What did the North Koreans want when you first started negotiating with them?
They had announced their intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So we wanted to talk to them, get them back into the NPT, get them to abide by the North-South Declaration on Denuclearization, and to accept special inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA].
You asked what they wanted. That's not entirely clear to me, even with 10 years to look back. One thing they wanted then, and I think they still want, is more in the way of insurance that their security was not going to be threatened by the United States. More than once in that first meeting on the top floor of the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Vice Foreign Minister Kang, who is my opposite member, said, "You wish to strangle us." That was rhetoric, to be sure. But I do believe they felt threatened. I do believe now they feel threatened.
What did you tell him?
I told him that we did not have the objective of strangling North Korea. I told him that we actually did not pose a threat to North Korea, unless of course, North Korea did something to threaten our allies in South Korea, or in Japan, or the international community.
You went forward with the negotiations, assuming that they were willing to negotiate away their nuclear programs?
Oh, no. I didn't have any such confidence that we would succeed. Those objectives: Get them back into the NPT, get them to accept special inspections, get them to abide by the North-South Declaration on Denuclearization, left me wondering what I could give them to get them to do that.
But at some point in the summer, you were getting some feeling about them wanting out of this issue.
There was a moment, July 1993, when we were not making much progress. Vice Foreign Minister Kang put on the table -- at least by my recollection; there's some dispute about whether it was my idea or his idea -- that the North Koreans give up their entire gas graphite-[moderated] nuclear program: the five-megawatt reprocessing plant [at Yongbyon and] the 50-megawatt to 200-megawatt reactors [which] were under construction, in exchange for assistance in getting modern light-water, and more proliferation-resistant, reactors.
But we didn't really turn that around and come back with a proposal for more than a year later. It took that long to do everything we needed to do to get from where that was an idea, to actually figure out who would pay for the construction of 2,000-megawatt light-water reactors, which cost in the neighborhood of $5 billion or $6 billion.
In fact, you were pretty pessimistic a year later. By May 1994, you were saying, "I don't know that they're going to deal on this issue."
In May 1994, we were moving into the most tense part of the negotiations. Indeed, the real crisis period was May and June 1994, when we seemed to be headed more on a road to war than we did on a road to a negotiated end to the conflict. That was a very tense time.
You walked out on the negotiations at one point.
We did. We each had warned the North Koreans not to do something, and they quite deliberately did it. So we had no choice, we believe, but to say we would no longer meet.
We had told them not to discharge fuel from their reactor into the storage pond in a way that would prevent the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from eventually being able to reconstruct reactor operating history. They needed to be able to tag these fuel elements, so they could then figure out where they'd come from in the reactor.
Quite contrary to facilitating that activity, the North Koreans refused to allow the inspectors to do that. In fact, they shuffled the fuel elements when they came out, so that the possibility of eventually reconstructing a reactor operating history was destroyed.
That was very important, because this whole issue arose over whether the North Koreans were lying or not. When they initially gave their declaration about how much plutonium that had separated back in 1989-1990 during the Bush administration, we thought, based on inspection evidence, that they could not have been telling the truth. How could we sort that out? There were only two ways: Analysis of radioactive waste -- that's what the special inspections were about -- or reconstructing the reactor operating history, which is what the tagging of the fuel was about.
And they destroyed one of those two opportunities. The colorful language of the then-Director General of the IAEA, Hans Blix -- whom we now know in another context -- came before the United Nations Security Council and said they had destroyed history in doing this. So we said we wouldn't meet. Of course, when you stop meeting with North Koreans when the North Koreans want to meet, then things get truly interesting.
They got very interesting?
They got very interesting. In the United States, of course, there had been planning for the possibility of using an air strike to destroy the facilities at Yongbyon. But much more likely was a U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution against North Korea. But even just a sanctions resolution we all thought might well lead the North Koreans to a military response.
Indeed, [North Korean] Vice Foreign Minister Kang at one point gave me a little history lesson. He told me that the United Nations is not regarded as a neutral entity in North Korea, because it was the belligerent in the Korean War. And since that war ended with an armistice, if the U.N. was now to pass and then try to impose a sanctions resolution, it would be taken by Pyongyang as a violation of the armistice, and therefore an act of war. So when we're told that by North Korea, and we're proceeding along the line of collecting up the votes so we can pass the sanctions resolution, we must at the same time be ready for a North Korean military response.
So that led us to that one now-somewhat famous -- at least in the cognoscenti of the group who follow this -- meeting of the National Security Council which the president held in the Cabinet Room, attended by the secretary of state, secretary of defense, the vice president, chairman and Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which the secretary of defense presented three military options, not as a method of going to war with the North, but to deal with the possible North Korean reaction to a sanctions resolution.
Is this the meeting in which a phone call comes in the middle?
