Interview with Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, the State Dept's former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea

Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, the State Department's recently retired former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, discussed the Bush administration's North Korea policy in an Oct. 28 interview with Arms Control Today Editor Miles Pomper and Arms Control Association Research Analyst Paul Kerr. The interview took place shortly after President George W. Bush said the United States is willing to provide a multilateral agreement that it will not attack North Korea.

ACT: What do you think the situation is now vis a vis talks with North Korea, particularly after President Bush's recent statement [concerning a possible security guarantee]?

Pritchard: The Secretary of State has embellished on [Bush's statement], and we now have a public offer of a written security assurance, not further defined, for which the North Koreans have followed an extraordinarily predictable script coming out three days later on the 22nd, saying "Ahh! What a laughable matter. No fool would entertain that kind of bizarre offer." Three days after that, on the 25th, came what most people would have expected-the North Koreans saying, "we're willing to look at this offer." Now, the operative part is the clause they put in there: "if this means that the U.S. is prepared to switch its hostile attitude and prepared to accept the principle of simultaneity as we laid out in our packaged deal in April." That's a big, huge "if." So things are moving very rapidly on the form side. Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National's People's Congress, is headed tomorrow to Pyongyang. The North Koreans have done this deliberately in advance of that trip so they don't have to be seen as knuckling under pressure of the Chinese. All these things are going to play themselves out. They will setup and agree to next round of six-party talks. But again, there is no substance on the table here.

ACT: You say that their behavior is entirely predictable. Why do you say that?

Pritchard: For me, I could have written this script two weeks ago. I've been saying all along that I had no doubt that the North Koreans would come to another round of talks. As an example, Wu Bangguo has been attempting to go, you know, the Chinese don't want to lose momentum, they want to get this nailed down, they want a date. Wu has tried on two previous occasions to set up a trip. He's the number two guy in China and the North Koreans have said "not yet." And then they finally said, "you can come after the twentieth." All of which was calculated to let them watch and see what Bush did on his Asia trip. So they weren't in a position of having to say yes or no to the Chinese before finding out what the president did or did not do during the trip. They go through a pattern of things, and right now because there is no substance on the table, this is all form and it's going to play itself out.

ACT: When you say there's no substance, you don't think our offer…

Pritchard: What is the offer? Besides the fact that the president has said that he's willing to look at [security assurances], but what? Is it the Ukraine model? (ACT: The United States, Britain, and Russia issued a Memorandum on Security Assurances in December 1994 after Ukraine acceded to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The memorandum stated that none of those countries would threaten Ukraine with economic coercion or military force "except in self-defense or…in accordance with" the United Nations Charter.) The answer is, don't know.

ACT: And we've said this before too.

Pritchard: The president has said these things orally. The secretary of state has said he could envision that we'd be able to put something on paper. Now, it's a more formal declaration by the president and it has to go through the process of looking at the model things we're willing to do. You can't just write this unilaterally. You've got to put your thoughts together and get it blessed within the administration. We're not even close to doing that. Then you've got to market it with the other four partners, then you've got to figure out how you're going to play it in the six-party plenary, which will probably fall flat on its face. Or you can do something more substantive, either directly with the North Koreans within the context of six-party talks, or, what I would hope they do, which is kind of a working-level meeting ahead of the six-party talks to get most of the substantive work done. But right now…

ACT: Bilateral or multilateral working meeting?

Pritchard: It can be multilateral. It ought to be multilateral. Within all of this, there has to be, in my opinion, has to be strong, sustained bilateral dialogue. Not an independent dialogue, not a parallel dialogue. It all is part of working in the six-party. But you've got to have some dialogue.

ACT: Where are you hearing that they are in terms of the internal process? Are you saying nothing has happened?

Pritchard: You're one week into the offer. And no one has suggested that they have got something in hand. My personal concern is that they're going to work this thing backwards and they're going to work it form over substance, and that is, the Chinese will be successful in getting the North Koreans to agree-everyone's going to pick a date, and we will have a date. And yet we will not yet have an administration position on what it is that we're going to do there. That puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on the negotiating team itself, and those who are opposed to this level and direction now have the upper hand. They can stall, they can nibble away, time will run out, and then there will be a compromise and something less than sufficient will go forward.

