Don Oberdorfer, a former correspondent for the Washington Post in Northeast Asia and in Washington, and a well-known specialist on Korea, says that the Bush administrations decision to refuse direct talks with North Korea is ineffective and a mistake. Reflecting on a recent trip he made to North Korea, he says that he believes Washington could late last year have negotiated an end to the North Korean secret uranium enrichment program, but that now, it may be too late. To me, all the indications are that they are now going for a nuclear weapon, as rapidly as possible, he says in an interview. He also notes that there is a considerable strain in relations between the United States and its long-time ally, South Korea.
Oberdorfer is the author of The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, and is currently journalist-in-residence and Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins Universitys Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, took place on January 3, 2003.
Q. What do you think of the administrations policy of not talking to North Korea until it ceases its nuclear weapons work?
A. I think it is ineffective and I think it is a mistake. All of the American friends and allies in the region, including South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia, want the United States to engage with North Korea on this problem. The administration for the moment is relying too much on pressure. It has been shown in the past that pressure alone is not going to work. Pressure plus diplomacy may work, although I think the administrations stand has caused this to become more of a grave problem than it had to become. It is now more difficult to have a successful negotiation with North Korea than was the case when Ambassador Donald Gregg [former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and currently head of the Korea Society] and I were in Pyongyang in early November.
Q. Why is it more difficult?
A. I believe that following the discussions with the North Koreans by Assistant Secretary James Kelly and his team in early October, the North Koreans realized that this highly enriched uranium program had been discovered by the United States and that it was going to be extremely harmful to their foreign relations and their ongoing efforts to improve their situation with their neighbors and the rest of the world. I think at that time they were ready to terminate the uranium program if they could obtain some face-saving concessions from the United States.
When we were in North Korea in early November, a month after the Kelly visit, and after the revelations of the North Korean uranium program were public knowledge, North Korean diplomats with whom we talked said that North Korea would clear the concerns of the United States, meaning eliminate the highly-enriched uranium program, if the United States would take a few steps which they enumerated.
Q. What were those steps?
A. Those steps were recognition of their sovereignty, a commitment that the United States not hinder their economic development, and thirdly, and by far the most important, an assurance of nonaggression by the United States. They said they wanted a nonaggression treaty, which they described as a reasonable and realistic solution to the nuclear issue.
But I came away believing that they would settle for something considerably short of that if it was a face-saving solution for them. I think they realized that the highly-enriched uranium project, now that it had been discovered, was only going to be a hindrance to them. According to the CIA, it would take at least a couple of years to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for even one weapon. They wanted some substantial easing of their concerns that the United States government was hostile to the point of attempting to attack and overthrow their government. The United States government, however, did not respond to this.
When Ambassador Gregg and I talked to the North Koreans, they did not deny having a highly-enriched uranium program. They didnt ever say flat-out they had it, but all of their language indicated that they did.
Q. You conveyed the North Korean views to United States diplomats and to the Bush administration?
A. Yes. And I wrote an article about this in the Washington Post.
Q. Why did the North Koreans undertake the uranium program when they had signed an agreement in 1994 to forsake a plutonium nuclear weapons project in return for a whole lot of aid and better relations? It seems a bit baffling.
A. The more important question is why they did it when they have, in the last several years, been moving rather deliberately toward improved relations with all of their neighbors and the United States, based on that 1994 non-nuclear agreement. I dont know the answer. But it seems to me, it is very likely they were offered a deal by the Pakistanis, who had been purchasing ballistic missiles from them and who have a highly-enriched uranium program similar to the North Korean one. The same Pakistani, I understand, who was in charge of ballistic missiles, had also been in charge of their highly-enriched uranium program. So, the informed speculation in government circles and elsewhere is that Pakistan offered to pay part of the cost of the missiles by bartering nuclear technology and equipment.
Q. It was a deal they couldnt refuse?
A. Another thing about North Korea is that although we know little about their decision making, the few things that we do know suggest it is a highly personal method of management. The decisions are made sometimes on the spur of the moment by the maximum leader, Kim Jong Il today, or his father, Kim Il Sung, before him. In the cases that we are familiar with, a proposition is presented to the top leader. He does not summon any group comparable to a National Security Council. I can only speculate that the North Korean military, which always wanted nuclear weapons and which was never happy with the 1994 agreement to halt nuclear weapons development, presented Kim Jong Il with the proposition that you could make a nuclear weapon secretly without costs. And Kim may have accepted this without much consideration of diplomatic or other political consequences.
Q. Let me ask you about the strong North Korean desire for a non-aggression treaty. Since the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, non-aggression treaties have been regarded as agreements of ill-repute. The United States recognizes North Koreas sovereignty, doesnt it? And hasnt the United States promised not to attack North Korea?