This is the meeting in which the phone call comes from Jimmy Carter, who is in Pyongyang at the time talking to Kim Il Sung. I step out of the meeting with the president into a small room to talk to the former president. Jimmy Carter then describes a possible way out of this situation and a deal that could be made with the North Koreans. I say that I will present that to the president, who's in the next room along with everybody else.
He's uncomfortable that Jimmy Carter is over there?
I think there was some discomfort in almost all quarters, but also some hope in every quarter that Jimmy Carter would succeed. In other words, no one, I suppose, is enthusiastic about subcontracting your foreign policy, particularly on such a critical issue. But Jimmy Carter is a very special person. He's a former president of the United States. He had a special connection with the South Koreans, with Kim Dae Jung, as a matter of fact, but also with a larger community in South Korea. He also had the ear of the North Koreans. He was not an envoy, but still a de facto envoy of sorts.
So you took the message back in to the president?
I took the message that there could be a freeze by the North Koreans that guaranteed that there'd be no reprocessing, no separation of plutonium, and we could go back to the negotiating table. There was some unhappiness in the room over the deal.
Because Carter had freelanced?
Well, it wasn't only that Carter had freelanced. President Carter also told me that he was about to go on CNN, and say what the terms of this would be. That was not only freelancing, but it was also, to some degree, boxing in the sitting president, President Clinton.
Which was his tactic?
I don't know what was in either president's mind. It would be my guess that that President Carter knew exactly what he was doing, and President Clinton knew exactly what he was doing. President Carter did what he said he would do, and that was put out there.
When we came back into the Cabinet Room, some of us were sent off to figure out how we should respond. What we decided was to raise the bar just a bit higher than President Carter had set it, and insist that, if we go back to the table, the North Koreans agree not to produce any more plutonium by not restarting the five-megawatt reactor.
So we raise the bar a little above where President Carter had set it, but then said, yes, we would go back to the table. The North Koreans very quickly agreed to that one change in the arrangement. We got ourselves back to negotiating in Geneva in July.
Was this a crisis?
I think, in everybody's mind, we were moving on a course that not inevitably, but most likely would move us to the use of military force. That seemed the direction we were heading. No one thought that this would stop the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The idea would be to hurt them so they'd come back to the negotiating table. It could easily have led to a war, by miscalculation, or by the North Koreans preferring the uncertainty of a conflict to the certainty of enormous concessions.
So that's why it was such a serious point. We didn't know whether North Korea then had nuclear weapons. The intelligence community's judgment was that it was more likely than not that North Korea had one, or possibly two nuclear weapons. That, to the best of my knowledge, is still the intelligence community's judgment.
Just after the just after the signing in Geneva of the Agreed Framework, the power balance changes in Washington, and you start to hear a lot of accusations from Capitol Hill. What happened?
The Republicans won the congressional elections, and committees' chairmanships obviously changed.
And you were called to task?
There were many criticisms.
It was pretty harsh.
Pretty harsh. Yes. We did not get ticker tape parades, as it turned out.
What did you hear?
The criticisms were of the following kinds: First, that we had we had submitted to blackmail. The North Koreans were threatening us with a nuclear program, and we gave in and gave them good things; that we were appeasers; that this was a "rogue" regime. This is a classic example: Had we learned nothing about the failures of appeasement to deal with regimes such as this? We also heard that the North Koreans wouldn't stick with the deal, that they'd cheat. and didn't we know that they were the kind of folks who would cheat?
At some point, Senator McCain accused you of being a traitor.
I had some exchanges with Senator McCain on this. Senator McCain was unhappy with the deal. He thought it was indeed a sellout, and that it was a bad idea, bad for the country. I believe he still thinks that deeply. The difference between Senator McCain and others is that, when I would ask other senators what they would [have done], they really didn't have a good answer. They generally wished that we didn't have to give so much and that we'd gotten more. Every negotiator would like [to get] more and give less. But I never got a clear answer on what they would do to stop the program if negotiations failed.
Senator McCain said, if necessary, he would favor the use of force over the kind of deal that I had struck. Now I thought that was not a prudent judgment. But I appreciated the clarity and the straightforwardness and the forthrightness of that. He'd pay a price and run the risk to deal with this by the use of force. It's not a trade, in my mind, that I'd be willing to make. Senator McCain did make some negative comments about me in print, personally, which I've subsequently talked to him about, and I think we've settled that issue.
There are those now who have come forward from the Clinton administration, saying that the deal was basically abandoned by the United States. That's perhaps too strong, but that there was a lack of political will to enforce the Agreed Framework, that in fact, the complaints coming from North Korea that the United States dragged its feet and reneged have some validity.
