Council on Foreign Relations
New York, New York
STEPHEN BOSWORTH: If I could have your attention, please, I think we would like to get started. We have a limited amount of time and a vast subject.
It’s my pleasure to be here with you this morning, and it’s my particular pleasure to preside at this—over this program with—which is going to focus on the North Korean weapons program.
We are going to have two presenters this morning, as you know from the program: Mr. Adam Ward, who is a senior fellow for East Asian security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and of course Gary Samore, who is the director of studies and senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
I’ve known Gary for about 10 years. He was very involved in the negotiation of the Agreed Framework of 1994, the first such agreement with the North Koreans. My favorite memory of working with Gary was after we had established the Korean Energy Development Organization, and we were embarked upon an arduous negotiation with the North Koreans, trying to define exactly what it was that he and Bob Gallucci had agreed to give them in return for the freeze of their nuclear program. And I had been sort of parachuted into this from the outside and for my sins was negotiating with the North Koreans, Gary sitting at my right hand.
And at one point during a particularly acrimonious discussion with the North Koreans, Gary passed me a note, in which he said, “You know, it’s all right to show that you’re angry, if you are indeed angry.” (Laughter.) And I did, and I felt better immediately. (Laughter.)
So Gary and Adam are going to talk for about 20 minutes or so, and then we’re going to throw this open to questions and answers. And we will all three come up behind the screen, which will magically rise, and we will be available. Thank you.
GARY SAMORE: Thank you, Steve, for that very kind introduction. And I want to say that it was a great pleasure to work with Steve and support him in those difficult negotiations with the North Koreans. And he not only showed anger, he also showed a lot of wisdom and, I think, skill as a negotiator.
Welcome to all of you for coming here. What we’d like to do is brief you on the main conclusions of the study that the institute has just released on North Korea’s weapons programs.
What we’ve tried to do is provide a comprehensive and an objective history and technical assessment of North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, missiles, over the past several decades. And in addition, we’ve looked at the conventional balance on the Korean peninsula, and we’ve tried to put things in political context by talking about the last several decades of efforts to try to negotiate with the North Koreans and end or limits on their various military programs.
Before I get into the substance, I just need to mention to you something about the sources and the assessment challenges that we faced.
As you can well imagine, it’s extremely difficult to get reliable and complete information on North Korea, in large part because the North Koreans not only try to protect those secrets, but they also have an active effort under way to try to manipulate the outside world’s perception of what their capabilities are. Sometimes they deny capabilities that actually exist; sometimes they try to exaggerate or even invent capabilities that don’t exist. And so one has to keep in mind that whatever we think we know about North Korea, it may very well be influenced by active North Korean efforts to try to shape those perceptions.
But in terms of public domain information, we’ve relied on official government assessments from the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia. These are documents that have been made public by those governments, based on intelligence information, as limited as it is.
Some of the information comes from direct observation, such as IAEA inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities, which gives us a pretty good technological baseline for understanding the basic characteristics of those facilities. There have also been some missile tests, which allows you to measure some of the technical parameters of the missiles that North Korea has either deployed or has under development.
Third, there are leaks of classified information in the American or South Korean or Japanese press. Obviously, this has to be treated with caution because leaked information is not necessarily accurate information, but it is part of the publicly available information.
Fourth, and even more difficult to assess, there is a variety of information from defectors and refugees from North Korea. And in the book you’ll see we’ve actually compiled charts and lists, without being able to necessarily verify any of the information, but we’ve tried to bring together so that the reader will understand the kind of things that are out there in the public domain in terms of the few dozen North Korean defectors who have provided information either firsthand or secondhand on what they claim to be North Korean weapons programs. In addition, there are secondary sources, some very good books that have been written, and we’ve cited those for people that are interested in further reading.
And finally, as I mentioned, there’s the North Korean government itself—information that has to be considered, but also has to be taken with some caution.
Let me get into the guts of our assessment.
First of all, in terms of the nuclear assessment, which I think is the key one certainly for the U.S. and for most countries, there are two main issues that have to be determined in order to complete an assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The first is the quantity of weapons-usable nuclear material. That’s either separated plutonium or highly enriched uranium that North Korea has at hand—their past stocks, their present stocks and their future production.
Second, there’s the ability to design and fabricate reliable nuclear weapons without a full nuclear test. In other words, in making a nuclear assessment, size matters. How large is the stock of material? How small are the nuclear weapons? Those are the two key questions.
In order to conduct this assessment, we’ve made three key assumptions, which you’ll have to keep in mind.
First, we assume that the sole source of fissile material for North Korea are known facilities. In the case of plutonium production, that’s a small Soviet-provided research reactor and a 5- megawatt reactor, which the North Koreans built themselves in the 1980s. In other words, our assessment is based on the assumption that there’s been no imported fissile material or secret facilities to produce fissile material that we don’t know about.
Second—and this is important because it’s not usually taken into consideration in most public assessments—when you have plutonium and spent fuel, you never are able to extract 100 percent; there’s always some loss rate; there’s some plutonium that is not separated and continues in the waste stream. And we’ve assumed a loss rate of 10 to 30 percent, which I think is a reasonable range for the kind of technology that the North Koreans have available compared to similar types of facilities in other countries.
