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former IAEA Director-General

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's Visit to North Korea
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ACA Press Briefing, October 20, 2000

One week after Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, the second most senior official in North Korea, concluded an unprecedented visit to Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang as the highest-level U.S. official ever to visit North Korea. On October 20, two days before Albright departed, the Arms Control Association held a press conference to discuss the purpose of the secretary's trip, the potential for progress on nuclear and missile issues, and the possibility of a future visit by President Bill Clinton. (For news coverage of Jo's visit and Albright's subsequent trip, see news story)

Conference panelists were Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., president and executive director of the Arms Control Association; Alan Romberg, a former State Department official, now a senior fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center; David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and editor of Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle; Joel Wit, former State Department coordinator for the 1994 Agreed Framework, now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution; and Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The following is an edited version of their remarks and the question-and-answer session that followed.

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

Welcome to today's press briefing, sponsored by the Arms Control Association, on Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang. This meeting, which has largely been ignored by U.S. media, operating under the shadow of the presidential campaign, signals a potential major breakthrough in U.S.-North Korean stormy relations.

Ten days ago, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, second in command to Chairman Kim, had a meeting with President Clinton that ended in a communiqué, which struck a very optimistic note and emphasized efforts to assure a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and to solve the ballistic missile problem. The communiqué concluded with a statement that the secretary of state would be visiting North Korea shortly to meet with Chairman Kim to directly relay the president's views on how to proceed with the North Korean issue. It went on to say that she would also make preparations for a possible presidential visit to North Korea in the near future.

This was indeed a major and largely unexpected development. When they said the secretary would visit "in the near future," I did not anticipate it would be within 10 days, and I think that even though the president's visit was described as a "possible visit," the tone suggests that the visit will probably take place, which is indeed remarkable. When you consider that the two countries have been facing each other for the last 47 years across the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] as serious adversaries since the end of the Korean War, without a peace agreement, the decision of the president to make a visit is indeed a major development.

The last 10 years of the relationship have been quite stormy, with the focus of attention at the end of the Cold War on the problem of North Korea's apparent intention to develop a relatively substantial nuclear weapons capability. While I think, all things considered, that substantial progress has been made in containing this threat, the problem is far from resolved. In more recent years, the major issue has been the North Korean ballistic missile program—both its development and its export of ballistic missiles and technology to other countries that have all been classified as "rogues," and now "of concern."

Last year, in his review of U.S.-North Korean policy, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry came up with a proposed plan of action for future relations. In it, he emphasized the centrality of resolving the problem of North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, which he believed had to be essentially eliminated. I think the Perry plan of action has played a central role in the discussions that are ongoing with North Korea and will be pursued at the highest level in the immediate future.

The success of this current effort, which of course cannot be guaranteed, will prove to be extremely important. It not only would be a major step toward achieving stability and security on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia in general, it would also be a tremendous accomplishment in strengthening the nuclear and ballistic missile non-proliferation regimes. And finally, it would be a major contribution in eliminating the rationale for a U.S. national missile defense. In the version that the Clinton administration is pursuing, national missile defense would be a $60 billion investment, and the version that appears to be advocated by George W. Bush would cost a couple hundred billion dollars. But I think the even greater cost would be the negative impact this would have on our relations with Russia, China, and other countries. So resolution of these problems with North Korea could largely eliminate the need or rationale for a national missile defense.

Finally, I would add that when the Arms Control Association asked presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush a dozen questions on arms control this summer, they differed on many things, but while expressing appropriate caution, both indicated support and encouragement for improvement in U.S.-North Korean relations. Those of you who are interested in what they said about this question and the other 11 questions can pick up copies of the September issue of Arms Control Today, which features the candidates' responses.

Alan Romberg

I want to talk a little bit about the context of Secretary Albright's visit—about why it is happening, why it is happening now, and what we can expect to get out of it.

Taken simplistically perhaps, one might say that the North Koreans are doing this because they took a lesson from the Clinton campaign book of 1992—that is, it's the economy, stupid.