A. Yes, [Secretary of State] Colin Powell and the administration have gone out of their way on several occasions since early November to say explicitly, We recognize North Koreas sovereignty. And the president has said repeatedly that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea. He said that first earlier in 2002 when he visited South Korea. But that is not sufficient for the North Koreans because they dont believe that means anything. They want something that for them has greater credibility. What made the 1994 agreement possible, in part, was that Jimmy Carter, a prestigious former president, went to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Il Sung, who agreed to the basic outlines of the deal before he died that June. For whatever reason, the North Koreans thought that was a credible set of commitments because it had been presented by a high-level, prestigious person.
Why they came up with the concept of a non-aggression pact, I dont know. They have mentioned it at times in the past, but it has not been given much importance by South Korea or the United States. Receiving a credible commitment from the top of the American government is probably more important to North Korea than the form that it takes.
When we were in North Korea in November, I believe they were prepared to stop the highly-enriched program, but instead of engaging them, the administration began to organize pressure against them by their neighbors. The United States insisted on stopping further shipments of the heavy fuel oil which had been promised under the 1994 agreement, despite the fact that South Korean and Japanese representatives to KEDO (the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) did not want to do that and predicted that it was going to produce a bad reaction.
Q. Do you think North Korea is committed to developing nuclear weapons?
A. Yes. To me, the evidence shows that a new decision was made by North Korea, after the heavy fuel oil was stopped, and certainly after we were there. To me, all the indications are that they are now going for a nuclear weapon, as rapidly as possible. I think it will be much more difficult— but I hope not impossible— to persuade them to take a different path.
Q. Why did the North Koreans change course so rapidly?
A. I think that the Korean military very likely convinced Kim Jong Il that a diplomatic solution through dialogue was not going to work, and therefore the only assurance of their security was to get a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible.
Q. The Bush administration keeps talking about solving this diplomatically. Is this possible?
A. Of course it would be more serious if the Bush administration was taking the opposite tack that diplomacy was of no use, and only force could be used.
Q. The Clinton administration was so concerned with North Koreas bid for nuclear arms in the early 1990s that there was talk of war on the Korean peninsula. Did the Clinton administration exaggerate the situation in order to bring about an agreement? Some say that the quid pro quo amounted to appeasement. What do you think?
A. I believe in that case that the combination of pressure and diplomacy succeeded in shutting down North Koreas plutonium plant until now. The Clinton administration was very concerned. William Perry, the secretary of defense at that time, told me that the United States and North Korea came closer to war than in any situation involving the United States during the period he was in charge of the Pentagon.
There is no doubt that the Clinton administration was very concerned, and it was preparing to send a tremendously large additional increment of United States military force in and around the Korean peninsula in June 1994. A meeting at which President Clinton was to order this tremendous beef-up of American military force was actually in progress in the White House when Jimmy Carter called from Pyongyang to say that Kim Il Sung had agreed to freeze the program.
The concern at the time was not that the United States was going to take unilateral action and attack the nuclear facilities of North Korea, although that conceivably could have happened if the North Korea program went on and on and on. But at that time, the grave concern that Secretary Perry referred to was that North Korea, seeing all these American forces coming across the Pacific, more than 10,000 additional troops, aircraft carrier battle groups, heavy bombers etc., would feel its only chance for survival was to strike first.
Q. Why is the Bush administration so relaxed?
A. Clearly part of it is that they are consumed with Iraq. And whatever anyone says, it is difficult to have two military-related problem areas at the same time, whether you are going to call them crises or not.
Q. Lets talk about South Korea. A lot has been written about the new atmosphere there. Are we in for a rough time with the South Koreans?
A. We could well be. The alliance with South Korea is under considerable strain. It is due in part to the problems with North Korea. But it is also due to a very important generational change in South Korea. The presidential election, held last month, brought to power Roh Moo Hyun, a person whose views on the United States and American policy appear to be essentially different from his predecessors. But equally important, you have a political figure at the head of a generational grouping which does not have the same emotional loyalty to the United States as its elders and largely does not feel threatened by North Korea. The Korean War ended 50 years ago this year. The life experience of South Koreans in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s, who put Roh in the presidency, is that North Korea has always been there and has not been their central concern. These young people dont believe it is credible that North Korea would attack South Korea, even if it had a nuclear weapon.
I interviewed a number of young people when I was in South Korea in July. Out of a group of students at Ewha Womens University, more than half said they considered North Korea more as a friend than as an enemy. One student said We dont think much about North Korea. And another student said North Korea was a heavy burden rather than as a threat or an enemy. A recent graduate described North Korea as a distant cousin— you know he is family, but at a big family gathering, you avoid him.
If you dont feel any particular threat from North Korea, it is much harder to make the case for enduring the difficulties that come with stationing some 37,000 American troops in South Korea, which inevitably leads to such unfortunate accidents as when a United States military armored vehicle killed two schoolgirls last year. There is great doubt among people of South Korea about the necessity and workings of the American military alliance. Additionally, as South Koreans have become more prosperous, they have become more self-confident. They are less inclined to simply accept the decisions of the United States on matters which have great impact on their lives.
Q. Should the United States be considering pulling back its troops?
A. When and if the tension is eased on the Korean peninsula, that subject should be addressed seriously by the United States government. This is not the time to do it.