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Samore: N. Korean Atomic Test ‘A Purely Political Act’

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
October 17, 2006


Gary Samore, an expert on nuclear proliferation who took part in negotiations with North Korea in the 1990s for the Clinton administration, says the decision by North Korea to test a nuclear device was “a purely political act”—an act of revenge for the financial sanctions that the United States imposed last fall against illegal banking activities in Macao that were “directly related to the personal income of the leadership in North Korea. And I think as a consequence of that they decided not only to walk away from the Six-Party Talks, but also to take advantage of what they see as a window of American weakness in order to establish beyond doubt that they are a nuclear-armed state.”

The United States today acknowledged that North Korea did in fact test a nuclear device and said it was less than one kiloton. Why do you think it was so small? Was it because the North Koreans are trying to save their plutonium?

There are two theories. One theory is that the test was a partial failure and the device had been designed to have a full yield of between five [kilotons] and fifteen kilotons, which is what you would expect for a first generation nuclear device, and if it didn’t quite work properly then you would have a sub-kiloton yield. The second theory is that North Korea deliberately designed it with a small amount of plutonium, less than [they] would normally use, in order to preserve material and so that’s why you got a low yield. You can’t tell the difference from the technical information that we have available.

Why do you think they decided at this particular point in time to have a test?

I think they calculated they could get away with it.

Do you think they needed a test for technical reasons?

No, I think this was a purely political act. I think they would have been content to continue to engage in the Six-Party Talks without expecting them to go anywhere and continue to acquire additional plutonium. What really flipped the switch and made the North Koreans decide to be more aggressive were the financial sanctions that the United States imposed last fall against these banking activities in Macao that are directly related to the personal income of the leadership in North Korea. And I think as a consequence of that they decided not only to walk away from the Six-Party Talks, but also to take advantage of what they see as a window of American weakness in order to establish beyond doubt that they are a nuclear-armed state.

Do you think that the North Koreans are in part waiting out this administration knowing that there will be a new president in 2009?

They made the decision a long time ago to wait out the administration. Before we imposed the financial sanctions I think they would have been content to go through the motions of the talks without making any serious concessions, but not going so far as to conduct missile and nuclear tests. What really changed the calculation for them was this financial sanction, which led them to decide to take revenge in the form of being very aggressive and establishing that they are nuclear armed.

It’s fascinating because these financial sanctions really show great weakness with regard to the North Koreans. In other words, they seem almost personally affronted that they can’t get illegal money. What did they do in Macao?

These banks are used for a variety of purposes. One was to launder counterfeit money, another was drug sales. There was legitimate commerce involved as well, for example the North Koreans export kimchi and things like that. I don’t know what the balance is between legitimate commerce and criminal activity but in any event this is personal money. This is money that is part of the personal wealth of North Korean leaders so in that sense it was a very targeted sanction that directly affected personal fortunes of North Korean leaders.

‘I think if we had been more creative and showed more finesse in our diplomacy we would not have put the North Koreans in a position where they felt they had nothing to lose and something to gain by moving ahead with missile and nuclear tests.’

Do you think the North Korean leaders were surprised that the Security Council did pass resolution 1718 the other day?

No, I think they anticipated that the Security Council would pass the resolution just as it passed resolution 1695 in the wake of the missile tests in July and I think from North Korea’s standpoint, it doesn’t risk its vital national interest. The latest resolution is very well constructed. It’s very comprehensive in the sense of being targeted against North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, but it doesn’t really affect the forms of foreign assistance that are vital for the North Koreans to survive.

And that’s mostly trade with China?

Trade with China and South Korea in the form of food, fertilizer, cash, cement, oil, and gas. These are the kinds of things the North Korean economy depends on to survive and none of that has been jeopardized so far by the Security Council. And that’s what the North Koreans are counting on: They are counting on the Chinese and the South Koreans to protect them from the kinds of sanctions that might actually jeopardize the survival of the regime.

After the nuclear test China issued some pretty strong language. And today we’re told the Chinese are inspecting North Korean trucks going across the border and they’re building a huge fence.

China is trying to balance conflicting interests. On one hand they do not want North Korea to develop an overt nuclear arsenal because the Chinese are afraid that Japan would take advantage of that in order to move ahead with its military and in particular the Chinese are nervous that the new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be very aggressive about strengthening Japan’s military capabilities. So I think the Chinese are genuinely angry at North Korea and they’re trying to send the signal to North Korea by supporting sanctions and strong public condemnation.

On the other hand I think the Chinese are wary of supporting sanctions that could either provoke a desperate North Korea to take further dangerous actions or could even bring about instability, which in China’s view could cause a number of economic and political problems for them. So as a consequence you get this kind of support for targeted sanctions and opposition to sanctions that would be more general and that would affect the overall North Korean economy.