Obviously, the North Koreans have received a lot of emergency food aid and other assistance, and their domestic economic situation is reportedly somewhat better than it was. But it's painfully obvious that they need deeper economic relations and trade and investment if they're going to move ahead. I think it would be a mistake to assume that North Korea's recent diplomatic initiatives, which are quite striking, somehow reflect a decision to reform the domestic economic system, much less the political system. Nonetheless, if North Korea really is to gain the benefits of involvement with the outside world—that is, trade and investment—it will have to create a more conducive regulatory and legal environment and make it attractive for foreign firms to come and participate in the North.

Now, some would dismiss the recent diplomatic moves as therefore meaningless, maintaining that if you're not going to change the society, you're not really doing anything that's worthwhile. I join Spurgeon in saying I don't agree with that. Not everything has been nailed down yet—indeed, I think the purpose of the secretary's trip is to do that as much as possible—but I don't think the North can have any illusions about its need to alter its positions on some key defense and foreign policy issues if it is going to maintain a high level of engagement with the United States or others. I note that when the Germans recently indicated that they are considering establishing relations with Pyongyang, they identified North Korea's defense posture as one of the benchmarks that they would be looking at when deciding whether, in fact, to normalize relations.

While the United States would obviously welcome a transformation of North Korean society to an open, humane, democratic, free-market society, deciding to act only if that were possible would be both unrealistic and, in a very real sense, self-defeating. We would forego opportunities to achieve things that are important, particularly from a national security point of view. What we care about right now is the North's external behavior, the threat that it presents to peace and stability.

It is not realistic to expect a rapid pullback of North Korean forces from their forward-deployed positions near the DMZ, nor is it realistic to expect rapid changes in deployments of U.S. and R.O.K. forces. But there may be some realistic steps that could address our concerns—and those of South Korea and Japan—on other programs, such as North Korea's longer-range missile program. We'll have to see, but it seems to me that if the North can feel satisfied that it has received some assurances, as Vice Marshal Jo put it during his visit, regarding the D.P.R.K.'s security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, then there may be a willingness within North Korea to accept and move ahead on some of the changes that we're looking for.

A key factor in all of this has been the policy of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and the success he has achieved to date, most spectacularly, of course, the North-South summit in June in Pyongyang. President Kim has given active encouragement to the United States and others to move ahead with the North because he understands and accepts that such progress is in the South's fundamental interests. Frankly, if it were not for that policy and, I would argue, for the achievements of that policy so far, we would not be in a position to take the kind of initiatives we're talking about today.

As those of you who follow Korean events well know, there's a certain amount of nervousness in South Korea about whether the North will once again seek to bypass the South in dealing with the United States. I understand that concern, and based on history, one can't simply dismiss it. We're going to need to make clear to the North that that isn't going to work. We took some tentative steps in our relations with North Korea as long ago as 1988, but they didn't go very far, in part because the North limited its engagement with the South.

Even though we did take the lead for a time, particularly on the nuclear issue in the early 1990s, progress on the larger agenda that was identified in the Agreed Framework of October 1994 has been slow, in part because of the lack of balance regarding progress on the North-South front. Among other things, support in this country for movement with North Korea is related to how South Korea views it. If South Korea is reluctant and unhappy and feels that it is threatened, the support in this country wanes. If South Korea, as it is currently doing, encourages us in that respect, it certainly contributes to support here. Without encouragement, it would be extremely difficult for us to maintain progress on the larger agenda with Pyongyang.

A related lesson of the last year is the critical nature of the close cooperation and consultation we've had trilaterally among the United States, the R.O.K., and Japan. I think this model has shown its value as an essential element under the so-called Perry process. I'm quite confident it will continue, and without it, in fact, I would argue we would lack the necessary cohesion to move ahead. Keep in mind also—if I'm right that economics are an important part of the motivation for North Korea's new posture—that Pyongyang needs to remain engaged with the South and perhaps with Japan as well because, as Willie Sutton would say, that's where the money is.

Now, is all of this reversible? In one sense, sure it's reversible. Kim Jong-Il could wake up tomorrow morning and issue an order to stop or reverse the process. But in a very real sense, I would argue, Kim Jong-Il personally and his regime generally are increasingly invested in this new involvement in the world. Having welcomed Kim Dae Jung in a very public manner to Pyongyang and now having Secretary Albright, probably President Clinton, and doubtless other leaders as well come to North Korea, it becomes increasingly costly for him to say, "Well, this was all a mistake, and we're going to go back to the old ways."