ACT: What would you conversely…

Pritchard: Conversely, the ideal would be, other than letting the Chinese continue down in the theoretical of getting the North Koreans to agree to a next round, do not set a date until you've got something to work with. That way, you've got the ability to…you know, if it takes six weeks to develop, fine. Let it develop. Get it right. Get it substantively correct. Work with your allies, then set a date. [We went] into the April and August talks with an agreed locked-in date before there had been any development of what the U.S. was going to do there. It just doesn't make any sense at all. The concept is fine, but the U.S. right now has blown off any sense of urgency about shutting down the North Koreans' plutonium program at Yongbyon. So why not get it right? Because in my opinion, you only have one opportunity to do it in the next round of talks. After that, I think the North Koreans, if they believe that there's nothing in it for them, and we haven't gotten our act together, they're not coming back.

ACT: Would you say then, so far, that what the Administration is doing enough to keep the Chinese and others happy?

Pritchard: I certainly don't believe that it is motivated in that sense. I think there are some legitimate motivations. The problem is, it hasn't gone beyond the superficial. Not only is there nothing wrong with six-party talks, at this point in time in the administration, two-and-a-half years plus into it, it's the right way to go. We began the process in February of this year with the Secretary's suggestion to the Chinese in terms of hosting and organizing a five-party set of talks that later turned into six-party. Right way to go. What we didn't realize is how fast and the depth to which the Chinese would in fact engage themselves in this. So it's not a question of keeping them happy and busy. The Chinese are committed to this for their own specific reasons and it's a good thing. The U.S. involvement in this needs to go beyond a satisfaction that we've now captured this in a multilateral setting and are not having to deal directly with the North Koreans exclusive of a multilateral setting. We need to go beyond that and find ways to exploit it to get to a resolution that shuts down North Korea's nuclear program.

ACT: And why do you think it hasn't gone beyond that? Is it because the president has been unwilling to broker these differences in the administration?

Pritchard: That's speculation. The specifics of this is that there has been such a wide range of views within the administration on how to deal with this, and after, again, more than two-and-a-half years, [they] have been unable to bring this into a single, focused effort.

ACT: So they've just sort of done the minimum, okay, we're going to do multilateral, and then no one's…

Pritchard: Your words. I'm not saying we've only done the minimum. We just haven't exploited the opportunity for success.

ACT: In terms of this statement, would it rule out any sort of preemptive attack on North Korea's nuclear facilities?

Pritchard: It all depends on what it is they want to do. The Ukraine model is actually a pretty good document. Part of the language here says, "The United States, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland reaffirm in the case of the Ukraine their commitment not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon state party to the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except in the case of an attack on themselves, their territories, or dependent territories, or armed forces or allies by such a state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state." This isn't all that restrictive. It doesn't prohibit the defense of a nation there, but it's something to look at. Whether this turns out to be the model acceptable to the other five parties, don't know. But you really have to put something on the table to look at. But to answer your question, from a North Korean point of view, this is precisely what they would want: a guarantee of non-preemption by the United States.

ACT: Does it seem like something we can offer politically?

Pritchard: Let's put it into the framework here. If this is offered as part of a resolution of the nuclear problem in Korea-as an example, if the North Koreans have agreed to and implemented a freeze at Yongbyon, and if we are on our way to a resolution that will get rid of the North Korean nuclear weapons program to include HEU [highly enriched uranium] at some point there and they are in the process of doing that, then it is precisely what the U.S. ought to be offering (ACT: The United States says that North Korea possesses a program to produce nuclear weapons using HEU). It is conditional in its nature. As long as the North Koreans are living up their end of the deal, why wouldn't the U.S. set aside the right of preemption as long as progress was being made in the direction we wanted?

ACT: So far the discussion has been about the security guarantees, but presumably there's an economic and food aid component.

Pritchard: That component is, what I believe, to be a part of a larger picture. There are pieces in which to go after. The urgency for us is shutting down Yongbyon. Putting a freeze in place. It is not the HEU that is the critical factor in the next 'x' number of months or years. It is what is going on right now: the reprocessing of 8,017 spent fuel rods. The potential adding to a suspected arsenal of one to two, making that six, eight or ten in the very near future. For a country that needs zero nuclear weapons, why would you want to see them in possession of an extraordinary amount of excess nuclear weapons that could ultimately find their way out into either the black market or into non-state player's hands? So that's our urgency. For the North Koreans, there is a-what they perceive to be hanging over their head-is a threat by the United States. So moving that aside, so they can continue down what they are perceiving to be a path of economic reform and normalization with their neighbors-however we judge that as unimportant -but that's what's important in the near term for them. So solving those two pieces of the puzzle simultaneously and early will set the stage for the longer-term prospects that would include some form of economic, developmental assistance.

