomacy and the first hope for serious discussions to avoid clashes between the two countries. The presence in New York this week of the North Korean delegation discussing U.S.-North Korean “normalization” is the evidence of that. And so, you know, to me it’s a great irony and I’m delighted, not because of the nuclear blast, but because we now are in the mode of negotiation, and I’m absolutely astonished. I had thought to myself immediately after this nuclear blast in October that the negotiations would be over, and we’d be heading down the line for some real kind of conflict.

The fact that the Chinese reacted so strongly against that test, did that give the United States some encouragement?

I have consistently called that blast “a precipitating event.” I believe that the Chinese reaction is part of it. I think the reaction of President Bush is part of it. Although the South Korean reaction seemed to be muted, I was in South Korea several weeks ago, and beneath the surface there is a much greater reaction there than has yet been manifested. And the North Koreans have reacted in a different way than might have been expected. It’s caused everybody to stand back and recalibrate what that country’s requirements are. I’m not trying to say there was anything good about the nuclear blast, because I don’t believe there was. But it has led surprisingly to a new rash of moves in the diplomatic field which hold the promise of making, for the first time, some real progress toward improved U.S.-North Korean relations. Having said that, there are lots of complications. There are lots of issues that need to be ironed out. There are lots of issues that have to be addressed. So we’re a long way from home. But the negotiations and what led to them, in Berlin and in Beijing, are a good first step and the first positive step that we’ve seen in a very long time.

Can you see embassies being set up in the capitals and a peace treaty maybe ending the Korean War?

North Koreans have consistently shown almost no interest in embassies being set up in the two capitals. They were offered that during the Clinton administration and they basically turned it down. They already have a mission in New York at the United Nations. I don’t believe they want American diplomats in Pyongyang.

As to the peace treaty, my own interpretation is that they are mildly interested in a peace treaty. But the belief of some people in the State Department that they would give a lot of other things because the peace treaty is very important to them I think is incorrect. I don’t think it’s that important to them. I think they realize that without an actual improvement in relations with the United States, a peace treaty is not going to mean very much.

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