That doesn't mean that this is a "gimme," that it's just an easy thing that we can assume will happen. There are doubtless those in the North Korean system who are very skeptical of all of this. But I would argue the dynamics are working in favor of a continuation. Again, it isn't going to lead, in the short term at least, to a change in the system—in fact, one might argue that the whole idea of this is to preserve the system—and what happens over the longer term is a matter of speculation and highly debated.

Finally, I'd like to make a couple of points about the "why now." As you're all aware, the United States had been looking to a high-level visit from North Korea for some time. It had been on hold because the North had not chosen to follow through, but now it has in a very dramatic way, by sending a man of the rank of Vice Marshal Jo—the second- or third-, depending on your estimate, most powerful leader in North Korea. Some people have suggested that the United States should play a little harder to get, that we shouldn't just run back with a return visit by the secretary and by the president. They argue that we should demand more on domestic development and change in North Korea as a price for such visits, or that we should make sure before the secretary even goes that there are agreements to do this, that, or the other thing.

Frankly, I think that letting the momentum die, as that would do, would be a mistake, and I don't see a lot of risk to what we're about to undertake. Making it not a risk, however, involves an essential point, which is that it should be clear to everybody that the U.S. commitment to the R.O.K., as well as to Japan, is firm and unchanging. But within that context, and given the strong backing of President Kim Dae Jung, I think these next steps are logical and sensible.

David Albright

Trying to ensure that North Korea is free of nuclear weapons has been a long and difficult road, and the end of the road, I must say, is not yet in sight. Uncertainty about what North Korea has achieved with regard to nuclear weapons and their delivery systems has plagued this journey. One sobering lesson is that peace on the Korean Peninsula can't be achieved without verified assurance that North Korea is free of nuclear weapons.

I would like to quickly review some of the history of the nuclear issues. In the late 1980s, North Korea had already signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], and people were somewhat confident that North Korea was not pursuing nuclear weapons. However, in 1987, evidence emerged that North Korea was pursuing nuclear weapons when satellite surveillance of North Korea's nuclear site at Yongbyon indicated that the North Koreans were building a facility to separate plutonium. However, as is the case with many satellite images, there was a great deal of controversy about what was actually going on, and there was no consensus about what North Korea had planned. There was therefore a great deal of relief when the North Koreans agreed to let the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] come in and inspect their facilities in 1992. The NPT requires states-parties to submit to IAEA inspections, but North Korea had stalled for years on allowing this to happen.

However, the first visit by Hans Blix, then the director-general of the IAEA, in May 1992 was quite reassuring. North Korea was open. The inspectors asked to go to places that they had not been invited to, and North Korea let them in. The North Koreans admitted that they had built a large reprocessing facility, and they also admitted that they had separated some plutonium. And they allowed their nuclear facilities to be placed under inspections.

But as the inspection effort proceeded through the summer and fall and as the IAEA deployed more sophisticated inspection methods than it had ever deployed in such a state, discrepancies began to appear about what North Korea had said. Unfortunately, the evidence was not sufficient to resolve the questions the IAEA had—namely how much plutonium North Korea had actually produced and separated—but the IAEA did conclude that North Korea had certainly produced more than it had declared. To this day, we do not know how much more. The CIA, for example, has consistently argued that North Korea has enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. Many others have argued that it is not enough for a single nuclear weapon, but the bottom line remains that there's not enough evidence to decide definitely either way.

This confrontation between the IAEA and North Korea reached a climax in February 1993 when the agency called for special inspections to help clear up the inconsistencies in North Korea's statements and official declarations. But North Korea adamantly refused to allow these inspections to take place. From that point on, the situation only hardened. The crisis escalated dramatically in the spring of 1994 when North Korea started to unload its small gas-graphite reactor. The spent fuel that the North Koreans were unloading contained enough plutonium for five or six nuclear weapons, and they refused to allow the IAEA to inspect that unloading. During this period, many people felt that we were stampeding to war—that negotiations were not working (in fact they had ended after North Korea moved to unload the reactor) and that there was no way to resolve this crisis.

