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North Korea's Nuclear Program [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Gary Samore, Council on Foreign Relations Vice President, Former Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Export Controls at the National Security Council
Moderator: Anya Schmemann, Communications Director, Council On Foreign Relations (Washington, D.C. Office)
December 15, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations



Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.

December 15, 2006

ANYA SCHMEMANN:  Good morning, everyone.  I'm Anya Schmemann.  I direct communications here in Washington.  Thank you for being here.

Our timing today is pretty good.  Talks are set to resume on Monday, after a 13-month delay and after North Korea's first test of a nuclear bomb October 9th.  And we're very fortunate to have with us today Gary Samore to discuss our prospects for the talks.

Gary Samore's our new director of studies, which essentially means he's the head of our think tank.  And he was senior director for nonproliferation studies in the National Security Council.  He's been following this very closely.

So, Gary, what has brought the North Koreans back to the table at this point?  Was it the ban on luxury goods that finally did it for Kim?  And are they serious about giving up their nuclear arsenal?  Chris Hill said recently that the United States expects measurable results from these talks.  What will we need to see to be satisfied with the progress of these talks?  The floor is open to you.

GARY SAMORE:  Thank you, Anya. 

Well, thanks all of you for coming on this lovely day.  What I'll do is try to focus on prospects for the upcoming talks and try to answer some of the questions that Anya has raised. 

In terms of the exact state of play, you all know that Chris Hill met with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Gye Gwan, in Beijing the week before last -- with a Chinese minder present.  And Chris laid out the latest U.S. proposal, which is a somewhat more detailed staged disarmament plan, which would start with the North Koreans taking some early steps to demonstrate their good faith, such as suspending activities at the five-megawatt reactor and allowing resumption of IAEA inspections at Yongbyon, and making a full declaration of all their nuclear activities, including the secret enrichment program. 

And then that would be followed in short order, over a period of about 18 months, by steps to completely eliminate North Korea's nuclear capabilities, which include giving up the plutonium they've produced and destroying or disabling their nuclear facility.  And in exchange for that, Chris Hill said the U.S. would be prepared to support or provide food assistance, energy assistance -- much of which would actually come from South Korea -- as well as a normalization of diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang, and the signing of a peace treaty, which would officially end the Korean War conflict.

In addition, as I understand it, the U.S. has proposed to set up a number of working groups, which would work out the technical details of this very complicated scheme.  There would be a group that would focus on denuclearization, a group that would focus on peace treaty, a group that would focus on energy aid, and a group that would look at normalization issues -- not only U.S.-DPRK, but also Japan-DPRK -- and there might even be a fifth group on financial sanctions.

Now as I understand it, Kim Gye Gwan listened very politely and asked a few questions and that was it.  So everybody is wondering what will happen when the North Koreans show up on Monday.  So I'll try to talk about what I think are the likely North Korean position and the various options that Pyongyang has available.

First of all, there's clearly no chance -- zero possibility -- that the North Koreans would accept the U.S. proposal.  I think Kim Jong Il is determined to retain his nuclear weapons.  And the U.S. simply lacks the leverage -- either the threats or the inducements -- to persuade or force him to give up his nuclear weapons.

In fact, when you think about our bargaining position now, compared to the position we had in 1994 when we negotiated the agreed framework, we're really much weaker.  South Korea, you know, the relationship between the North and South is completely changed.  The South Koreans are now providing very substantial assistance to the North.  And they're determined to continue that despite the nuclear tests.  So the North Koreans have the protection, or the assistance of Seoul, which they didn't have before.

The Chinese are playing a direct mediator role in the talks, as opposed to the situation more than a decade ago.  And again, that provides some protection for Pyongyang.  It's true that the Chinese used their muscle to get the North Koreans back to the bargaining table, but I think it's very unlikely that the Chinese would use their leverage to force the North Koreans to disarm, because at the end of the day, Beijing is much more interested in preserving stability than in disarming North Korea.  And Beijing is concerned that if they apply their pressure, it could lead to instability, which would damage Chinese interests.

Third, the North Korean economy is slightly better now than it was in 1994.  So they're not as desperate for food aid and economic assistance.  Fourth, there's the situation in Iraq.  In 1994 we had at least a credible threat of using military force if the North Koreans didn't agree to freeze and eventually dismantle their nuclear facilities.  Now the credibility of a military option is pretty threadbare, if not completely gone.  And so the North Koreans don't feel under the same kind of pressure.

And finally, the nuclear situation is much worse.  In 1994, we thought North Korea probably had enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons.  Now they have enough plutonium for six or eight or 10 nuclear weapons, and they've demonstrated that they can actually make a device work, or at least partially work.  So they're coming to the table with a much stronger nuclear hand.

So given all those factors, the likelihood of achieving disarmament any time soon, I think, is zero. Nonetheless, I think there are several different ways this could play out.  And let me just mention three options Pyongyang has.

First of all, and I think probably most likely, they could just play out the clock on the Bush administration.  I mean, clearly, Pyongyang is thinking about dealing with the next U.S. administration, as other Asian powers are.  And one simple way to deal with the next two years would be to go through the motions of negotiating -- with all of these working groups, there will be plenty of opportunity for talking without making any progress.  So that would be a very simple way for the North Koreans to deal with the situation -- talk without agreement.

The second possibility, which I think we have to take seriously, is that at some point the North Koreans might walk away from the talks and test again.  I think the North Koreans, as they look at the world, they believe they've gotten away with a nuclear test -- that the sanctions that were imposed were symbolic or marginal; that at the end of the day they called China's bluff.  China was very angry, but China did not respond with a crushing punishment against North Korea.