And finally, third, we’re assuming that North Korea is seeking to develop or has developed simple implosion-type fission weapons. These are early generation weapons, which would use about 5 to 8 kilograms of plutonium for each weapon, or 20 to 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium for each weapon. Now, of course, you can make nuclear weapons with less material, but our assumption is that given the constraints on North Korean knowledge and technical capabilities, and given their constraints on being able to conduct a full nuclear test, they’re much more likely to go for a simple, robust, reliable system that would use nuclear material in this range.
So those are the key assessments—or key assumptions we have made.
Now turning to past plutonium, prior to 1992, before the Agreed Framework was put in place and a freeze on North Korean production facilities, we think it’s plausible that North Korea could have separated enough plutonium from the spent fuel they had from that Soviet-supplied IRT research reactor and their five-megawatt research reactor for one or possibly two nuclear weapons. Of course, the actual amount of plutonium they actually—they had before 1992 is really not known. And in the Agreed Framework negotiations that Steve referred to, the North Koreans fiercely protected the knowledge of how much plutonium they actually had on hand before 1992. In other words, they tried to preserve their strategic ambiguity. And they knew at the time—the U.S. was saying publicly that they might have enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. So from North Korea’s standpoint, the Agreed Framework, even thought it froze any further production of plutonium, it allowed them to keep, for the time being—until a certain stage was released—was achieved in the construction of the light-water reactor project—it allowed them to preserve that ambiguity about how much plutonium they really had.
Now, since the end of the nuclear freeze in December 2002, after the North Koreans were found to be cheating on the Agreed Framework by seeking to develop an enrichment capability, the most immediate source of plutonium the North Koreans had available on hand were some 8,000 spent fuel rods from that five-megawatt reactor, which had been discharged and stored in North Korea since June of 1994. The IAEA estimates that that plutonium has about 25 to—that that spent fuel has about 25 (kilograms) to 30 kilograms of plutonium in it. And if you take into consideration some loss from reprocessing and the range I mentioned for how much plutonium would be required for each weapon, that will give you about two to five weapons if the North Koreans separate all that plutonium and use it to fabricate nuclear weapon components.
We don’t know what the status of that spent fuel is. The North Koreans have claimed that they separated all the plutonium in April to June of 2002, and they have tried to show evidence to the U.S. team that was there recently in order to demonstrate that they have, in fact, separated all the plutonium. They showed them an empty spent fuel pond. They also showed them some small amounts of raw plutonium, both in metal and oxide form, that had been separated. But nonetheless, that’s not final proof. We don’t have any independent verification about what happened to the spent fuel rods, how much has been reprocessed, and whether or not the North Koreans have fabricated nuclear weapon components with that separated plutonium.
In terms of North Korea’s ability to produce fresh plutonium, the only known system they have is that little five-megawatt reactor, which, under generous assumptions about power and operating capacity, can produce about enough plutonium for one additional weapon per year—again, taking into consideration some losses.
So that means that in the near term, North Korea’s nuclear capability, if you add up the one or two bombs they could have had before 1992, the two to five bombs they could have in the existing spent fuel, and one more a year, there—the range, the size of the arsenal could be about four to eight nuclear weapons over the next year. And that would increase at a relatively slow rate of about one weapon per year, until they can complete additional facilities that can produce larger amounts of fissile material.
There are two such facilities that we know about. One is a 50- megawatt reactor, which was under—this is a bigger version of the five-megawatt reactor. That was under construction, said to be about a year or two away from completion at the time of the 1994 Agreed Framework. It’s been frozen ever since.
Second is a production scale enrichment plant, which the U.S. concluded North Korea was building. In the summer of 2002 the U.S. reached that conclusion. It’s thought that the North Koreans probably were seeking to acquire materials for such a facility for a few years.
In theory, the 50-megawatt reactor, if it was completed and operated at maximum capacity for 300 days a year, could produce about 55 kilograms of plutonium a year, which is enough for five to 10 nuclear weapons, taking into consideration reprocessing losses and the amount required for each weapon. It’s more difficult to assess the capacity of the enrichment plant, because so little is known about it. But based on information that’s been made public by the U.S. government, as well as information about some thwarted North Korean procurement efforts, we estimate that it appears to be designed to produce about 75 kilograms of highly enriched uranium annually, which would be enough for three simple implosion weapons using enriched uranium instead of plutonium as the core.
I think it’s impossible to predict with any certainty when these larger facilities will be finished. It depends on a political decision on Pyongyang’s part, and it depends on a number of technical factors which are unknown to us.
In a worst case, if these facilities were completed in the next year or two, then North Korea’s output of nuclear weapons could really significantly increase by the middle of this decade, to about eight to 13 weapons every year. That would be a big jump from them having a handful of weapons to having dozens of weapons within a relatively short time.