I think it was the growing realization of the cost of a war that led people to re-evaluate. There had to be a shift in mindset from a focus on the past production of plutonium and its potential use in nuclear weapons to how many nuclear weapons North Korea could make in the future. And so what developed was a view that it was more important to prevent North Korea from making five or six nuclear weapons than to try to understand whether it had made one or two earlier.

In this process, former President Carter's visit in June 1994 to North Korea was extremely important because, in a sense, it burst the balloon of those marching toward war. After his visit, negotiations resumed, and within a few months, the United States and North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework, which froze plutonium production and therefore prevented more nuclear weapons from being built. In exchange, North Korea would receive two light-water reactors.

Again, I want to emphasize that North Korea had a large nuclear weapons program. It was building two additional gas-graphite reactors that were well suited to make weapons-grade plutonium in large quantities. Had the North Koreans continued, by now they could have had enough plutonium separated for 60 to 80 nuclear weapons. And if all three of North Korea's reactors had been dedicated to making weapons-grade plutonium, then North Korea would have been able to produce about 40 to 50 nuclear weapons per year. Even if only the two smaller reactors were dedicated to making weapons-grade plutonium, North Korea still would have been able to make about 10 nuclear weapons per year.

Trying to prevent this from happening was the right policy. However, it doesn't mean we can turn our back on what happened in the past. A single nuclear weapon could cause tremendous havoc to Seoul or to any of our diplomatic efforts to try to resolve the situation or achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula. So it was right that the Agreed Framework required North Korea to come clean in the future and permit the IAEA to verify that North Korea does not have nuclear weapons or unsafeguarded plutonium. Of all the tasks in the Agreed Framework, however, this is the one that, from our point of view, has the least certainty of success.

So far, North Korea has not cooperated sufficiently with the International Atomic Energy Agency—for example, on the key question of preserving essential information. The IAEA will have a very hard job in the future. Not only will it have to establish what happened in the past in terms of plutonium production, but because of the requirements of the NPT, it also is going to have to ensure that North Korea is free of undeclared nuclear activities. And as you all know, there have been many reports of undeclared enrichment activities and undeclared reprocessing activities at places other than Yongbyon. Those reports will have to be investigated, and the IAEA will have to establish sufficient confidence that there are no undeclared activities in North Korea.

If this effort is to succeed, North Korea must concretely demonstrate its commitment to transparency—the sooner the better. It's often very time-consuming to do these kinds of inspections, particularly in a country with a large nuclear program. In South Africa, it took about two years to go through this exercise, and South Africa was fully cooperating. It produced people in the bomb program to talk to the inspectors and showed them its main nuclear weapons facilities. Plus, whenever inspectors asked to see other facilities that they had learned about through intelligence information given to them by member states, the South Africans took them there immediately.

So far, the United States and South Korea have been reluctant to encumber their direct negotiations with North Korea by raising verification issues. I think continued delay is risky. These issues need to be put on the agenda as soon as possible. And again, I believe that the most important thing is for North Korea to take concrete steps to show it intends to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Joel Wit

I'd like to first give a quick overview of the situation and then discuss the nuclear component and my personal experiences with that working at the State Department over the past seven years.

A few months ago, all the experts were saying that there was not going to be any more progress in U.S.-North Korean relations. Everyone thought it was over for this administration, and now, all of a sudden, we have this sudden spurt of progress. So the issue is, what happened in the past few months?

The sudden spurt is not the result of any changes in U.S. policy. It's a result of changes in North Korean policy. It is very clear that North Korea has made a conscious decision to move forward now, even though it is the end of the Clinton administration. There were signs during the summer that this might happen. For example, Kim Jong-Il gave an interview with a Korean-American journalist and said he was going to send a high-level emissary to the United States if the United States stopped treating North Korea like an abnormal country. And that's what happened. Vice Marshal Jo's visit was, I think, a surprise to most people in the U.S. government. The administration itself has been leaning forward, and as I said, it's positioned to take advantage of a possible opening, but it really hasn't been the initiator of the events of the past few months. It continues to lean forward now by holding out the prospect of a visit by President Clinton. I say "holding out" because I don't think that's a done deal yet.