And from North Korea's standpoint, the U.S. even seems to have become more forthcoming after the test.  The U.S. has put a new proposal on the table, the U.S. has agreed to discuss the financial sanctions, and Chris Hill seems to have more flexibility to talk to the North Koreans in a quasi-bilateral basis.  So the North Koreans might decide that if things aren't moving in a direction they like, they might decide to up the ante and conduct another nuclear test.  I don't think that's likely right now, but it's something we have to recognize as a real possibility.

And the third option, which people at the State Department hope is the one that actually happens, is that the North Koreans will come back to the table with a serious counterproposal.  And in particular, the North Koreans might decide to offer to halt activities at the five-megawatt reactor, and to allow inspections to resume there, in exchange for some substantial payoff like a resumption of heavy fuel oil, because from North Korea's standpoint stopping the five-megawatt reactor is not a very difficult concession to make.  The reactor is barely functioning, only produces about enough plutonium for one bomb a year, so stopping it is not really going to damage their strategic capabilities in any really significant way.

But for the North Koreans to make that concession, they will want to break the linkage between suspension and disarmament, in terms of a strict timetable for achieving disarmament.  The North Koreans, I think, are prepared to agree to the principle of disarmament, but they will attach conditions, which will essentially put off disarmament into the indefinite future.

For example, the North Koreans could say, "We will disarm when a peace treaty is signed."  And that puts the North Koreans in the position of controlling when disarmament takes place, because they can always make demands for a peace treaty which they know the U.S. would never accept -- like the removal of U.S. forces as a condition for a peace treaty.

Now, I think the other argument in favor of the North Koreans making this kind of a move is that they may believe -- and this is a pattern that we've seen in the past -- they may believe that in the last two years of the presidency that the U.S. would be more prone to compromise and flexibility.  And the North Koreans have had a habit, as they did with the Clinton administration, of trying to wait until the last, you know, year or so of a presidential administration to see if they can't put forward a proposal which serves their interests, and which they believe the White House might be interested in doing something, both to stabilize the situation and also to make some concrete achievement.

Now, you know, I don't think the Bush administration right now is prepared to accept this kind of a stand-alone restoration of the suspension.  And both Secretary Rice and President Bush have said over and over again, "We don't want just a freeze.  We want real disarmament."  But if it looks like that's not achievable, and if it looks like there's a risk that the talks might break down and that North Koreans resume testing again, there will be at least some people in the administration who will argue that getting a restoration of the suspension restores stability and gives the next administration a somewhat better position to try to deal with this threat.

So in conclusion, I think we're not in a very good situation to achieve much diplomatic process on North Korea's nuclear program.  I think disarmament is no longer a realistic objective for the foreseeable future.  The best we can probably do is to achieve limits on the size of North Korea's arsenal and on its delivery capability, with some sort of indistinct ultimate objective of disarmament, you know, way down the road when there's peace, beauty and justice on the Korean Peninsula.  But I don't think the Bush administration is quite ready yet to accept that very difficult concession.

SCHMEMANN:  So skepticism.

There's some speculation that the North Koreans will in fact conduct a nuclear test next week.  There's a conversation about that -- not necessarily to derail the talks, but to stir the pot, as I think one South Korean observer put it.

Do you think that's likely?  And if it would happen, you know, next week or the week after, would that put an end to the talks right there and then?

SAMORE:  You know, I think the North Koreans probably -- first of all, they don't have that much plutonium.  So I think they have to be cautious about how much plutonium they use for political signaling purposes; although there might be some technical advantage in testing again, since the first one didn't appear to be a complete success -- although nobody quite knows why it failed, or why it didn't achieve a very high yield.

But I think it's unlikely that they would take such a dramatic move right now.  I think it's much more likely that if they were -- they will go through at least a couple more sessions of talks to see whether or not -- or to probe, you know, American flexibility -- before deciding that they could say to other countries like China, "We gave it try.  The Americans are completely stubborn and we have no choice now but to strengthen our deterrent."  So I think it would be -- even for the North Koreans, I think it would be a little, you know, I think it would be a little impulsive to test right now.  I think it's much more likely they'll talk for awhile before they make that decision.

SCHMEMANN:  Let's get the conversation going.

Just to make clear that we are on the record here, we are recording this, and we'll have a transcript available before the end of the day.  (Laughter.)  And we'll also have an audio clip up on our website this afternoon, hopefully, if all goes well. 

So just get my attention and I'll call on you.  Barbara (sp), you are trying to catch my eye.

QUESTIONER:  Oh, sure.

It sounds as though this meeting has been very carefully choreographed to last -- (off mike) -- to show -- you're nodding your head that that process is not dead, that the administration -- (off mike).

SAMORE:  Well, and they will, as I understand it, people are optimistic -- although there can always be last minute hitches -- but they're optimistic they'll set up these working groups.  Then they'll take a Christmas break, and then you'll have sort of a full-court press with, you know, lots of diplomats, you know, presumably filling up the hotels of Beijing.  So it'll be very good for the Chinese economy.

QUESTIONER:  But all the working groups or just the financial working groups?  I think the only one I've heard about -- (off mike).

SAMORE:  Well, I -- you know, my understanding -- and this is just based on discussions with people -- is that the -- that might be an issue that's addressed, you know, more on a bilateral basis, whereas the other working groups that I talked about are ones that all of the six parties would participate in, because they all have a stake. 

So you'd have -- it's going to be a very complicated, you know, negotiating mechanism to have, let's say, four, six-headed working groups, plus the plenary at the Chris Hill level.  And to complicate matters further, you know, Chris Hill is very likely to be appointed as the special coordinator.  And that, I think, at least opens an opportunity, if the administration decides to take it, for him to go to Pyongyang and be hosted at a more senior level by Kang Sok Ju instead of Kim Gye Gwan, which in my personal view would be a smart move, because you're much more likely to do business with Kang Sok Ju than Kim Gye Gwan. 