A more cautious assessment, which I think is more likely, taking into consideration possible technical difficulties as well as interdiction efforts, is that these facilities will probably not be completed until the second half of the decade. And some of the recent information we have about the 50-megawatt reactor which, as I said, has been idle for eight years now, suggests that it’s suffered from a lack of maintenance during that period of the freeze, and that may complicate North Korean efforts to complete the facility. We have further details in the book about some of the questions about whether North Korea has produced all the fuel and the graphite for this facility, as well as some of the key components.
So in terms of the diplomatic clock, it seems to me that the main theme or our main conclusion for you is that there’s still time on the diplomatic clock to reach agreement with North Korea to halt and eliminate their program while it’s limited to just a handful of nuclear weapons, or potentially a handful of nuclear weapons. But as time elapses, a diplomatic solution is going to become more difficult as Pyongyang acquires additional strategic bargaining chips, and as the verification uncertainties increase. The more fissile material or potential nuclear weapons they have on hand, the more difficult it will be for anybody to ever know whether they’ve really given it up. And in any event, as their capabilities grow, it seems to me there’s a greater danger that peace and stability on the Korean peninsula could be undercut; that others states in the region will decide they need to pursue nuclear weapons because of the North Korean threat, or that North Korea might even risk an effort to sell nuclear material or weapons to other states or terrorist groups.
Turning to chemical and biological weapons, much less is known. There have never been any international inspections. There have not been the same kind of effort by the intelligence community to gather information. And the nature of the technology, because it’s so dual- use, is much more difficult to do a good assessment of. On balance, we judge that North Korea probably has produced and stockpiled a variety of chemical weapons, as well as agents which can be delivered through artillery shells, aerial bombs, rockets, missiles, and so forth. But we don’t think there’s enough information to do a meaningful estimate of the amount and type of agents and munitions. There just isn’t enough information.
Presumably, from North Korea’s standpoint, chemical weapons would be attractive both as a military instrument, which they could use on the battlefield against U.S. and South Korean forces, as well as a strategic asset to threaten civilian casualties in the event of a general conflict. And arguably, North Korea might view the value of chemical weapons as having increased over the past decade since their nuclear program was frozen under the agreed framework, and since their conventional forces have suffered a relative decline over the last 10 or 15 years because of financial difficulties.
Turning to the biological weapons program, there’s even less information. It’s even more difficult to arrive at any strong conclusions. There’s a general—I think there’s general agreement among U.S., South Korean and Russian governments that North Korea has at least conducted research and development on a variety of biological agents, but there doesn’t appear to be enough information to reach a firm conclusion about whether they have any produced—whether they have actually produced and weaponized biological agents.
Turning to ballistic missiles. Very conservatively, we estimate that North Korea has deployed about 120 short-range, Scud-type missiles—which they call the Hwasong-5, 6—that can reach targets throughout South Korea, and about 40 medium-range Nodong missiles, that are capable of reaching targets in Japan. These are missiles that are actually deployed in the field. If you counted missiles that were in storage and in reserve, then the total missile inventory would probably be several hundred. And if North Korea wanted to, they could certainly deploy additional missiles. That’s not a constraining factor in terms of their delivery capability.
From North Korea’s standpoint, these missiles presumably serve both a military and a political purpose. From the military standpoint, if they were armed with high-explosive warheads or chemical or biological warheads, they could be used as long-range artillery to attack rear communications areas and to try to prevent reinforcements. As a military instrument, the missiles provide North Korea with a credible means of attacking cities in South Korea and in Japan, which, from North—which, from North Korea’s standpoint, helps to increase deterrence and helps to discourage Seoul and Tokyo from pursuing policies that might increase the risk of conflict.
In terms of their actual military effectiveness, I think there’s no doubt that the effectiveness of North Korea’s missile force in a war would be reduced by a number of factors, including poor accuracy, vulnerability to preemption, most likely the attrition of launchers and crews in a war, as well as missile defenses. But given the size of the forces, given the fact that they have been very well hidden, that there are mobile systems, it’s likely that some missiles would get through.
The status of North Korea’s efforts to develop longer-range systems, including systems that might be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon against the United States, is much more difficult to assess. Back in August of 1998, the North Koreans launched a three- stage rocket called the Taepo Dong I in an effort to place a satellite into orbit. Even though stage separation was successful, the actual launch didn’t work, and the satellite was not placed in orbit. So the North Koreans demonstrated some important technical achievements in the August 1998 test, but also failed in other respects. In any event, as a ballistic missile, the Taepo Dong I is not able to deliver a nuclear weapons-size payload against the United States.
North Korea is thought to be working on a larger system called the Taepo Dong II, which on paper is potentially capable of delivering a nuclear weapon-sized payload to cities in the United States in different configurations, two or three stages. But the status of this system I think is very, very difficult to assess.
In the United States, the debate about how close North Korea is to developing an intercontinental-range system became interwoven with the national debate about whether or not to pursue missile defense. And I think that may have led to both advocates as well as opponents of missile defense to take different views on how to assess the available information. But on balance, I think it’s very difficult to really reach any firm conclusions. I think even the North Koreans themselves can’t know for sure where they are in terms of their efforts to develop long-range systems until they conduct a missile test. And since September 1999, the North Koreans have observed a moratorium on missile tests. So they may very well be in the dark, as well as the rest of us, about exactly where they are in terms of those capabilities.