The theory behind all of this, on both sides, is that establishing the proper political foundation in the relationship between the United States and North Korea will make it a lot easier to move forward on some of the tougher issues confronting the two countries, such as security issues. This is a very typical way for the North Koreans to operate: they first establish this kind of broad construct, in this case a better political relationship, which then makes it a lot easier in theory to move forward on some of the tougher security issues.

I think Secretary Albright's visit is an attempt to test this approach. There's already been some substantive progress on issues such as removing North Korea from the terrorism list. There may be some progress on establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. It is unclear, at least to me, what's going on concerning security issues, and I would go so far as to say that the administration isn't yet in a position to move forward rapidly on security issues even if the North Koreans said they wanted to do so tomorrow. The administration would, of course, turn around and try to move forward quickly, but these are very complicated issues. For example, on the missile issue, even if Kim Jong-Il said tomorrow, "Yes, my offer to President Putin was serious, I do want to stop long-range missile tests if you can get me foreign space-launch rights," the administration would have to put together a multilateral effort, and I am not sure that's been done yet. On conventional forces also, the United States is just starting to study what the future of its conventional force posture on the peninsula should be. Any conventional arms control progress would have to be built around the results of that kind of study, which has not been completed yet.

The last overview point I would like to make is with regard to the Clinton visit, which I don't think is a done deal yet. The Clinton administration is trying to use the possibility of the visit as leverage over the North Koreans because the North Koreans really do want the visit to happen. So part of what Secretary Albright will be doing during her visit is to see how far she can push the envelope in terms of making some substantive progress, and based on the results of her visit, I think the administration will make a final decision about whether President Clinton should go.

Let me say a few words on the nuclear component of this equation. I've had a lot of experience dealing with this, but I don't want to get into a lot of detail about the Agreed Framework or problems with implementation of the Agreed Framework because I think most people are pretty familiar with that. The main point is that implementation is behind schedule. The reactor project is, I think, about five years behind schedule, and it is the central part of the Agreed Framework. The tradeoff was the North Koreans get reactors and we get an end to their nuclear program. Their nuclear program is frozen now, but it hasn't been dismantled. That's important, and the IAEA examination of North Korea is probably the only way we have of learning what North Korea did in the past.

But I would like to make a comment here about the North's nuclear weapons program based on my experience. There are a number of scenarios out there about what North Korea may be doing in terms of its nuclear weapons program. One scenario, which we saw play out in 1999 with the whole experience of the suspect nuclear site at Kumchang-ni, was that there are people in the U.S. government and in other places who think that North Korea is churning out nuclear weapons in some mountain somewhere. That's what Kumchang-ni was all about. People thought there was a reactor and a reprocessing plant buried in a hill in northwest North Korea. Well, it turns out there was nothing there. I went there, I saw it. There was nothing there. Our best experts looked at it, and we were wrong. So although we don't know for sure, this scenario is probably the least likely.

In my mind, the most likely scenario is that North Korea is probably continuing to do research and development on nuclear weapons-related issues. It may have enough material for a few weapons. David has already talked a little about that, and there are uncertainties in U.S. estimates on how much material it may have. But, if you are a prudent decision-maker in the U.S. government, you have to assume that North Korea has enough for one or two nuclear weapons. In my mind, it is still unclear whether it can actually build a nuclear weapon or not. I don't know whether it has a design, and I would venture to say there's probably no one who knows whether it does, except maybe a few people in North Korea. So I think we have to keep it in that perspective. Getting the IAEA examination is very important, but if I had to rank the security issues I am most concerned about, I would actually put conventional weapons in front of nuclear weapons, and I think missiles would be at the top of the list.

One last point I'd like to make concerns a debate that periodically crops up, and I think it has started to crop up again—that is, whether it makes any sense for the Agreed Framework to provide North Korea with nuclear reactors. There are a lot of arguments on both sides of this issue that have been going on for a while, but I think what makes it more interesting recently is that the changes in U.S.-North Korean relations and in the relationship between South Korea and North Korea are bringing out these arguments again. People are saying that building conventional power plants makes more economic sense because the D.P.R.K. needs energy and the improving political relationship makes it possible to renegotiate the Agreed Framework.