My own view here is -- and there are disagreements about this -- that in the Clinton administration, there wasn't the enthusiasm for everything the North Koreans wanted, in terms of the political payoff from the deal. So the North Koreans were somewhat disappointed. But let's be clear about this. There are hard and soft portions to deal. A hard portion was they needed to have their program frozen, and under inspection, and they needed to re-can the spent fuel so it wasn't reprocessed. That was done.
Did they hold to their end of the agreement in that sense?
Absolutely. Absolutely. On our side, in terms of the hard part, so did we. We were obligated to create an entity called the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, an international entity -- which was really South Korea, Japan and the United States, and eventually, the European Union -- to build these 2,000-megawatt light-water reactors. That program didn't go as fast as the North Koreans might have liked. But it's a big deal doing that in North Korea. That was a hard point in terms of the deal, and we were doing that.
We also had to deliver a quantity every year of something called heavy fuel oil to provide energy replacement for what they were giving up with not having their own nuclear facilities. Did we meet every delivery schedule on the day? No. Did we generally meet the schedule, and were we generally providing what we said we'd provide? Yes. So in terms of the hard performance under the framework, both sides were doing it.
But there was the political opening and the economic opening -- the lifting of sanctions, the establishment of liaison offices.
Sure. Liaison offices were not established, but not because we weren't willing to. We were quite willing to. In fact, we had Foreign Service officers pulled out of rotation and prepared for that. It was the North Koreans that figured out A) We were not going to have a huge operation up there that we would pay them for, instead, we were going to use part of the old German Embassy, and B) They were going to have to have a high bill to pay here in Washington. They had other reasons why they were reluctant. So the liaison offices didn't happen, but it wasn't our fault.
Second, with respect to the economic opening, lifting of sanctions, that's the area in which they didn't get the payoff that they thought they'd get. But nothing that you could nail and say, "This is what the framework says [that] we didn't perform."
We were not as forthcoming as they might have liked. This is not what I would call, to use the current language, a material breach -- a phrase which, by the way, doesn't apply to the framework, which isn't even a legal agreement. It's a framework.
I think the important thing to focus on in the Clinton administration is, after they tested a ballistic missile of extended range on August 31, 1998, and in the same summer were discovered to have what we thought might be secret sites, we got the North Koreans to allow us to visit one particular site and determine that they were not cheating at that site.
We also got the North Koreans to unilaterally announce a moratorium on ballistic missile tests. At the end of the Clinton administration in 1999-2000, the Perry process began. The Perry process is one that was essentially captured with the phrase, "We would give more to get more. "
But as in 1994, all the negotiation was culminating in October, just before an election. Things changed -- drastically.
Oh, yes. Absolutely. No question about it. In the beginning of the Bush administration, I wasn't sure what was going to happen. We had South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, come and be very disappointed that, first, Secretary Powell says, "We'll continue with the direction in which the Clinton administration had us," and then we had the president say, "Not so fast. There's going to be a policy review."
I wasn't sure where that would go. Yes, they had a declaratory posture of some hostility to the Framework. But I rather thought they would also come to conclusion in as much as they were unhappy with the Framework that they might hold their nose in a sense and implement it. And that's indeed what they seem to be doing.
But they didn't.
But they didn't. But some things happened, and one of the very important things that happened was Sept. 11. That was catastrophic for this policy, because it created in the minds of everyone who is in the national security world the prospect of weapons of mass destruction developed by "rogues" coming into the hands of terrorists, and the lineage between the "rogue state" and the terrorist who cannot be defended against because of unconventional delivery. National missile defense doesn't do much good against United Airlines, and the transfer of fissile material to a rogue that can't be deterred, either.
So, by the time you get to the State of the Union speech in January 2002, you have an "axis of evil" phrase, which links rogues to the terrorist threat. That's when you began to see, I think, the possibility that the diplomatic situation with North Korea was going to go very bad. The North Koreans would notice not only the rogue references in the State of the Union, they'd notice the leak of the nuclear posture review. They'd notice the speech at West Point. Finally, they would read our national security strategy in September 2002 and find that we will deal, by preemptive action, or what we would call "preventive war," with rogues moving towards weapons of mass destruction who might be a source of fissile material for terrorist groups.
I think at that point that the jig is up. By the summer, the administration has told us they saw the enrichment program, the secret program, take off in terms of quantities of materials sought. So by the summer of 2002, I think the North Koreans were worried once again that this administration would deal with them by regime change -- a phrase they'd come to hear, and not appreciate, when applied to another point on the axis of evil.
Colin Powell says they're not in favor of regime change.
That may be, and I have great respect for the secretary of state. I have heard others refer to comments by the president of the United States about the regime that indicates a real, real deep hostility for the regime -- something that we should not be surprised about. I like to think I have hostility, the Clinton administration has hostility with respect to the character of the regime, but no intent to act on that hostility.