Finally, on missile exports, North Korea has, since the late 1980s, been the leading exporter in the world of missiles and related production technology and components to a range of customers, including Egypt, Iran, Syria, Libya, UAE, Yemen and Pakistan. We argue, though, that over the last five or six years since the late 1990s, North Korean sales opportunities have really declined. Some of their customers, like Iran, have become independent, and therefore they have less need for North Korean imports. Other countries have come under political pressure from Washington, including Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, the UAE and most recently Libya, to cut off their purchases of missile technology from North Korea. So as a consequence, we think the sales opportunities for the North Koreans are probably shrinking in this area. And also, I think the multilateral Proliferation Security Initiative adds additional constraints in terms of North Korea’s ability to sell missiles. Let me just say a few things about the conventional balance. Over the last decade or so, the conventional balance has, I think, clearly shifted against North Korea. With the modernization and enhancement of U.S. and South Korean forces, and with the relative decline of North Korean forces because of economic deprivation, obsolete equipment, poor maintenance and poor training, North Korea’s ability to invade South Korea successfully from their forward-deployed positions near the DMZ has probably diminished.
At the same time, North Korea’s conventional forces are still strong enough to make any offensive allied invasion to overthrow the regime a very unattractive proposition. North Korea is not Iraq, for a variety of reasons that have to do with geography, Seoul’s proximity to North Korean artillery fire, near the DMZ. I think the North Korean forces are expected to—even though they’ve suffered very difficult living conditions, they’re likely to put up a much tougher fight than the Iraqi forces could. And finally, of course, the North Koreans may very well have nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, as well as a robust missile forces. So for all those reasons, the military option is very difficult to contemplate.
As a consequence, the U.S., over the last 25 years, has first sought to seek a diplomatic solution. That’s been the preferred approach the U.S. has taken, consistently, since the Reagan administration, to try to deal with North Korea’s weapons programs.
I’d like to turn matters over to my colleague Adam Ward, who will talk about briefly the history of our—of international diplomatic efforts and say something about prospects for the current effort, the six-party talks.
ADAM WARD: Thanks, Gary.
I think that, looking back at the last 25 years or so, we can say that the attempt to deal with North Korea’s weapons programs diplomatically;ly have fallen into four different phases. In the first phase, beginning in the 1980s, the U.S. led efforts to put pressure and inducements on North Korea to convince it to adhere to the NPT, an international regime, to sign up to the NPT but also, of course, as part of that, to accept the inspections of nuclear facilities and materials. And in order to bring this about, the U.S. worked very hard with Moscow. Moscow put indirect pressure on Pyongyang, but Moscow also offered assistance with North Korea’s nuclear energy efforts.
And initially this strategy was quite successful. In December of 1985, North Korea did in fact accede to the NPT, and albeit after significant prevarication, it also accepted international inspections in April of 1992.
But this inspection agreement collapsed when North Korea refused to cooperate with the IAEA to verify plutonium production prior to 1992, and then, in March of 1993 threaten to withdraw from the NPT.
Now around this time, second approach was also being experimented with, and that was an inter-Korean effort. In December of 1991, Seoul and Pyongyang reached he North-South Denuclearization Declaration. And this was significant, because it incorporated restrictions on nuclear activities that went beyond those specified by the NPT. And that included bans on enrichment activities and reprocessing activities.
But again, this agreement wasn’t implemented either, because Seoul and Pyongyang could not reach agreement on the intensity and regularity of inspections that would be necessary to verify this declaration. And so it remained fairly much a dead letter until May of 2003, when Pyongyang finally decided to renounce it.
The third effort was of course the bilateral approach by the U.S. towards North Korea. After North Korea, in 1993, threatened to withdraw from the NPT, the U.S. agreed the—the Agreed Framework in October of 1994, which, as we know, put extensive restrictions on North Korea’s activities. It was an intricately sequenced agreement. It called for a freeze and the eventual dismantlement of North Korea’s plutonium production facilities. It also called on North Korea to account for its plutonium stocks. And in return for that, it would get assistance with its nuclear energy project, it would get interim supplies of heavy-fuel oil, and also, depending on compliance, the prospect of better relations with Washington.
Now, for nearly a decade this agreed framework did freeze production of additional plutonium, and that was a significant success. But clearly, as we know, it didn’t end North Korea’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. And following the revelations in October 2002 that North Korea was pursuing a clandestine HEU program, the agreed framework collapsed and North Korea, as we know, revived its plutonium production facilities in December of 2002 and then, finally, withdrew from the NPT in January of 2003.
Through the period of the agreed framework, there were other bilateral initiatives that the U.S. was involved with. And again, there was a degree of success and also a degree of failure over those. The first of those was negotiations to secure access to the Kumchang- ri underground facility, which U.S. intelligence at the time assessed—in 1999, assessed that it may be a facility involved in the reprocessing and production of plutonium. That assessment was wrong, but it was significant that access to the facility could be secured through bilateral contact.