Now, it's controversial within the administration to send Chris to Pyongyang.  And I think several times planned trips have been canceled because of internal opposition.  But if he gets this new position, there may be arguments within the administration that he should go -- he should go to Pyongyang and that could help set the stage for this very complicated negotiating process to move forward.


QUESTIONER:  You, I think, said twice that the North Koreans simply are not going to disarm.  It seems to me that there's an awful lot of huffing and puffing and going on among six countries for an objective that you say, basically, is unattainable.

Could you cite the benefits that the United States is getting for participating in this exercise?

SAMORE:  Well, I think that the achievement of limits on North Korea's nuclear capabilities is very much in U.S. interests, as it is in the interests of all the other six parties.

If you think about the risks that a nuclear armed North Korea poses to us, whether it's use of nuclear weapons that might arise out of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, whether it's the risk that North Korea might share or sell nuclear technology weapons to other countries or terrorist groups, or there are risks that a nuclear armed North Korea might pressure other countries like Japan or South Korea to develop nuclear weapons.  All of those are very substantial risks to U.S. interests.  And all of those risks are easier to deal with if the North Korean program is capped, and if there is the principle of disarmament.

I mean, I think for the Asian -- for the other Asian countries, recognize that near-term disarmament is not an achievable objective, but if you retain the ultimate objective, the principle of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, then it makes it easier for them to argue that the threat is under control and therefore, they don't need to respond by developing nuclear weapons themselves.

So I think there's a big U.S. national interest in achieving arms control, even if we can't achieve disarmament in this -- you know, in the foreseeable future.


QUESTIONER:  During the aftermath, immediate aftermath of the tests -- the recent tests -- great alarm and there was a lot of talk about, well, the U.N. Security Council needs to act.  It needs to come together with something.  So they came up with a resolution within a week.  And I think one of the things that was most importantly stressed was having China onboard.   What do you see as the sum impact of that U.N. action?

SAMORE:  Well, first of all, I think 1718 is a  very well constructed resolution.  I mean, people really spent a lot of time designing a resolution from a legal standpoint that effectively targets North Korea's nuclear missile programs, you know, from financial sanctions, you know, to procurement activities.  And then, of course, you had a couple of add-ons:  you know, heavy conventional arms and certain kinds of luxury goods.  So I think from that standpoint, it was -- you know, it was well-designed. 

But it didn't really -- the resolution doesn't really threaten the vital sources of external assistance that North Korea needs to survive.  It doesn't really affect the food and the fertilizer and the oil and so forth that it gets either free or with great, you know, subsidies from China and South Korea.  And therefore, I don't think the resolution actually -- from North Korea's standpoint, I don't think the resolution actually causes very much punishment, certainly not enough to -- for them to think that the test wasn't worth it.  I think the view in Pyongyang is they got away with it.

SCHMEMANN:  Is there a symbolic significance, showing the world standing together?

SAMORE:  Yeah, but --

SCHMEMANN:  The EU together with Japan and the United States?

SAMORE:  Yeah, but symbolism only gets you so far.  I mean, North -- from North Korea's standpoint, you know, they're -- in their view, they're, you know, fighting for their survival.  And the most important thing for Pyongyang is to have it cake -- have its cake and eat it, too.  They want to have their nuclear weapons and continue to receive the foreign assistance they need in order to keep the economy going, and so far they've been able to achieve that. 

SCHMEMANN:  Have their caviar and eat it, too.


QUESTIONER:  There doesn't seem to be anything that they've done so far that draws a red line from Pyongyang from Beijing or from anybody else who's an actor.  And I guess I'm wondering what's left.  Suppose they decided to have a meeting with the Iranians to discuss shared technology --

SAMORE:  Right.

QUESTIONER:  -- or something like that that looks like proliferation.  I mean, is there anything that Beijing will absolutely say that we can't tolerate?

SAMORE:  Right.  I mean, it's a very good question, and -- I mean, as you say, the red lines that we and other countries have tried to establish have not been effective.  The North Koreans have pushed past them with relative impunity.  I mean, I -- you know, I personally think that, you know, use of nuclear weapons, you know, which would invite retaliation -- if the North Koreans use nuclear weapons against U.S. troops or U.S. allies, we would obviously retaliate, and I think the North Koreans understand that.  That's why I think, you know, that nuclear deterrence can be effective on the Korean Peninsula.

I think the trickier issue is one of North Korean transfers of technology or nuclear material or weapons.  I think if the North Koreans believe that a transfer of nuclear materials would be detected if terrorists, you know, then subsequently used a nuclear weapon, and that we would then retaliate in kind, I think that would have an effective deterrent.  But that depends upon the North Koreans believing that, you know, we can attribute -- trace back any nuclear explosion to nuclear material that came from North Korea.  And it's important, I think, in order to strengthen deterrence, that we make sure the North Koreans understand that we have pretty good technical capabilities, pretty good forensic capabilities to figure out -- if there was a terrorist nuclear explosion someplace, we have pretty good means to figure out where that material came from, and to communicate to the North Koreans, as President Bush has, that we would consider that the same as a direct, you know, North Korean nuclear attack on the United States.

I mean, if you look at the way that the British and German authorities have been able to trace the trail of this, you know, radioactive material that apparently came from Russia, it's pretty impressive, the sort of forensic capabilities we have.  And I think it's important for the North Koreans to appreciate that they probably couldn't get away with selling nuclear weapons or nuclear material to a terrorist group, you know, without it being detected, if that material was used. 