You’ve worked in the State Department, you’ve worked in the National Security Council. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is going to Asia this week to talk about implementing these sanctions. What is your analysis of U.S. policy? Has the administration done the correct things? Some people from the Clinton administration think the United States should have been more active on a bilateral basis with North Korea. What do you think?

I think we could have avoided the situation we’re in now. I think if we had been more creative and showed more finesse in our diplomacy we would not have put the North Koreans in a position where they felt they had nothing to lose and something to gain by moving ahead with missile and nuclear tests. But in terms of where we go from here in the aftermath of the tests, we have no choice but to try to impose sanctions as strongly as possible and I think the resolution is very well constructed. If you look at it, someone has put a lot of effort into thinking about how to develop targeted financial sanctions against individuals and materials that relate to the missile and nuclear program. In that limited way it is a very good sanction. The trouble is that I don’t think it really jeopardizes North Korea’s interests in a way that is likely to change its behavior. So I don’t think this resolution in and of itself will achieve the objectives that the resolution lays out, which demands that North Korea immediately return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and so forth. The big question is whether the resolution is strong enough to prevent further nuclear tests.

And the winter is coming on. It’s going to get very cold in North Korea and they will need every piece of food they can get.

Well, they have had a pretty good harvest so they are not as desperate for food as they normally might be, but nevertheless I think if they don’t get foreign assistance that would have an impact at least out in the countryside. Of course, the regime is quite willing to sacrifice its people for political purposes. One of the arguments against using food as a weapon is that it is actually not likely to change the calculation of the leadership who are going to have food in any event.

You are one of the few Americans who actually negotiated with the North Koreans. You were there in 1994 when the Agreed Framework was negotiated. How would you describe the cadre of experts who deal in nuclear matters? Are they very well trained?

The ones that I dealt with were very well trained and the interesting thing is that the same team is in place. The same North Koreans that negotiated with us more than ten years ago are still the same people in charge of the nuclear issue, whereas the nuclear team on the U.S. side has gone through several different generations at this point. So they have the advantage of knowing all the history in knowing how to deal with Americans. I think they are pretty effective. The other advantage they have is that their objectives are simple. They can focus all their energies on a very narrow set of objectives whereas the United States, as a world power, of course has many more resources than they do, but we’re also dealing with a lot more issues.

What was it do you think that got them to want to develop a nuclear weapon. They weren’t under any immediate threat. Were they?

I think they see nuclear weapons as essential for the survival of the state because they see themselves as a small weak power surrounded by much bigger, wealthier, stronger countries, and they think having nuclear weapons or the appearance of nuclear weapons is necessary as a deterrent so that other countries won’t put pressure on them. And this goes back at least to the early 1980s. Now some people argue that the origins of the program go back twenty years, the North Koreans hoped that if they developed a nuclear umbrella it would give them an option to seize South Korea through conventional military force. In other words it would give them a cover for an invasion. That may have been part of the original motivation, but their national trajectory over the last twenty-five years has been steadily downward and I think the nuclear program has essentially become a more and more defensive mechanism rather than something that would be used in order to provide protection for aggression against the south.

Let’s go back to the change of administration in 2001. I guess the Bush administration decided early on to cut off negotiations with North Korea.

No, that’s not quite true. The Bush administration did a policy review and it actually decided to continue with the 1994 Agreed Framework provided that North Korea didn’t violate it. So I think the initial decision from the Bush administration, even though there was a lot of controversy about the Agreed Framework, was not to scrap it. They decided to keep it in place. At the same time, as a matter of policy the administration said it was going to try to improve on it and make progress on a number of other issues including human rights, the missile program, and also conventional weapons.

The Bush administration rejected the negotiations that were going on at the very end of the Clinton administration to try to get a missile deal and Bush said “no, we don’t want to get a deal just on missiles, we want to get a much broader deal, a comprehensive deal.” And they tried to do that and they didn’t get very far because I think it was far too ambitious. The North Koreans are not ready to make those kinds of across the board concessions on a whole range of issues. Then in the summer of 2002 the Bush administration concluded that North Korea was cheating by pursuing a second type of nuclear technology called uranium enrichment and they confronted North Korea in a way that was very clumsy. They basically tried to use coercion and international pressure to force the North to give up its nuclear program at the same time that we were mobilizing to invade Iraq and the North Koreans saw a window of opportunity.

And this was several months after the ”axis of evil” speech.

I think that helped to convince the North Koreans that they couldn’t do business with Bush, but what was more important was that we took on two diplomatic battles at the same time. At the same time that we were gearing up to invade Iraq we were also confronting North Korea in a very strong way to coerce them to give up their nuclear program and the North Koreans decided while the build up and invasion of Iraq was taking place, to leave the Agreed Framework so they formally withdrew from the NPT, they expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and they began to reprocess some of the of the plutonium they had on hand. So I think they saw the Iraq War as their opportunity to strengthen their nuclear deterrent which is what they did.

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