ACT: Would you say, as someone who knows the North Koreans well, how realistic is the notion that they would sell nuclear materials?

Pritchard: I don't put anything out of the realm of the possible…. Ask me a couple years ago "Would they have done that ?"and I would have said "No. They would have done everything short of that." They were moving away and trending away from what we would view as legitimate state-sponsors of terrorism. I am not so sure about the future. When, if you paint a scenario that says: the talks are not succeeding, we are not peacefully and diplomatically resolving the problem and we are concurrently squeezing the North Koreans - from their point of view, as an example, the Japanese shutting down remunerations and flows of money from Japan to North Koran - that commercial trade is being curtailed. And they view the PSI [Proliferation Security Initiative], the Pacific Protector exercises and future ones, as precursors to an isolation and containment policy. (ACT: PSI is a U.S.-led multilateral effort to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction and related materials.) Put in that light, is it possible that, in combination with their views of this administration, the North Koreans might do something? Yeah. I hope that is not the case, but I don't dismiss it as not possible.

ACT: What do you think are the prospects for securing an effective verification regime for North Korea, something that we can live with?

Pritchard: Yeah, that's a huge question. It's one that remains unresolved within the administration. It was the beginning problem, in terms of what is acceptable. The attitudes early on have been, if it is not one-hundred percent verifiable, it is not verifiable. I find that to be, in my own personal view, ridiculous. I can't imagine, anything less than total regime change to be verifiable. So what are you willing to do, what are you willing to accept in terms of what is verifiable, what is possible? Can you shut down all their known programs? Can you verifiably shutdown the plutonium and nuclear weapons program at Yongbyon, and will it be acceptable to North Koreans? Yes, that one's relatively easy. Getting to the HEU is going to be a little trickier and our level of confidence about the verifiability of it will be up in the air. But I err on the side of, "if it looks reasonable, go with it" because at some point in time, just as we have discovered their HEU program, if they cheat in the future, we will find out. And doing it in a multilateral setting means that, in addition to the U.S., there are four sets of other eyes in the world community at large that will help detect leakage of verifiability. So I don't subscribe to it's a hundred percent open verification. I can accept less.

ACT: What kind of remote monitoring, on site access, what combination, would be good for monitoring plutonium, HEU program?

Pritchard: There is a precedent that I go back to, and that is Kumgchang-Ni. (ACT: Kumgchang-Ni is a suspected nuclear weapons site visited by a U.S. inspection team in 1999.) While we know now that it was not a nuclear-related facility, we did not know that at the time and it was and is a sensitive North Korean military-security location, with a high degree of security around it. Even though we still don't know what it is designed to be, but even under those circumstances, over a period of intense engagement and negotiations, we ended up with… access [for] … inspectors with sophisticated equipment that had access, in this case, on two occasions with a year in between, and the right to go back until we were satisfied that it was not what we initially suspected. So the model and the precedent is there. I think that some element of on-site inspections are in fact possible and required. Things where we know there is an existing program, the reestablishment of monitoring, as we had through the IAEA, is required and necessary. There are variations or combinations that can and will work and can be negotiated.

ACT: Turning to their HEU program, there's been very little said publicly about it. Can you give us a sense of how advanced you think it is?

Pritchard: I can't, only because [of] previous access to classified material, and there's speculation about this. Do I believe that they are churning out enriched uranium as we speak? No. But I can't quantify nor do I know how long it will be, nor [what] the size of the program will ultimately look like.

ACT: Turning to the role of the other participants in the Beijing talks, we talked about them just a little bit. The administration has talked a lot about the role of our allies putting pressure on North Korea, characterizing the talks as being successful in that way. But to what extent have our allies influenced our decision to be more conciliatory, more reasonable, willing to compromise?