So, all of these things have led to some discussion inside the governments involved, and certainly outside of the governments, about what we can do—should we change this or shouldn't we change this? But there are some important points here, and I think they have to do more with the practical issues involved. Granted, all of the arguments the advocates of changing the Agreed Framework are making may make sense, but the fact is that there are already millions of dollars of costs sunk into the reactor project. Also, it takes a long time to build the plants that might be substituted for the nuclear reactors, so you wouldn't save much time. The fact is that doing business with North Korea is very difficult. Even when the North Koreans are cooperating, it is very difficult. So if tomorrow I said, "Hey let's get rid of these nuclear reactors, we are going to build you 10 thermal power plants around your country," drawing up the plans for the project and drawing up the contracts would take time. The best calculation, according to some South Koreans I know, is that you might shave a year off building nuclear reactors. So it is very unclear whether it's worth making this major switch or not.

Just one last point: if you get past all the noise and the arguments about all the technical details, about whether the Agreed Framework was the right thing to do, and about whether the Clinton administration is doing the right thing, the bottom line is that we are much better off today with that agreement than we would have been without it. That really needs to be emphasized: if there had not been an agreement, North Korea would have a large nuclear weapons stockpile with an active ballistic missile program, including maybe some long-range missiles. And on top of that, there have been concerns about the stability of North Korea, so you would have had a nightmare in Northeast Asia. Today, we don't have that nightmare. We have the prospect of ending the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula, we have this rapprochement between the North and the South, and we have the prospect of better North Korean relations with the United States and maybe even Japan. So, the bottom line is that we are better off in Northeast Asia today with the Agreed Framework than we would have been without it.

Joseph Cirincione

I think that it is extremely important at this point to emphasize how far we have come and how critical the 1994 Agreed Framework was in bringing us to this point. I am proud to be up here with the other members of the panel and proud to be joining them in support of that agreement despite the withering criticism that Congress has leveled against the Agreed Framework over the past six years. The Agreed Framework has stood the test of time and has proven to be the correct path.

Let me just say a few words about missiles. I believe that Secretary Albright's visit to North Korea may be the most historic and important trip of her tenure. If the Clinton administration can resolve the North Korean missile program, it will largely, though not completely, solve the missile proliferation problem globally. The end of North Korean testing and export of missiles will dry up the major well feeding several key national missile programs and eliminate the major justification for a national missile defense system here in the United States. North Korea has exported Scud missiles to such "states of concern" as Iran and Syria, and also to Egypt, Pakistan, and possibly Libya.

Let us look at why this visit could be so important and why the North Korean missile program is so central to the global proliferation problem. There are 33 nations in the world, outside of the five nuclear-weapon states, that possess ballistic missiles. However, 27 of those 33 nations have only short-range ballistic missiles, missiles that fly less than 1,000 kilometers. That leaves six nations that we are concerned about with medium- or longer-range ballistic missiles that could potentially threaten U.S. allies, troops, or the United States itself. Those six nations are Israel, India, and Saudi Arabia—which are not considered threats to the United States—Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Those last three are all tied together. Pakistan's Ghauri missile, a medium-range missile over 1,000 kilometers—various versions are estimated to have gone from 1,300 to over 2,000 kilometers—is a Nodong missile, a North Korean missile shipped to Pakistan. Iran has tested a medium-range missile three times that it calls the Shahab-3. The missile has succeeded in one of those flight tests. It has an estimated range of 1,300 kilometers. That too is a Nodong missile.

If North Korea can be convinced to stop its exports, not only does the North Korean program end, but also the Iranian program significantly slows down. It does not end because Iran has two other sources of assistance—Russia and China. If Russia and China can be convinced to end all of their assistance to Iran, that essentially will strangle the Iranian missile program. This is not an indigenous program. Iran cannot build missiles by itself.

So follow the chain here: if you eliminate the North Korean missile program, you eliminate the immediate justification for a rush to deploy a national missile defense system. We have heard administration officials say that they have to deploy the system by 2005 because the National Intelligence Estimate said that North Korea possibly could have a missile that could reach the United States by 2005. If you eliminate the North Korean program, then you eliminate that timeline, and you eliminate the rush.