But this administration, when it expresses hostility, is in a different position because it has said, in the case of these three states, they form an axis of evil, and because they're involved in regime change against one of those regimes right now. So I think it makes a difference, notwithstanding what the secretary of state said -- that the president is on record, and others in the administration are not quite so clear. Indeed, newspaper stories already tell us that the military option, according to the president of the United States, is an option, if diplomacy should fail. That seems pretty clear to me.
But don't you need that to back up diplomacy?
I think saying that all options are on the table to back up diplomacy is an absolutely essential element to negotiations, and I depended upon that. That makes perfect sense when you're conducting diplomacy. I don't see us conducting diplomacy at the moment, and therefore the statement has an entirely different ring to it.
What's the lesson that should be learned from what happened then for the folks that are trying to handle the crisis now?
I think the North Koreans are truly concerned about their security. I think they worry about what we will do. I think they're worried about the survival of their regime, independent of what we would do, because they know that they are in deep trouble in terms of their economy. They don't wish to be isolated economically. They do wish their regime to remain essentially closed. They would like, in other words, an economic opening without having to suffer through a political opening which might well mean the end of this cultish regime which is the North Korean government. That's what they wanted then. That's what they still want. That's what they wanted through the 1990s.
We have to face a fact about lessons here. We did a deal with North Korea called the Agreed Framework, and it stopped the plutonium program. If we hadn't done the deal, North Korea would have, without question, more than 100 nuclear weapons, and more than 100 is a soft number. It might be much more than 100 nuclear weapons. So that deal was worth making, in terms of our security, and our allies' security.
Did they cheat on it? Absolutely. They cheated on it. That's a lesson, too. They will cheat. They cheated by having a secret uranium enrichment program because they're still not confident their security will be guaranteed. Now it may be that they're unalterably committed to acquiring nuclear weapons; in which case, we've got to deal with that fact, if it is indeed a fact.
Well, that's a huge question. That changes the whole formula.
Actually, not. I think you have to assume that they're committed to nuclear weapons, and you have to do deals that make sense, even if that's true. There's no trust here. It's not just a line, "Trust, but verify." It's "No, you don't trust and you get as much verification [as possible]."
Those who criticize the deal because they cheated on it, I think, are not understanding the nature of international politics. We have done deals with people who we expected might well cheat. Indeed, the Soviet Union cheated on all kinds of deals -- massively, in the biological weapons convention. That's probably the most famous. So, you look at the deal and say, "OK. What can you monitor? What can you watch? What can you verify? If they cheat, will you catch them? And if you don't catch them, are you still better off with the deal than without it?"
The lesson is we stopped the plutonium program, and we had to watch for the enrichment program. You couldn't expect to have high confidence the North Koreans wouldn't cheat, based upon their past experience, and based upon how easy it is to have a secret centrifuge program. You had to understand that might happen, and still regard the deal as a good deal, in our interest, because over time, we'd be better off with the deal than without it. It wasn't perfect. It didn't provide for absolute transparency in North Korea.
The hope, the expectation was, over time, relationships would improve. Tensions would reduce. We could get more access. And indeed, in the meantime, we stopped the plutonium program.
We also had to monitor them as closely as we could through our intelligence capability, and try to catch them. Well, we did, and we did. The question for this administration is, what do you do now? Do you say, "Wait a minute. They're a rogue regime. You can't talk to them?" I wouldn't think that would be the best answer.
That's what they're saying, aren't they?
The administration's position is a bit nuanced. It is, "Within a multilateral context, we'll talk. Because within a multilateral context, it will not be the North Koreans extracting concessions from Washington, blackmailing us. We will not be guilty of appeasement. We will bring the whole international community's concerns about North Korea to bear. And the North Koreans will, in a sense, cave to this international pressure."
If it worked, I'd have no problem with it. There's nothing wrong with the rhetoric. The problem is, it hasn't. Day after day, the North Koreans turn up the heat another notch. [Kicking out the IAEA] inspectors, then restarting the five-megawatt reactor. Then some movement about spent fuel. Then the action against the aircraft. Every day, it's something else to tell us they are not going to wait while we go to war in Iraq and then focus our attentions on them.
So I think the lesson from 1994 is that you can talk to the North Koreans. It is not that you can trust the North Koreans. It is that you can talk to them, and you can get certain benefits out of a negotiation.
I'd be willing to make an effort at that negotiation. If you ask the next question: Would I provide benefits in order to get performance? The answer is, absolutely yes. This is not a morality play for me. This is international politics, and the national security of my country and our allies. If you strike a standard [that says] "We don't talk to these rogue regimes," and feel good about that, people may die because you failed to deal with this in an effective way, in a diplomatic way.
It is not a concession, in my view, to the North Koreans, to pay for performance on their part. You can call it a concession. You can call it appeasement. It is dealing with the problem as it is. It is preferable to me than the use of force.