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Samore: ‘Very Skeptical’ New Talks with North Korea Will Bring Progress

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 1, 2006

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Gary Samore, an expert on North Korean nuclear policy, says he is “very skeptical” that the Bush administration can make a deal to end North Korea’s nuclear program when the Six-Party Talks resume. “The North Koreans are determined to retain their nuclear weapons and the United States supported by Japan is demanding complete, irreversible, verifiable disarmament,” says Samore, who participated in negotiations with North Korea in the Clinton administration.

The obvious compromise, he says, is “some kind of a phased disarmament plan that would stretch out over some lengthy period of time. However, I don’t see either Washington or Pyongyang prepared to work together to achieve that kind of a compromise.”

It was announced in Beijing on Tuesday that the Six-Party Talks will be resumed and it was also announced by the U.S. envoy Christopher Hill that there will be talks on the side on the financial sanctions the United States imposed on North Korea last year. Obviously there is some kind of linkage. Do you think that this was always in the cards?

I think the United States was signaling its willingness to talk to North Korea about the financial sanctions as a way to get back to the Six-Party Talks. The North Koreans on the other hand were demanding the sanctions be lifted altogether and I think North Koreans from the very beginning calculated that they would conduct a nuclear test and then go back to the Six-Party Talks as a way to diffuse the anger from China and to defuse international pressures. So it looks to me as if North Korea carefully gamed this out knowing that the compromise was available to talk about the financial sanctions and knowing that if they return to the Six-Party Talks after the nuclear test they would have a stronger hand in terms of the nuclear negotiations. They also knew they would need to take a step to do something to appease the Chinese in particular who were very angered by the nuclear test.

Let’s say talks resume in mid-December or even early January. What do you see as the endgame on this?

I’m very skeptical that the talks will make any progress because the key parties are still very far apart on the essential issues. The North Koreans are determined to retain their nuclear weapons and the United States supported by Japan is demanding complete, irreversible, verifiable disarmament. Between those two extremes there is the obvious compromise, which China, South Korea, and Russia would support—some kind of a phased disarmament plan that would stretch out over some lengthy period of time. However, I don’t see either Washington or Pyongyang prepared to work together to achieve that kind of compromise.

Instead I think the North Korean plan is to basically play out the clock on the Bush administration. They will continue to go through the motions of negotiating, everybody will be happy that there’s a diplomatic process in place, and that the North Koreans are not conducting any more nuclear tests, but at the same time I just don’t see the political will in the either the United States or North Korea to make the kind of really painful sacrifices and concessions that would be necessary to reach an agreement.

Now, you worked for the Clinton administration on North Korea and what I hear from Democrats these days is that they’re criticizing Republicans for being too soft on North Korea. Are the North Koreans reading the script right? Wouldn’t they be better at making a deal with Bush now?

I think the North Koreans decided some time ago they couldn’t deal with Bush in part because of his personal comments about Kim Jong-Il, which I think were deeply offensive. The North Koreans also cite his “axis of evil” speech and all of that.

What did he say about Kim Jong-Il again?

He called him a dwarf, which was colorful language. Kim Jong-Il is the person that makes all the decisions in North Korea. It may not be very politic to hurl personal insults at the person you’re trying to deal with.

I think the North Koreans are convinced, and not without some justification, that the Bush administration would prefer to see regime change in Pyongyang. Even though that’s not the explicit or stated U.S. policy, in fact there are many people in the administration who believe the North Korean regime is ripe for overthrow and who would like to bring that about if they could.

And the financial sanctions will just continue then?

Yes, I think the financial sanctions will continue. The North Koreans are presumably trying to find ways to circumvent them—new outlets for their sales of drugs and counterfeit money and so forth—and presumably the U.S. Treasury and intelligence agencies are trying to find ways to counter the North Korean efforts to evade being caught.

Until this all hit the fan last year I wasn’t aware of these North Korean actions. It seems like a major kind of Mafia operation. Who does this and what do they actually do?