Now, the technical cooperation between North Korea and Iran, I think that's much more difficult.  It's much more difficult for us to deal with because the North Koreans, of course, sell a tremendous amount of missile-- or have in the past sold a tremendous amount of missile technology to Iran, and that's included, you know, technical exchanges between missile scientists.  And it'd be very hard for us to detect, you know, if there's some, you know, nuclear technology being transferred.

QUESTIONER:  I mean, tests and some of the other actions that they've taken in the past have seemed almost designed to, you know, force the United States to, you know, bend to their will or, you know, at least test the waters to the point -- (audio break from source) -- get a better deal.  I'm just wondering what's left.  I mean, if they said, "We're going to meet with the Iranians and we're going to talk about a nuclear cooperation -- (audio break from source) -- is anybody finally saying no?

SAMORE:  Well, I mean, I don't know that they would announce it.  I mean, they would do it secretly in exchange for cash and oil.  I mean, there's no value to North Korea of doing it publicly.

QUESTIONER:  Well, that's part of my question.  I mean, if they did it publicly, then everybody will be outraged again and so forth.  But will anything change?  Or will it essentially make the rest of the six parties think, "You know, we really have to do something now; we have to not sanction them, but provide them with, you know, an alternative that will stop this from happening"?

SAMORE:  I mean, as I said, I think use is clearly a red line which, you know, people would have to respond to because you'd have a lot of people killed.

You know, I think -- the North Koreans, I think, would like to make a deal that included pledges from them that they won't engage in transfers of nuclear technology or materials.  I mean, they've indicated that that's something that they're prepared to agree to.  But you know, whether that's enforceable or not is the issue is the issue that I'm raising because you can't have much confidence in any pledges of promises the North Koreans make without having a means to verify it.


QUESTIONER:  A two-part question, sort of parallel halves for both the North Korean and the American side.

On the American side, are you seeing -- are we aware of any indications that the Pentagon in its military planning, or the National Security Council in its strategic planning, has already factored in the permanence of a North Korean nuclear force?  (Off mike) -- seen this in any Pentagon papers, Pentagon planning, that even though the U.S. has taken the political position that we do not accept North Korea as nuclear power, the reality from the security planners, both in the Pentagon and elsewhere, is that they -- they're assuming it?

On the North Korean side, conversely, are you -- I mean, this is obviously a very tricky dimension, but are there any outward indications that, with the advent of a -- something of a working nuclear force in North Korea, that their military has gone about the business of really factoring it into their warfighting plan; that they're -- that they've done a lot of thinking, or even perhaps nascent implementation of the locating (distance of ?) command and control, and locating their weapons so that they're able to use these in whatever manner they choose?

SAMORE:  Yeah, well, I mean, those are very good questions.  I can't tell you what's going on inside the Pentagon, but let me just make two observations.

One is that nuclear -- the technical requirements of nuclear deterrence and nuclear options against North Korea are not very demanding.  I mean, it's a lesser included contingency, all right?  We have, you know -- any option we have to use nuclear weapons against any other country, whether it's Russia or China, to use them against North Korea is a very minor, you know, adjustment and a very small portion of our forces.  So that's not a technical challenge at all.  It's no -- there's no difficulty in -- you know, if we had to destroy North Korea, we could do it very easily.

The second question is -- or the second issue you raised is whether people have begun to build preemption options into conventional scenarios, and I assume we have.  And as you know, the Japanese government has talked about the fact that they need to consider preemption, you know, in cases where they believe they're going to be threatened by North Korean missile forces.  And I think this is a very -- under normal conditions, I don't think the use of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula is very likely because the North Koreans don't want war.  They know that using nuclear weapons would, you know, result in the complete destruction of their country.  And obviously, the South Koreans don't want war.  Nobody wants war.  But if there was a crisis, there is some concern that if the U.S. or Japan, for example, saw the North Koreans beginning to mobilize their forces, to the extent that they have any -- I mean, that could be just moving missiles around -- there might be an argument in favor of launching a preemptive strike to try to get -- catch as many of those missiles on the ground as possible, and therefore take away as much as we can North Korea's nuclear capabilities.  And in that case, the North Koreans might feel that they needed to use those forces early on in a conflict rather than run the risk that they would be destroyed on the ground. 

And that's, you know, what people call crisis instability.  It's kind of Cuban Missile Crisis sort of, you know, scenarios.  That's scary to me.  I mean, I could sort of imagine in that kind of a scenario you might -- it might lead to use through miscalculation rather than, you know, any, you know, sort of deliberate act.  And so I think if we're going to have to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, I think that puts a much higher premium on avoiding conventional situations that might escalate.  Which means, you know, rules of the road in the Sea of Japan; it means stronger transparency and other sorts of arrangements along the DMZ -- you know, strengthening the, you know -- which has been very stable.  I mean, the DMZ's been very, very stable despite some incidents over the last 50 years.  So it's not as though we have to -- have to do some revolutionary things.  But I do think we need to think a lot more about avoiding any conventional, you know, incidents that could escalate if we're dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea because I don't think the nuclear balance would necessarily be stable in a crisis.

QUESTIONER:  But any -- I mean, have any -- through -- least likely of all from North Korean sources, but through Western sources, has there been any indication that the North Koreans have actually been doing some strategic planning for command and control, and where do we put these things and how do we integrate them into our battle plans, and how do we get orders down to the --

SAMORE:  Well, the common assumption -- the common assumption is that North Korea would deliver nuclear weapons by missile.  And the belief is that the Nodong missile would certainly be the most likely vehicle they would use because it's big enough and heavy enough, you know, to carry a nuclear warhead of the type people think North Korea's probably capable of building or is seeking to build, and it could reach Tokyo.  So it serves North Korea's strategic interests.