Then, in September of 1999, the U.S. and North Korea reached agreement on a moratorium on longer-range missile tests by North Korea. But as we know, the Clinton administration had run out of time to negotiate a much broader and more extensive package.
And then the final, the fourth approach, which is now ongoing, is, of course, the six-party talks. The U.S. has been promoting these with Russia, China, Japan and the two Koreas in order to secure a multilateral agreement for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for also, presumably, multilateral security assurances and various political and economic benefits.
So looking ahead at the six-party talks, we assess that there are three broad scenarios. The first and most optimistic scenario is that a breakthrough will be achieved. The six-party talks might well produce a new bargain to replace the agreed framework, requiring North Korea to disarm verifiably, completely and irreversibly in exchange for security assurances and political and economic benefits. All parties appear to accept a principal that any agreement will involve staged or sequenced approaches of simultaneous or coordinated steps in which North Korea would disarm over a period of time while the U.S. and its allies take reciprocal steps along each stage of the way.
Now, North Korean disarmament could include the accounting of plutonium produced prior to 1992, the removal of any spent fuel or separated plutonium from the country, the dismantling of the 5- megawatt reactor, and the destruction of any equipment and materials associated with the HEU program.
For the other parties, they could provide a written security assurance, perhaps, the normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang, lifting of economic sanctions and the provision of various forms of other assistance, including energy assistance.
But in working out the details of this agreement, there are three main problems. I’ll just go through them quite quickly now.
I mean, as in the ’93, ’94 negotiations, North Korea does appear willing to accept a nuclear freeze of some sort. But it doesn’t seem prepared to give up its nuclear assets for the time being. After all, it sees itself as being under threat, and it can’t afford to risk, in its own mind, total disarmament while it still fears that Washington harbors ambitions to destroy its regime.
On the other side, Washington appears willing to accept that disarmament could take place over stages, but it’s not interested in an agreement that would allow North Korea to retain its nuclear capability for any significant period of time. In Washington’s view, this would simply repeat the mistake, as they see it, of the Agreed Framework, leaving the U.S. and its allies vulnerable to North Korean nuclear blackmail in the future.
So in short, North Korea will try to preserve as many of its nuclear assets as possible, for as long as possible, in exchange for maximum benefits, front-loaded, while Washington will try to front- load any agreement with near-term disarmament steps, minimizing the benefits that Pyongyang receives, until complete disagreement has been achieved.
The second problem is that of verification, and this has been the deal-breaker of past agreements and diplomatic efforts. Obviously, Washington and other parties will insist on highly intrusive inspection and verification measures, and these are very likely to be resisted by Pyongyang, which is, after all, secretive and, as Gary mentioned in his presentation, likes to preserve maximum strategic ambiguity.
Even if these inspectors that Washington has envisaged limit their searches to suspects’ nuclear-related facilities and materials, it’s very likely that they would stumble across some other secret military facilities, which North Korea would believe would detract from their conventional military deterrent and therefore find very unattractive.
The third issue is a procedural one. The U.S. and Pyongyang do seem to look at the six-party talks in very different ways. North Korea primarily believes that they provide a convenient political cover for intensive bilateral interactions between Pyongyang and Washington, but Washington seems to believe that the substance of this problem has to be reflected in the format, and that is it’s a multilateral problem so it has to be a multilateral solution.
Also, the six-party talks have some advantages for formalizing agreements because they are multilateral, but in procedural terms, they’re quite cumbersome at the moment. They take form in plenary style, and they don’t at the moment involve very intensive bilateral contacts that would be necessary to iron out a negotiation in a give- and-take sort of way.
The second scenario is a more pessimistic one. It’s the breakdown. It is possible that Washington may become impatient with the fact that diplomatic efforts are not making enough progress in their current form, and it could try to impose international economic and political sanctions on North Korea, with regional support. Alternatively, North Korea could try to increase pressure on Washington to drag them to the negotiating table by carrying out a threat to conduct a missile test or perhaps even a nuclear test.
For the time being, however, it seems that all of the participants in the six-party talks really want to avoid all of the complications and the risks of a breakdown. Despite its skepticism about North Korea’s intentions, Washington can’t enlist the support of key regional powers such as China and others, or action by the U.N. Security Council to increase pressure on North Korea, unless Washington first demonstrates that Pyongyang has rejected a fair and a reasonable diplomatic approach. And despite all of its threats, Pyongyang knows that provocative actions intended to wring concessions from Washington could alienate China and therefore actually facilitate U.S. efforts to mobilize international support against North Korea.
The third scenario is that we have, as it were, more of the same; that is, talks continue for the time being without achieving a breakthrough or without suffering a breakdown. And in this scenario, neither Washington nor Pyongyang are prepared to make fundamental compromises, and each believes that the other is, for the time being, constrained from forcing the issue.
As long as it continues to receive necessary outside assistance from China and others, as long as it’s kept on economic life support, Pyongyang may be content with protracted negotiations and will await the outcome of the November 2004 U.S. presidential elections to try and assess the strategic circumstances then. And as long as North Korea doesn’t force Washington’s hand, Washington may be content with a drawn-out diplomatic process too. After all, the administration has a very large agenda to deal with quite apart from North Korea.