If you also eliminate the North Korean exports, you eliminate the second justification for a national missile defense program. The National Intelligence Estimate is that Iran might be able to have a long-range ballistic missile that could hit the United States by 2010. If we also eliminated Russian and Chinese assistance, along with North Korean assistance, that would certainly curtail, if not completely eliminate, the Iranian program. What that would mean globally for the United States is that the pressure would be off on the development of a national missile defense system. Theater missile programs could proceed. But without a national missile defense system as an irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship or the U.S.-Chinese relationship, those relationships could enjoy continued progress. We could also improve our relationship with the U.S. allies disturbed by the U.S. national missile defense effort. So this small, impoverished country actually plays a key role in U.S. global relations, primarily because of its missile program.

We do not know if Secretary Albright is expecting to make any kind of progress on the missile program. We do not know if President Clinton's visit is contingent on a deal on the missile program. But these visits can certainly help resolve some of the most thorny issues the United States has confronted over the past few years.

Questions and Answers

 

Question:

Could you explain a little more about why people are second-guessing the decision to make light-water reactors available to the North Koreans?

 

Albright:

There are a couple of reasons people raise questions about the light-water reactors. One is just a practical issue: can North Korea, a backward society, build and operate modern nuclear reactors safely? We do not want a Chernobyl in North Korea, and there is a lot of work that has to be done to create a proper safety, environmental, and regulatory environment in North Korea. That is a formidable challenge and, I think, a real obstacle.

Some members of Congress have also raised concerns that these light-water reactors are going to be a new bomb factory, and they have even charged that somehow they would make more plutonium than the reactors being replaced. I do not want to go into detail, but the arguments are pretty weak. The main point is that we are worried about North Korea's ability to separate plutonium. You cannot make a nuclear weapon when the plutonium is locked in the spent fuel. So if you focus on that issue, then it is going to be very difficult for North Korea to reprocess the fuel from the light-water reactors.

The other reason I think this is coming up is that North Korea has periodically threatened to undo the Agreed Framework unless progress on the light-water reactors happens quicker. It is a natural response given that this project can only move so fast, but let us think of alternatives. Thermal conventional plants are what most people consider a reasonable alternative. I think this needs to be looked at, but it might not save any time. There are always reasons to look again at this issue, but for me the principal reason would be that North Korea has not demonstrated that it can operate a reactor safely. And that is going to be a very tough problem to solve.

 

Keeny:

I would just add that from North Korea's perspective you can argue that a number of smaller conventional fossil fuel plants, which I believe could be brought on-line quicker, are advantageous. First, when a small country has a 1,000-megawatt electric power plant and it goes down for technical reasons or refueling, it is a shock to the country's entire system. In addition, there is a question as to whether North Korea really has the distribution system to handle the output of one very large plant. And the answer is that it doesn't. That is another major financial problem that is going to have to be faced by the world or North Korea if the electricity from this plant is to be used. Smaller conventional plants can be more easily integrated.

 

Question:

What must Secretary Albright do or the North Koreans say to warrant the president going to North Korea, and, beyond symbolism, what would the significance of a Clinton trip be?

 

Wit:

That is a tough question. I do not know how high or how low the administration is going to set the barrier. I have trouble seeing a lot of progress coming out of the Albright visit on security issues. There may be some kind of broad agreement that we need to redouble our efforts dealing with the missile issue, or the two sides might agree, and I am just speculating here of course, that Chairman Kim's idea about stopping a long-range missile test in return for foreign space-launch rights is a good idea. I think the discussion on those issues is going to be more general than specific. There may be more specificity on the other issues that are kind of being discussed: removing North Korea from the terrorism list, normalizing relations, setting up liaison offices. But those issues are a lot easier, I think, to deal with than some of these tough security issues. And the problem is that those issues are not seen by most Americans or Westerners as issues we really want progress on.

In terms of the Clinton visit, I have had some discussion in the past few days with colleagues and others, and they are asking, "Why is President Clinton going to go to North Korea? There is no reason for this. It is really hasty and premature." My reaction is that I do not see a downside to him going to North Korea. There is a lot of hand-wringing going on about it, but my personal experience has been that sometimes these kinds of visits really do get real results. The prime example is former President Carter's visit to North Korea in 1994. At that time, there were lots of people saying, "Why is President Carter going to North Korea? What is the purpose? There is no reason for him to do this." And yet something useful did come out of it. So I do not really see much of a downside on the Clinton visit, and there is a potential for an upside. Even if the upside is not obvious right away, even if Clinton does not come home with an agreement ending their missile program, we have to wait and see what happens because, once again, the improving political relationship may establish the foundation for progress over time on these other security issues.