I don't think we know anything at all about North Korea's command and control, storage, that sort of thing.  But obviously we monitor very carefully where we think the North Koreans are placing their Nodong missiles -- in storage bunkers and things that, you know, that they could -- they're -- you know, they're road mobile, so presumably in a crisis they would get on the road and they would move.  And obviously people, you know, in the military in South Korea, Japan and the U.S., that would be a very high -- it would be a very high -- you know, high-priority target in any crisis.  And that's why I'm concerned about what I said was crisis instability, that we might decide to attack early, and that might give them incentive to use weapons early.

SCHMEMANN:  Okay.  This end of the table.

Q    Yep.  And I guess the nuclear test is a turning point for North Korea, and least of the leadership in Pyongyang.  They believe that they have reached a major strategic goal by testing nuclear weapons.

My question is, what do you believe is the next major strategic goal for the leadership in North Korea in the next couple of years?  Is it development of the strategic missile, or its economic development, or it's just lingering around for a peaceful -- peace treatment?

My second question is, if one of the major strategic goals of North Korea is economic development, what is the possibility of progress here for North Korea to open up?

SAMORE:  Yes, well, you're getting a little beyond my expertise, but I'll try to answer your question. 

You know, the North Korean strategic objective is to survive.  They see themselves as a very weak, poor country surrounded by much stronger, richer countries that they don't trust.  They don't trust the Chinese, they don't trust the South Koreans, they don't like the Japanese, they don't like the Americans.  So for them, the name of the game is survival.  And they way they think they can survive is on one hand having a nuclear capability so everybody leaves them alone -- everybody's afraid to pressure them -- and on the other hand continue to extract from their neighbors foreign assistance, which allows them to maintain the regime without making the kind of painful and politically dangerous economic reforms that might jeopardize the control of the country by Kim Jong Il and his close circle.

And as I said, so far they've been quite successful.  On one hand they get, you know, support from China and South Korea, and on the other hand they have achieved a, you know, clear nuclear weapons capability.  So they've been able to -- you know, to achieve both their objectives.

Now, I think the question you asked is a very good one.  Are the North Koreans -- because the North Koreans don't like to take handouts from everybody.  They would love to be independent.  They would love to grow their own food and have their own energy so they don't need to depend on Beijing and Seoul, who they don't trust and might use that as pressure against them.

Whether the North Korean system is capable of the kind of economic reforms that would allow them to revive the economy and to achieve some kind of independence, you know, I'm not an expert in that area.  I'm skeptical.  I mean, I know that Chinese experts hope that China will serve as an example for North Korea, that it's possible to maintain one-party rule and at the same time have a very prosperous and a very successful economy, and China did that.  I'm not convinced North Korea can do that because I think it's a -- it's quite a different political system than the Chinese political system.  So I'm -- you know, I think that'd be very difficult for the North Koreans to make the kind of structural reforms necessary to truly revive their economy.

QUESTIONER:  Actually, it's a follow-up question, if I may.

Probably, I would like to (deepen ?) a little bit about the first point, their strategic goal.  You mentioned that probably the major one is their survival.  That, you know, actually depends:  to survive what?  My understanding of your opinion is that the survival of the nation, but I guess probably more exactly the survival of the leadership, of the regime.  If the worry is the survival of the nation, they would do something else.  But if it's the survival of the leadership, they will do something, you know, different.

So for their nuclear weapon, actually, my belief is that the leadership in North Korea knew very clearly that they did not need these weapons because the United States, China, Japan -- every country, major country surrounding declared very clearly that they are not going to seek any, you know, overthrowing of the leadership, you know, invading of the country.  But anyway, they still persist in doing this.  That because is the very exact reason for the survival of leadership.  They can, you know, unite the party, unite the central -- you know, high commanders of the military and those kind of things.  That's why they are doing that. 

So for the next one or two years -- (inaudible) -- major issue, what they are expecting to do.  I'm inclined to agree with you; if the survival of the leadership is the major goal, they are not going to pay special attention to the economic reform, they are going to do something else.  And what is very important that -- because of the problem of survival is very serious, they are going to take initiatives to make troubles.  So I guess -- what are the directions of the, you know, troubles?

SAMORE:  Well, I mean, first of all, I completely agree with you the most important thing is the survival of the leadership -- you're absolutely right -- rather than the survival of the nation.  That's absolutely right.

And as I said, I do think there is a risk that the North Koreans will decide to make more troubles, but I think that depends a lot on what other countries do.  I mean, I think the nuclear test was a direct response to the financial sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Asia Bank Delta.  And that was basically the North Koreans sending a message:  If you hurt us, we'll hurt you.  So I think it depends a lot on what steps are taken over the next, you know, two years, in terms of whether or not the North Koreans believe that other countries are doing things to punish them and hurt them, whether or not they feel they need to take additional steps in order to strike back.

SCHMEMANN:  Coming around the table.  Yes?

QUESTIONER:  Well, it seems like there are no incentives in this world that would, you know, convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.  But then you also seem to say the pressure is not really the answer, as seen by the nuclear test; if you threaten them, they will come back with even a stronger answer.  So are you thinking that there is something in the middle there that's between pressure and between incentives?

And the second part of my question is, maybe the U.S. strategy within the six-party talks, they may have to come under review because other than North Korea, as you said, South Korea and China have become protections for North Korea.  Do you think the U.S. should maybe kind of change their strategy for those protection countries on North Korea?  Maybe get them to, you know, press them?  Is that --

SAMORE:  Well, those are good questions.  What I was suggesting was that some combination of inducements and pressures would convince North Korea to accept limits on its nuclear capability, such as the number of nuclear weapons that North Korea has.  Because I think from North Korea's standpoint, having a minimal nuclear deterrent is probably sufficient to meet the needs of what they consider to be deterrents.  They don't need, you know, dozens of nuclear weapons to achieve that capability.  So, I think it's possible to reach an agreement -- an arms control agreement -- that would limit the size of their arsenal through some combination of inducements and pressures.  And I think that's in U.S. interests and in the interests of all the countries in the region.