So a key issue in this third scenario is whether it would be possible to establish the terms for a new freeze on North Korea’s nuclear activities so that Pyongyang can’t take advantage of a protracted diplomatic negotiation process in order to boost its nuclear capabilities under the cover of negotiations. We know that North Korea has proposed a freeze on all of its nuclear activities, and it’s made some fairly large demands of what it would expect in return for that. It would demand a resumption of shipments of heavy fuel oil. It would demand the lifting of all economic sanctions. It would demand North Korea’s removal from the list that the State Department has of international terrorist states.
Now this, of course, is not an offer that’s particularly attractive to Washington, for a number of reasons. It’s very generous, for a start, but also it doesn’t cover the HEU program specifically, which is of primary concern to the Bush administration. But looking ahead to the next round of six-party talks, the real issue will be whether the Bush administration comes to the table with a counterproposal for what they would like a freeze to look like and whether that will then be credible and whether it could form a basis for further successful negotiations.
So in assessing, then, the diplomatic record, North Korea watchers have over the years debated intensively about whether Pyongyang views its nuclear weapons as indispensable to the regime’s survival and therefore essentially non-negotiable, or whether it sees its nuclear assets as a bargaining chip, something to be traded away for political and economic benefits that are needed to sustain an economically bankrupt regime.
Unfortunately, the historical record suggests that the answer is both. And the emphasis that Pyongyang places on one or the other, the military or the economic, tends to vary with domestic economic conditions and how it perceives external circumstances. So on the one hand, North Korea has invested time and energy in developing its nuclear weapons capability, it’s been willing repeatedly to violate nuclear agreements, and this strongly suggests that its leaders do believe that some kind of a nuclear hedge, or at least the credible appearance of a nuclear hedge, is essential to regime survival. But it’s also true that North Korea has demonstrated that it does respond to international inducements and pressures to limit its nuclear program. And even when North Korea has engineered a crisis—by threatening to withdraw from the NPT, or to reprocess nuclear material, test missiles and so on, it’s typically sought to leave the door open for a diplomatic exit or a diplomatic solution.
So in conclusion, looking at the diplomacy side, it’s clear that diplomatic efforts over the last 25 years have certainly, on occasion, succeeded in constraining North Korea’s WMD programs, but certainly not eliminating them.
Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. BOSWORTH: Well, we now have a few moments or a few minutes for questions, and I would encourage people to be brief in their questions, so we can get more of them in. Would you please identify yourselves when you stand?
Audience: Jerry Cohen from the Council [on Foreign Relations]. Let me ask a question that may be technically outside the scope of your study, but intimately related to it.
Several years ago, maybe five, John Deutch and others predicted the implosion of the North Korean regime within three years. You seem to be assuming it’s here forever. Could you articulate your assumptions with respect to the endurance of the regime?
MR. SAMORE: Yes. That’s—well, that’s a very good question. It’s really the important question, isn’t it? And I’ve come to the conclusion, having worked on North Korea for over a decade, that we don’t know enough to make a reasonable judgment about whether or not this regime or what kind of chances this regime has to survive. I really think that, you know, we could wake up one morning, and there could be chaos in Pyongyang. It would be a tremendous surprise to us.
I also think it’s possible—I do think that President Kim Jong Il does have in mind a strategy of sorts; that he would like to try to create a situation where he is a free of pressure from the outside world, where he can extract assistance from the outside world, and where he can gradually bring about some economic reforms—he may look to China as a model in this respect—in order to try to revive the economy.
Whether the North Korean state is capable of fundamental economic reform—I’m a bit skeptical, I have to say. I mean, just given the political structure, given the nature of the system. But at the same time I don’t feel that i know enough about the domestic politics in North Korea to make a really firm judgment. And some people think that there is a chance that over time, the North Korean regime might be able to make enough changes internally in order to be able to revive its economy and raise the standard of living.
I don’t know, Adam, you might want to—
MR. WARD: Yeah. I can only offer anecdotal impressions from a trip I made to Pyongyang about 18 months ago or so. And the sense you get is of a system that is extremely tight politically. Obviously, it’s highly centralized. The resources of the country have all channeled towards the elite; the elite is increasingly based on the military, as opposed to the party, which has deteriorated and declined. Nobody even knows who sits on the Politburo anymore. The congresses don’t convene. So it’s a very security orientated-type regime, the resources focused on Pyongyang.
Political controls are exceptionally harsh. The population has suffered under the regime, but it has very little contact with the outside world and it’s incredibly fatigued. So the opportunities for political mobilization against the regime are much less than they were in, say, Eastern European and former Soviet societies.
So my impression is that this is a regime which can absorb a lot of punishment, as long as the elite interests are looked after, which can scrape along at the bottom of the barrel for many years. And so I would be cautious about making an assessment that this regime will not last.
MR. BOSWORTH: I would just add to that, Jerry, that it seems to me that, if nothing else, the experience of the last two administrations in this country have demonstrated that waiting for the collapse is not a strategy—as appealing as that might be, given the degree of difficulty involved in dealing with North Korea and the distasteful nature of that regime. It would be lovely if it would disappear, but that’s not a policy.