The North Koreans for a long time have been involved in selling counterfeit money, especially U.S. dollars, and they sell knockoff drugs. They print the money in North Korea and I’m told that apparently it’s extremely good quality. It’s not enough to damage the U.S. economy but for the North Koreans it’s an important source of revenue. They also sell drugs, especially amphetamines, and mainly in the Asian markets like Japan. I’ve heard they’re lately making a lot of money selling knockoff cigarettes and knockoff Viagra, which is a big business in Asia.

Let’s talk about last September’s agreement. If it had been carried out, what would it have done?

The September deal was much less than it appears. It was a declaration of principles and of course the North Koreans will agree to the principle of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, but the tough negotiation is how you achieve that. What are the conditions, what is the timing, how is it phased, what kinds of verification arrangements are put in place to counter their efforts to cheat, which are very likely. None of those really difficult details were specified in the September agreement. So even though some people greeted the September agreement as a tremendous breakthrough in fact I thought it was only the beginning of a very tough negotiation. If North Korea and the United States were both really committed to getting a deal, there is enough time left in the Bush administration for them to actually negotiate one. They would have to meet on a very regular expert level, really trying to hammer out the details necessary for an arms control or disarmament agreement. But I don’t think either side is really interested.

Let’s say you’re in charge of the negotiations. What would you try to do?

I think the first step in any negotiation is to try to get a freeze on North Korea’s production of further nuclear materials. When the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework agreement in 1994 with North Korea we insisted as a condition for the negotiation that they freeze the further production of plutonium, because otherwise you put yourself in a tremendous negotiating disadvantage. The Bush administration accepted the Six-Party Talks without insisting on a freeze as a condition. As a consequence, the North Koreans have every incentive to drag the talks out while they build their plutonium stockpile. I think that was a fundamental tactical mistake and if I were advising the administration the first thing I would try to do is at least restore the freeze on plutonium production as a first step. It may be impossible to do so now at this point, but if it’s doable then at least you’re negotiating on a level playing field and then you can try to tackle the really tough issues, like the secret enrichment program, and how to begin to dismantle the nuclear facilities and try to export or get rid of some of the plutonium that the North Koreans have produced.

Now, of course, the North Koreans would be interested in any carrots that would be on the table too.

Yes, and one of the big problems with our negotiating position is that our carrots are much less valuable than they used to be. South Koreans have stepped in and are providing a lot of the essential commodities that North Korea needs to survive in the form of fertilizer, food, and so forth. When the Clinton administration was negotiating with North Korea, the South Koreans were really at arms length with the North and therefore what we could provide was much more valuable. Now what the United States can offer is much less valuable to the North Koreans because they have alternative sources of those essential commodities.

North Koreans always talk about wanting a pledge of nonaggression from the United States.  How important is that? The United States keeps saying, “We’re not going to attack you,” but the North Koreans want some kind of formal statement it seems.

I never thought the North Koreans actually believed that formal or informal assurances were worth very much because they don’t believe what we say. That’s why they think having nuclear weapons is the best form of security they can have. Of course any deal would have to include some instrument for giving political assurances or security assurances that we don’t intend to attack them or we’re not seeking to overthrow their government, but I don’t think the North Koreans have much confidence in such instruments. What really counts for them is balance of power and if they have nuclear weapons they think that’s a much better guarantee that no one will attack them or put pressure on them than pledges or commitments of any kind.

So what you’re saying is really, whoever is the next president, Republican or Democrat, the North Korean issue is really going to be high on the agenda.

Well, it’s certainly going to be an issue that [the next president] will inherit and I think the really difficult political decision for the next administration is whether they continue to pursue President Bush’s approach, which is to seek complete and irreversible disarmament. This is obviously a very desirable goal but one which I think is unattainable. Or is the new president prepared to accept an approach that seeks in the first instance limits and constraints of North Korea’s nuclear capability, for example the number of nuclear weapons it has or the range of its delivery vehicles, and sort of accepts that as the best that can be done under current circumstances. The new president would keep in the distant future the ultimate objective of disarmament as long as the North Korean regime survives.

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