In terms of the U.S. ability to convince or pressure other countries in the six-party talks to share the U.S. desire for complete disarmament in the near terms, I think just as the U.S. is in a weak position vis-a-vis North Korea, the U.S. is also in a weak position vis-a-vis China and South Korea.  Because the U.S. is so completely absorbed by the needs of dealing with the Middle East that it really, I think, makes it very difficult for the U.S. to, you know, have a crisis in East Asia.  And you know, obviously, the, you know, U.S.-Chinese relationship is, you know, very complicated these days, you know, in terms of economic issues.  I just don't think the U.S. is in a position to -- you know, the U.S. has, in many ways, given China the lead role in dealing with security issues on the Korean peninsula, because China's acting as a mediator to try to keep the talks going.  And so it's very hard, I think, for the U.S. to persuade or force China to see the world the way the U.S. sees the world.

QUESTIONER:  Does that put the six-party talks in a very long stalemate, because obviously, it's not getting the cooperation that it needs or wants?  So just let it straddle along?

SAMORE:  Well, I -- you know, as I said, I think the most likely outcome is that the six-party talks will continue without making any progress.  And then I think in a way, all of the countries could accept that kind of an outcome.  I mean, from the standpoint of the U.S., at least there would be a diplomatic process in place, even if it wasn't making any progress, and the North Koreans wouldn't be testing anymore nuclear weapons.  And obviously, China and South Korea and, to some extent, Japan could live with that kind of a situation where, you know, basically there's a process without any progress.

The question, you know, which Mr. Lee raised -- and I think it's an interesting one -- is whether the North Koreans are willing to just spend the next two years talking and doing nothing.  And you know, I don't know.  I think the fact that they conducted the test and think they got away with it suggests that there is a risk that they might, at some point, decide to cause trouble.

SCHMEMANN:  Maybe they've learned lessons from the Middle East peace process.

Aiya (ph), do you have --

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  I think that there's -- (inaudible) -- as a country -- (inaudible).  You just mentioned that if North Korea's object is to survive, they need to get some assistance from maybe the ROK or Japan.  But it seems that Japan has been very frustrated with the North Koreans; especially the Abe new administration is very hard to North Korea.  And do you think that that kind of -- you know, those frustration will be disposed to keep the six-party talks framework?

SAMORE:  Well, the North Koreans have complained about Japan attending the six-party talks.  But most people I talk to think that's not going to be used as an excuse to refuse to come.  The North Koreans will refuse to deal with some of the issues that Japan has -- like the abductee issue -- for the time being and probably won't agree to resume, you know, the bilateral talks that have taken place between Tokyo and Pyongyang to try to deal with the, you know, with the issue of disappeared people.  But you know, I don't think that will end up being an obstacle to having the six-party talks take place.

The big problem in the six-party talks is the dispute between the U.S. and North Korea over nuclear issues.  The North Koreans are determined the retain their nuclear weapons; the U.S. is determined to seek disarmament.  And there's no way to reconcile that big difference.  So, I don't think that, you know, Japanese-North Korean problems are likely to be as critical as those nuclear disagreements.

SCHMEMANN:  How about Russia's role?  What do they bring to the table?  Now that China has increased influence in these talks, is Russia reduced to really the junior partner?

SAMORE:  Yeah, I think Russia's a marginal player, because they no longer have much of a presence in East Asia, and they don't provide any large forms of assistance to North Korea.  So therefore, they don't have much leverage.  So, of all the six parties, Russia's probably the least important.

SCHMEMANN:  Brian, we haven't heard from you yet.

QUESTIONER:  Is there any sort of debate inside the IC about the likelihood that North Korea might want to give nuclear technology or materials or a weapon away to a terrorist group?  Is there some sort of debate in there?  And how good do you think the analysts in the North Korea shop are at sort of getting inside Pyongyang's head?

SAMORE:  Well, North Korea's one of the most difficult countries in the world to monitor and analyze.  And so I think as a consequence, you know, we don't have very good information or analysis or North Korea's strategy.  And that's not a fault of the intelligence community, it's just an extremely difficult country to understand.  I think that even China and South Korea, you know, have difficulties.  It's very secretive and, you know, it basically comes down to what's in Kim Jong Il's head.  I think that my sense is that, as I said earlier, I think people believe that if Kim Jong Il thought that a nuclear weapons transfer could be traced back to Pyongyang, then the financial benefits would be outweighed by the potential risk, and especially because they have such a limited arsenal and, therefore, not that much nuclear material to spare.

Now, the question is whether or not, as they get more nuclear material, whether it becomes easier for them to feel they can, you know, spare a little bit by selling it or if, for whatever reason, the North Koreans convince themselves that they can do it in a way that won't be traced back to them.  So, that's why I said earlier I think it's very important to convince the North Koreans that from a technical standpoint, if they transferred nuclear material and if that material was used in a terrorist attack, we would have very good means to figure out that it came from them.  And therefore, to make it clear to them that they would pay a very high price for that.