In the back of the room, please.
Audience: David Mark of NYU. Just to follow up a little bit in one specific. This scientific community and engineering and technical community that is developing the weapons and other military items must be somewhat isolated from the world community. I mean, there is the Internet, I suppose, and maybe there’s some conferences. And they were trained, I presume, in Russia or China. But are they reinventing the wheel all the time? Do they have to start from scratch? Or how much developmental capability does a relatively small economy and small intellectual elite have?
MR. SAMORE: Well, let me just talk about the nuclear sector, which is the one that I know the best. You’re right, their scientists were trained in the 1950s and ’60s, mainly in the Soviet Union and China. And the nuclear technology they’ve used for their weapons program is very much 1950s vintage technology, which is well known, publicly available. The kind of reactors, the kind of fuel- fabrication mechanisms, the technology they’re using to separate plutonium, and presumably the kind of technology they use for their weapons design is all 1950s vintage technology. So from that standpoint, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They’re basically following in the path of the nuclear weapons states who were the first to actually develop and use these technologies.
MR. BOSWORTH: Yes?
MR. SAMORE: Here?
Audience: Rick Petree, MillRock Partners. Would you comment on the role of the IAEA historically, their efficacy, and in terms of capability assessment? And what is the optimal role for the agency going forward?
MR. SAMORE: Yeah. I think the most important thing to remember is that the IAEA is a technical organization. And as a consequence, it’s their job to try to verify the use of nuclear material and the use of nuclear facilities. They don’t have a political or diplomatic role.
Now in terms of their performance in North Korea, I would have to give them a very, very good rating. I mean, they were the ones in 1992—when the political circumstances finally allowed them to begin comprehensive inspections in North Korea, the IAEA was very aggressive. And through some of the sampling techniques that they used once they finally got access to nuclear facilities, they were able to discover some discrepancies that indicated that the North Koreans had not fully declared how much plutonium they produced before 1992.
And then in the course of those investigations, the U.S. government provided some additional information to the IAEA, indicating some suspect sites where North Korea might have been hiding nuclear waste, which could help the IAEA to determine how much extra plutonium there was. The IAEA went through their normal procedures to seek access to those suspect sites and the North Koreans rejected it—they can do that as a sovereign country—and threatened to withdraw from the NPT.
During the whole period of the freeze, the IAEA monitored the freeze. They did a very good job. They had people on the ground, as well as a number of different types of equipment, to monitor the freeze. But once the North Koreans made the decision to expel them—the IAEA doesn’t have any army. They can’t stay there. They were forced to leave.
Now, in a future agreement, I think a relatively minor issue, but one that will eventually have to be addressed, is the extent to which future inspections are conducted by the IAEA versus a special inspection corps that might be constructed from the U.S. and other countries in the six-party talks. I don’t actually see that as a major issue, but it’s something that the U.S. and its allies and the IAEA will have to reach agreement on, just as we have done recently with Libya, because we have an interest both in making sure that the agency continues to have a prominent international role, but at the same time there may be some particular circumstances where we feel it’s better that there be a national inspection corps rather than the international agency.
MR. BOSWORTH: Yes, right here?
Audience: Harold Brown. Thinking about end points, three possible versions are two or three nuclear weapons, eight or 10, or continued stream of eight to 10 a year. Recognizing that it’s not truly an end point, both because it could be started up again and because verification issues will always exist, do you think that it’s possible that the North Koreans would accept the first of these? I’m leaving out also whether the U.S. would accept it. And the reason I ask is it seems to me that the political and military consequences of these various quasi-end-points are quite different.
MR. SAMORE: Well, that’s a very good question. And I think, you know, in effect the agreed framework allowed North Korea to preserve for some period of time the appearance of a strategic hedge. Nobody knew for sure whether they actually had one or two nuclear weapons, but the U.S. said publicly we thought they probably did, so the North Koreans benefited from that perception. And the Bush administration, even though there were many critics of the agreed framework, after a review, they decided to support the agreement; you know, recognizing that it would eventually have required North Korea to disclose how much plutonium they have and to begin to dismantle those facilities.
I think the problem is that North Korea wasn’t willing to live with that scenario. North Koreans anticipated that the agreed framework and the construction of a light-water reactor project would have ultimately required them to strip away that ambiguity and to declare how much plutonium they have and to dismantle the facilities that would have prevented them from producing any fresh plutonium. Their solution to that dilemma was to cheat. The solution was to pursue an alternative system for producing nuclear weapons-usable material through centrifuges.
So, I mean, I think we’re sort of left with, as Adam suggested, we’re left with this dilemma that it may not be possible through diplomacy to achieve their complete disarmament in the near term. It may be the best we can do is to limit their capability, establish a long-term process for eventual disarmament.
I think right now Washington is not prepared to settle for that because—for understandable reasons. They think that North Koreans already had that opportunity and they clearly demonstrated that they weren’t prepared to live up to it, and Washington would like to try to do better. Whether they can actually do better in the six-party talks, I’m skeptical. But I don’t blame the administration for trying to do better, and I hope they can. I hope they can achieve near-term complete, irreversible and immediate disarmament. I think that would be a terrific accomplishment.