Pritchard: There are two aspects to that. One is the reality of what's going on in the rest of the world, meaning Iraq. And the other is, over time, the South Koreans continue to express their concerns about any approach other than a peaceful one on the peninsula. That came home for the president when he visited South Korea in February of 2002. It was then-I don't if it was the first time, but he certainly voiced in a question and answer session at the Blue House with President Kim Dae-Jung-he said the United States has no intention of invading North Korea. That was designed as a message not to the North Koreans, but for the South Korean public at large. The developing relationship with China is what's most interesting here, that from this administration low-point of the EP-3 …from that point until now, it has been an upward and rapidly moving, better relationship with China. There has been some accommodation, particularly in moving to the six-party talks with the Chinese. You may recall Dai Bingguo, the Vice Minister who came to town to talk to Powell, there was a great deal of desire to take into consideration Chinese concerns. Some movement can be attributed to the kind of developing relationship we have with China.

ACT: This is just pure speculation on my part, but I also see that the Commerce Secretary is giving a major speech today on China's market access and are trying to get the Yuan and everything else. Do you think there's flexibility on these issues because we're trying to press them on economic issues at all?

Pritchard: No, I don't think there's a connection. And I am not an economics person, but the most recent concerns about the RMB, the currency, and trade, have come-in terms of public awareness-after we begun the process of moving towards six-party talks. I don't think there's a quid quo pro of any kind or a degree of flexibility we're showing towards one or the other.

ACT: To what extend do you think the other participants, particularly China, are able and willing to exert pressure on Pyongyang?

Pritchard: I think we've reached the peak with the Chinese at this point, because of what the Chinese will perceive or have perceived as a relatively poor showing by the U.S. in the April and August talks. The Chinese, prior to January of this year, were far more empathetic towards the North Koreans. But for whatever reason, they've come to their own conclusions that they had to get involved and they've applied a degree of pressure on the North Koreans to bring them into the six-party setting. They fully expected that the U.S. would have a more mature and flexible approach in April. That was absolutely not the case. The Chinese, I thought, might very well walk away from their commitment to the six-party talks because of the poor U.S. performance. They did not. They were committed, they got the six-party talks going. The U.S., from the Chinese point of view, did not do well in that. You recall shortly following the six-party talks, when Vice Minister [Wong Yew] was in Manila, and asked "What is the problem here?" and he said the U.S. is the biggest obstacle to resolution of the problem. Now part of that was designed with a North Korean audience in mind. Part of that was because is because he believes it.

ACT: With regards to the question of six-party talks, what more needs to be done by the other parties at the next round? I know you talked about presenting a concrete solution, but what would constitute progress?

Pritchard: Not only progress, but the minimum that we need is a North Korean commitment, if not an actual putting into play, is a freeze on the activities at Yongbyon. Time is not on our side in this matter. If they haven't already, as they claim, they will shortly, or certainty in the near future, complete the reprocessing. We need to shut that down. That's an imperative. Because I don't believe we have a third or fourth round of six-party talks that we can count on down the road. And likewise, to keep the North Koreans engaged in this, there has to be a discussion about the concerns they have. What they offered in April are absolutely non-starters. And the U.S. should have told them on the spot in April, six-plus months ago, "No, these are not acceptable proposals." But what we've done is we've allowed the North Koreans to have the diplomatic high ground by saying they've put a "reasonable proposal" on the table, and the U.S. just hasn't responded to it. And now they're couching, six months later, their potential, continued involvement in six-party talks in the terms of the proposal that they put on the table in April which wasn't acceptable. So we've got to put this back into an acceptable discussion of what is possible in addressing not only their concerns, but what is reasonable and doing it in a simultaneous fashion.

ACT: What aspects were not…

Pritchard: The North Koreans, for example, said that once the United States turns back on the heavy fuel oil and vastly expands food aid, then we will tell you our intention of doing this. Then once the U.S. signs a non-aggression pact, then we will commit to doing the next thing. These things are not bizarre from a North Korean point of view, but they were clearly, absolutely unacceptable. They're old kind of ideas. They talked about compensation for the delay of the LWR. The North Koreans are as culpable as any other factor in the delay of the LWR, and there's no compensation that should be considered or given, so that should be taken off the table. Those things continue to persist because we failed to take them off the table early on.

ACT: So that proposal became the working proposal by default?

Pritchard: It is by default-it is a non-working proposal, but it is the only thing out there. We've had plenty of time to make the U.S. the driver in these talks and we are not.

ACT: I know this is speculation, but is it an unreasonable fear that some in the administration may support these talks simply to get other countries on board for containment policies, believing that the talks are going to fail?