 

Keeny:

In response to the question of positive results coming from high-level visits, I would like to underscore the significance of former President Carter's visit to North Korea in 1994. It is hard to imagine today, but the situation was so tense at that time that otherwise sensible people were seriously, publicly proposing that we should consider a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea. I think, after President Carter's visit, the whole situation changed, and we launched into the long negotiations leading to the Agreed Framework.

 

Question:

Clearly, if North Korea curtailed its missile program in exchange for space-launch assistance, it wouldn't use U.S. launchers; it would probably use Russian launchers. So what is the role of the U.S. government in making that deal happen? And secondly, what is the concern that the North Koreans would get a lot of data on their payload—this is what the payload needs to look like, this is the vibration it needs to withstand, this is the environment it has to be able to live in—that could be used in missile design?

 

Keeny:

First of all, it was an interesting proposal, and it was initially treated as a joke in the U.S. press. However, it was apparently a serious proposal, and the U.S. government has stated it is looking into it. If you could get North Korea to agree to discontinue permanently its development program of longer-range missiles or all military ballistic missiles, agreeing to launch any space payloads North Korea will have for peaceful purposes would be a very small price to pay. I can't imagine that North Korea is going to have a great many payloads or that, in the absence of a ballistic missile program, it is going to get any technical details on accelerations and vibrations that would be of any great importance to them.

 

Cirincione:

I agree with what Spurgeon just said, but let us just go through it quickly. First, the possible space-launch countries would be Russia, China, or the European Union states. So there are a number of possibilities. Second, as Spurgeon mentioned, it is unlikely that North Korea would have many payloads. What are we talking about here? The satellite it attempted to launch on the Taepo Dong in August 1998 was a Sputnik, just a simple radio transmitter. And that failed. Third, there would be a data concern. You would be concerned about North Korea gathering some information on stress factors, vibration, acceleration, et cetera that could aid it in designing not launch vehicles, but warheads. And that is the data that you would be collecting. That would have to be negotiated out. There clearly would have to be some restrictions on the data that was transmitted to the North Koreans in exchange for launching their payloads. That is not an unsolvable problem though. Presumably, what they are most interested in is getting the payload up there, not in also buying all the data associated or all the technical specifications associated with the launch itself.

 

Question:

So is the U.S. government's role really to help on the financing issue?

 

Cirincione:

The U.S. government would be a facilitator, much as it was in the Agreed Framework. The U.S. government is not paying much for the Agreed Framework. Japan, South Korea, and the European Union are paying for the Agreed Framework with only a small percentage being paid for by the United States. The United States was the facilitator. It was the great power making the deal, and that would be the case here.

 

Wit:

What Joe said is exactly right about the U.S. role. It would be like what we did with the reactor project for the Agreed Framework—that is, negotiating the parameters of the deal with the North Koreans and then setting up whatever multilateral arrangement is necessary to provide the North Koreans with what they need. Another possibility is that the North Koreans are also interested in some scientific cooperation, maybe in terms of some space sciences, that would not directly have to do with building satellites or launching satellites but other things related to that.

The final point on what the North Koreans are really interested in is that I think what we have seen is basically the opening trial balloon in what may be a negotiating strategy that will unfold over the next year or two. I am not sure that the North Koreans really know the parameters of the deal they are trying to get, but I would be very skeptical that they would be willing to do anything beyond ending long-range missile tests in return for foreign space-launch rights, which means there are a number of other missile issues wrapped up in this that will need to be dealt with.

I am assuming that if we want solutions on things like missile exports or maybe even some of the deployments of shorter-range missiles like the Nodong that threaten Japan, we are going to need to have a bigger package than just foreign space-launch assistance. The Japanese angle here is critical because I think everyone assumes that Japan has financial resources that it may be willing to commit to this whole effort. But it is not going to do that unless the issues that concern it the most are addressed. And the issue that concerns it the most is not the missiles that can strike the United States or the missiles that are exported to the Middle East, but rather the missiles that are deployed in North Korea that can hit Japan.