MR. BOSWORTH: I might note there is another level of complexity in all of this which, in my experience in dealing with the North Koreans, we viewed the agreed framework as primarily a nuclear agreement; the North Koreans viewed the agreed framework as a political agreement. Their goal was a normalized relationship with the United States; our goal was the nuclear disarmament of North Korea. And those two lines never really crossed.
MR. SAMORE: It’s a fair point.
MR. BOSWORTH: Yes, way in the back, please.
Audience: Thank you. Claudia Rosett with The Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal. What you just raised is exactly what I want to ask about, which is in this whole discussion there has been no real addressing of the actual character of the regime; the fact that—the kind of government that is responsible for the deaths of 2 million of its own people, where they—and there’s a case to be made—this is leading to a question. There’s a case to be made that the agreed framework, while it may have slowed down the production of weapons material, gave Kim Jong Il the time to consolidate the regime that we now see, which is now threatening us; in other words, might have collapsed, had we not chosen to dignify his very new government—or his assumption of power at that precise moment with a deal with the mighty United States. We’re now discussing whether we’re going to confer similar dignity once again upon a regime which is threatening us still.
And I’m just wondering, in the decision that doing nothing is not a policy, and so on, could you address a little more specifically the political aspect that in doing deals with Pyongyang, we confer immense importance, dignity, and possibly help sustain that government?
MR. WARD: It’s a very—it’s a very interesting point. What I would probably go back to is the risks of non-diplomatic solutions that would be involved. Gary set out in his presentation very carefully the conventional bounds there. And I think the situation at the time of the agreed framework was that there was a very pressing need to deal with this nuclear problem that would have carried on very significantly. The agreed framework did achieve a halt on the production of additional plutonium. And as I say, it’s hard to—it’s hard to imagine what a non-diplomatic solution would have looked like, in view of the conventional balance.
But maybe I should turn this over to Gary, since he was involved in the—maybe I should allow him to justify the agreement rather than acting as his ambassador!
MR. SAMORE: Well, I think you’re absolutely right that there’s a strategic dilemma the U.S. faces not only with North Korea, but with other difficult countries like Libya, and Iran and Iraq. Do you go for regime change, which will remove the problem at its roots much more effectively than any diplomatic agreement, or do you decide to reach an agreement which does, in effect, help to sustain the regime? And I think one has to look at each case on its own merits. I don’t think you can have “one size fits all” for all of these difficult countries that we—we used to call rogue states; I don’t know what we call them these days.
I mean, you know, in the case of Iraq—
MR. WARD: Targets. (Laughter.)
MR. SAMORE: Targets! (Laughs.)
In the case of Iraq, the decision was to go for regime change, and there was a particular set of political, military circumstances that made that an attractive option, as well as a perception of the threat that the regime posed.
In the case of North Korea, I think one U.S. administration after the other, faced with that dilemma, has chosen to seek a diplomatic solution rather than either a military approach to remove the regime—which is clearly, you know, a very risky, very costly venture—or an effort to try to use economic and political means to undercut and destroy the regime. And the difficulty there is that we really can’t pursue an effective policy of overthrowing the regime through economic and political isolation. The North Koreans call that the strangulation strategy. We really can’t do that without our allies and the Chinese. And for right now, the Chinese and our allies are not prepared to run the risks of that kind of a strategy.
Now they may in the future. I mean, it may be possible that the North Koreans act in a way that leads others to conclude that they’re more trouble than they’re worth and that they’re willing to increase economic and political pressures. But we’re not there yet.
And I think part of the diplomatic strategy has to be to demonstrate whether or not a deal is acceptable to the North Koreans. And only after that approach has been exhausted will we be in a strong position to argue for an alternative approach that might lead to regime change.
MR. BOSWORTH: Final question here in front, please.
Audience: Herbert Levin, America-China Forum. Steve, the South Korean foreign minister was fired last week. What are the principal differences between the South Korean and American approaches to this problem at this point?
MR. BOSWORTH: Well, a change in the foreign minister of South Korea is not a rare event. It happens with great frequency.
The principal differences, I think, are over the question of how one deals with North Korea, obviously. And I think Gary just summarized very well the South Korean position, which is that they are not yet at a point in which they’re prepared to use pressure to try to bring about a solution. They are still pursuing a policy of what they call engagement. And they hope to induce change in North Korea’s behavior through engagement.
Our administration does not agree with that premise, and so we are, to say the least, at odds over the question of how to deal with North Korea.
I think also South Koreans understand very well the strategic balance that Gary has described so accurately, and that is that it’s all well and good for us to talk about getting tough with North Korea. It’s the North—the South Koreans who would pay, potentially, the price for a tough policy toward the North. And they don’t necessarily welcome that.
I want to thank all of you for coming. I’ve been told to adjourn this promptly at 9:30. Otherwise, the wheels of commerce of this city stop. (Laughter.)
I want to thank our two presenters, Adam Ward and Gary Samore. Please join me in a round of applause for them. (Applause.)
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