Pritchard: It's not unreasonable in a theory. The problem is, lacking a sustained U.S. commitment to pull up all the stops, make the diplomacy work, it is a naïve view, because the other partners-the Russians, the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Japanese-will see through a very shallow attempt by the U.S. to use this in the manner that you are speaking. They will not buy into it. Whereas, after the first round of the six-party talks, you heard people thumping their chests and saying "we've succeeded in containing, there's now five against one." On paper, for seven minutes during that day, that might have been true, but it's no longer true.

ACT: What happens if the next round of talks is perceived to produce no tangible gains? You said this was probably the last shot we had.

Pritchard: I think the practical effect of this is that there will not be a coalition of five against one-the North Koreans will walk away. The problem will become as to whether or not the North Koreans perceive the Chinese as unduly supporting the U.S. in light of the failure. Who do the Chinese blame? If they blame the North Koreans, then I think you can expect to see the North Koreans move rather rapidly down their nuclear program and that the first sign of their unhappiness with the Chinese will be their public declaration of being nuclear weapon state. So this thing has the potential of getting well out of hand.

ACT: How would you assess the alternatives to a negotiated solution-tighter export controls, the containment aspects of our policy?

Pritchard: There are elements that are going on the periphery in terms of tightening down, that are in of themselves absolutely appropriate. There is an economic initiative going on in terms of shutting down illegal drug trafficking, prostitution, other things along this line, money laundering, counterfeiting-should have been doing that a long time ago. The North Koreans shouldn't have a free pass about that. Likewise, the Proliferation Security Initiative…why weren't we doing that a long time ago? So there are elements that are fine, but they're not going to work by themselves. The idea that everything is going to fall into place in the coalition of five out of the six is going to stay intact, and that the South Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese are going to be clamoring to join PSI is not going to happen. So we will have an ineffectual, but slightly stronger, containment policy towards North Korea.

ACT: But clearly, some in the administration believe to some extent that other nations would fall in line with that. Let's give them as much benefit of the doubt as possible, I guess a lot of it is based on the possibility of regime change in North Korea. How likely do you see that? How stable is this government?

Pritchard: For what it is, it is relatively stable-that is, it's a dictatorial regime. Period. If Kim Jong-Il falls off his horse and dies, will the regime survive, because it's otherwise a vibrant organization? No. When he leaves, in my opinion, that spells the beginning of the end of North Korea. There will be no hereditary transition to a younger son. There will not be anything other than a temporary triumvirate of military officers that will preside over the demise of North Korea. The regime, in my opinion, will last only as long as Kim Jong-Il does. But now, in the near term, is there anything on the horizon to suggest that regime change is imminent? No. Nothing. Zero. So anybody pinning their hopes that in the race against the North Korean nuclear program and the race towards regime change, that somehow pinning their hopes on regime change that will then affect the former…go play the lottery.

ACT: To get a little more specific, we've heard the argument voiced in an Arms Control Today article (See ACT, October 2003) that the North Koreans have managed to make some changes to their economy to where people in local areas have small micro-economies to cushion the blow of the communist failings. Is there anything you have to say about that?

Pritchard: The problem is that I don't have the specifics, I have the anecdotes as an example. You look at the last several years of North Korea, and it's gone through a transition from patron alliances with the former Soviet Union and China to that having essentially gone away with some subsistence stability provided by China now. They've gone through the death of Kim Il-Sung, they've gone through massive famine, and they're still here…Almost to a person, people who I've talked to who have been to North Korea recently say it is inexplicably better off than it was a year ago. Now, is that attributed to the July of last year reforms that have taken place? Probably not. I don't know. If you're looking for things to implode because they're getting worse, it doesn't appear to be. Something's going on. Is there now a base development there of micro-economies that is holding everything together? I doubt it. Does what is going on now support the theory that regime change is [out]. The answer is: No it doesn't, but I can't tell you why. Most people will look at the reform efforts going on and say "too little, too late, doesn't matter, hyper-inflation, etc. …" But something is happening that is creating some element of maneuver room for the North Koreans.

ACT: One last question, a bit of a historical question, but I think it is relevant. When the United States and North Korea were meeting towards the end of the Clinton administration, there was a bit of interaction going on before the talks, was the issue of uranium enrichment raised with them?

Pritchard: No. Not that I can recall in any specific terms. The uranium enrichment was probably an embryonic concern at the time. We had probably seen some intelligence reporting of dabbling, for the lack of a better word. It didn't look like more than small-scale R&D. I don't remember any effort to talk to them about HEU.