QUESTIONER:  Do we have -- I understand that -- Do we have any sort of sense of are they so cash desperate that they think they still might be tempted?  I'm just curious about whether this is something that lives in the IC's mind as an obvious logical possibility or something that they really think is a front for --

SAMORE:  You'll have to talk to them.  I don't get the sense people feel that it's sort of, you know, at the very top of the list of urgent and, you know, very likely threats.  Obviously, it's something people have to be worried about, because we know that al Qaeda would love to get a nuclear weapon, and they would use it without hesitation.  So, you know, that's something people have to be nervous about.  One good thing is there are no obvious connections between North Korea and al Qaeda.  You know, it's not like they live in the same world, you know, whereas a country like Iran you could make a more plausible case that there might be some ideological link, if not between al Qaeda then between Hezbollah and Iran, and sort of it's a little bit more plausible that they indeed (are the ?) kind of connections that might lead to some nuclear transfers.  But the North Koreans don't have any links that I know of to Middle East terrorists.

QUESTIONER:  And UBL actually might be happier with Koreans that Shi'a.  Do you have any sense of sort of how South Korea or China or others actually do on HUMINT inside North Korea compared to us?  Is there any --

SAMORE:  Well, of course, the South Koreans have the advantage of having received a lot of defectors who have left North Korea over the last decade or two.  The trouble with that, the trouble with defector information, as we know in the case of Iraq, is that it's very uneven and sometimes very difficult to substantiate.  And so, there's been a lot of defector information on a whole range of issues relating to nuclear, chemical, biological, missile programs and so forth.  So, there's a lot of sort of substance there, but my sense is that people in the business are pretty skeptical whether that information is actually valid, is actually, you know, is actually legitimate.

SCHMEMANN:  Okay, Tom.

QUESTIONER:  You have probably rightly stressed the reality of the pragmatic approach of focusing on limits, ultimately negotiating a strong system of limits on what the North Koreans can have.  But I have to wonder, in terms of the broader proliferation picture with Iran and otherwise, whether this is going to be an absolutely devastating result for the proliferation system, to use a general term.  If a country such as North Korea -- which enjoys almost no meaningful links to the outside world, particularly the big powerful countries of the world, and one that is rightly or wrongly branded as sort of international outlaw on the outs with the international community in so many regards -- is able to escape sanctions, escape a program, cut a deal, have a permanent, if modest, nuclear force, why not anyone?

SAMORE:  Well, I think you're right that there's a political risk to the regime, to the international nonproliferation regime.  That's why I think it's important to preserve the principle of disarmament.  And you know, you can figure out a way to link disarmament to the achievement of, you know, greater peace and stability on the Korean peninsula so that you haven't sacrificed the ultimate objective of nonproliferation, as we've done in the case of other countries like India, for example.  But nonetheless, I do think there's a risk there. 

The one thing I would say in connection to the Iran case, though, is that even if North Korea didn't exist, the Iranians would feel confident that they can move ahead with their nuclear weapons program for many of the same reasons the North Koreans feel confident because of Iraq, mainly.  But also added to that because they feel protected by, you know, disunity among the big powers in New York and the high oil prices and everything.  So, I don't think the Iranian confidence that they can ignore the Security Council and move ahead with a nuclear weapons program has nothing to do with North Korea.  Even if North Korea didn't exist, the Iranians would be acting exactly the same way. 

QUESTIONER:  But it gives them another leg to stand on.  It gives their hard-liners hope.

SAMORE:  But what I'm saying is they don't need that hope.  They've convinced themselves -- even if North Korea, you know, if there was no North Korea at all, the Iranians would calculate that they're in a strong enough position to move ahead with impunity.

QUESTIONER:  Right, but North Korea was an important model for them.

SAMORE:  I mean, if you said that to an Iranian --

QUESTIONER:  Maybe not now but, you know, five years ago.

SAMORE:  I don't think the Iranians see themselves as the same kind of country as North Korea.  They see North Korea as this very strange, you know, hermit kingdom with a, you know, odd leader.  They see themselves as, you know, a big, important country, ancient civilization, very sophisticated and worldly.  They don't -- it's not -- they don't make any connection between the two, really, I don't think.  I don't know.

QUESTIONER:  I think there's some sense in which they've watched the way the world has treated North Korea, however, and they've gamed the system by watching this process unfold.  And we're a similar process, obviously, with Iran, where (there are going ?) to be sanctions, but as a very limited nature that did not have any --

SAMORE:  I mean, more often, I've heard Iranians make the comparison with India and, you know, because that's another big country, ancient civilization, you know.  And they say just like people eventually accommodated themselves to India having nuclear weapons, the world will eventually accept us as a nuclear-armed state, because we're too important to be isolated and ignored.

QUESTIONER:  I think just to briefly follow up, I think my concern would be that it gives support to that perhaps second or third tier of potential nuclear breakout states -- the Brazils, the Saudi Arabias, the others -- who, depending on changing strategic circumstances, might say well, if a so-called international outlaw state like North Korea is able to break out and find a satisfactory deal, just think of the relatively soft landing politically that we're going to have. 

SAMORE:  Well, there is, I think, a real risk of a next wave of proliferation after North Korea and Iran.  I mean, assuming, just for the sake of argument, that both those countries acquire nuclear weapons.  But I think the risk is not global, it's regional.  And the concern I have is that North Korea could ultimately, you know, drive Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons, and that Iran could drive the Saudis and maybe the Turks and the Egyptians to develop nuclear weapons. 

So, I think the response to that is going to be very much tailored to the regional circumstances.  And in particular, in East Asia, the technical limits or technical constraints on nuclear proliferation are very low, because all of those countries have such advanced civil programs that they could move ahead quite quickly.  But the political constraints in East Asia are still very high because of domestic, political considerations, and because they have a good security relationship with the U.S. 

In the Middle East, it's the opposite.  There are no political constraints on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.  I mean, the Arab countries do not consider the NPT to be a very legitimate instrument, because Israel was excluded.  But the technical constraints are still very high.  None of the Arab countries have a well developed civil program, and it would take them many years, unless they get substantial foreign assistance, to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

So, in East Asia, I think the U.S. and other countries will focus on strengthening the political barriers, and the Middle East will focus on strengthening the technical barriers and try to, you know, reduce the risk or at least try to delay as much as possible further proliferation from taking place.

I think -- I'm just going to say I think that's going to be the proliferation story for the next couple of decades is whether, you know, North Korea spawns nuclear weapons in Japan and South Korea and whether Iran spawns nuclear weapons in Saudi and Egypt and Turkey.

SCHMEMANN:  What's the political dynamic in this town, Gary?  Obviously, the Bush administration's eager for some good news and to show that they're making progress on at least one front.  Chris Hill seems to be authorized to make deals.  You're heading up to the Hill after this session.  Where does Congress stand on all of this?  Are they onboard?

SAMORE:  You know, I think if the administration keeps the negotiating process alive and avoids more North Korean nuclear tests, that will be considered a success.  On the other hand, if the administration makes very difficult concessions and agrees to abandon near-term disarmament in exchange for short-term limits on North Korea's program, that would be very controversial.  And I think, in particular, you know, some members of the president's own party would think that that, you know, for a variety of reasons -- some of the ones you've raised and also the very important fact that the North Koreans have an extremely poor record of honoring their agreements -- so people will, you know, legitimately ask, you know, even if you got limits on paper, could you really count on them to actually carry it out?  So, I think that from a political -- I mean, I don't think the Democrats would criticize that so much.  But Senator McCain, for example, has always been highly critical of the Agreed Framework and other limited deals with the North Koreans.  So, you know, from that standpoint, that might be an argument against making that kind of concession.

SCHMEMANN:  All right.  Maybe one more question, and then we'll wrap things up early.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, I guess one of the greatest worries for the United States is nuclear materials as well as technology proliferation to the terrorist groups.  There is -- actually, there are some activities and efforts to build a kind of mechanism to prevent these kind of things.  Could you share some insights about the directions and what you know?

SAMORE:  Sure.  Well, I mean, this is a very technical issue.  And there's someone else who works at the council called Michael Levi, who's much better able than I am to answer those questions.  But yes, there are efforts under way to try to develop mechanisms for detecting the transportation of nuclear materials.  So, for example, you know, if North Korea decided to sell plutonium to al Qaeda, they would have to transport that somehow -- by ship or plane or diplomatic pouch or somehow they'd have to transport it -- and efforts are being made to try to, you know, to build various types of detectors.  That's very challenging.  I mean, there are things that you can do, but it's not really a very fool-proof system, because you're talking about a very small amount of material.  I mean, six kilograms of plutonium is, you know, like this.  I mean, it's very, very small, and it's not a big object.  But nonetheless, I think there are important technical measures that can be made. 

The more important technical means, as I said earlier, is that if nuclear material is used in a nuclear explosion, then the residue of that explosion provides very strong forensic information about where the material came from.  Because nuclear material has a particular signature, and this is a very well developed science.  Because in the days of the Cold War when all the nuclear powers were conducting atmospheric tests -- the U.S. and France and China and Russia -- they all collected debris.  And so, they have a very good understanding of how to analyze the debris of a nuclear explosion and from that determine the characteristics of the original material that was used.  So I say, that's a pretty strong technical means to determine where nuclear material came from.  I mean, unfortunately, it's after it's been used, which is not the best, but still --

QUESTIONER:  How about the kind of international, you know, mechanisms like --


QUESTIONER:  Yeah, yeah.

SAMORE:  Well, you know, PSI works when you have good intelligence.  So if, let's just say, in theory -- I mean, if the U.S. had really good information that North Korea was, you know, putting plutonium on a plane, you know, to go to, you know, to go to Iran, then I'm sure the U.S. government and the Chinese government would work together to stop that transfer from happening.  Or if the U.S. had information that a ship was carrying plutonium from North Korea to some place in the Middle East, I'm sure that the U.S. and Japan and South Korea would work together to stop that ship and, you know, prevent that transfer.  But that kind of action depends upon having actionable intelligence which is often very difficult to obtain.

SCHMEMANN:  Any final comments from anyone?

QUESTIONER:  One short question, yes.  In retrospect, when you were working with Ambassador Gallucci, did you even imagine that something like the North Korean situation would get this far, that it would actually go through the nuclear test?  And did you have plans for this, an idea of how you deal with this?

SCHMEMANN:  What do you know, Gary?  (Laughs, laughter.)

SAMORE:  Well, I mean, I always saw the Agreed Framework as a temporary solution rather than a final solution.  Because the Agreed Framework froze the program -- the program that we knew about -- and established a long-term disarmament plan linked to the construction of the light-water reactors.  And me and I think everybody else in the U.S. government always questioned whether or not North Korea would actually, at the end of the day, carry out their commitments under the Agreed Framework to give up, you know, the plutonium they thought they had and destroy their plutonium production facilities.  Well, now we know the answer.  The North Koreans, you know, decided to cheat on the Agreed Framework, because they didn't want to have to give up their nuclear weapons capability.  So for me, that's very compelling evidence that North Korea is not interested in nuclear disarmament, that North Korea is determined to retain a nuclear weapons capability one way or the other.  And I think the collapse of the Agreed Framework and the way the Bush administration dealt with that, unfortunately, resulted in North Korea being able to advance its nuclear weapons capabilities in terms of producing more plutonium and, ultimately, conducting a nuclear test.  But I don't blame the Bush administration for the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons because, as I said, I think that's something they're determined to do no matter what the U.S. does.

SCHMEMANN:  Okay.  Well, thank you all for coming.  And I'll be e-mailing around our transcript as soon as we have it.







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