Interview with State Department Policy Planning Director Mitchell Reiss

April 9, 2004
Paul Kerr and Miles Pomper

ACT: You've spoken recently about the prospects for reaching a breakthrough in talks over North Korea's nuclear program. One of the tools that was advanced during these six-party talks to move things forward was the use of working groups and yet there doesn't seem to be, at least publicly, any movement on having these groups meet. Is there more happening behind the scenes than we know about?

Reiss: The past two days, April 7 and 8, there were trilateral meetings between the United States, South Korea, and Japan in San Francisco. And out of that meeting came the hope that we would be able to stand up the working group with all six members, by the end of this month, or early May. And so there has been a lot of diplomatic movement. It's not easy to coordinate among the five and North Korea, in order to organize this. But we've been very busy trying to make sure that we maintain the momentum from the six-party talks that took place in February.

ACT: What would you hope to gain from these talks?

Reiss: I think what needs to take place are extended conversations among the six. We certainly have strong viewpoints on certain issues like CVID [complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program]. It's understood that other parties also have concerns that need to be aired. None of these discussions can take place by just having brief meetings. It really needs to be an extended conversation of probing of views. But really at the first level, it's more of an explanation and exchange of information: requesting clarification from the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea or North Korea] as to what exactly it means when it says X, Y, or Z. And that, of course, leads to additional questions. And so that's the type of extended conversation that the six parties really need to have to get a better fix on what outstanding differences there may be, and whether it's possible to reach a diplomatic solution as the president has said he wants to do.

ACT: In your 1995 book, Bridled Ambition, you criticize the Clinton administration for not having anyone in charge, especially prior to Robert Gallucci's appointment. You suggested that a "single senior official invested with presidential authority could have disciplined the unwieldy bureaucracy, set straight policy priorities, and shaped a more consistent U.S. approach." Why has the current administration not done this?

Reiss: Well, let me challenge a couple of the assumptions. First of all, I think the situation today is different. We're in a different place than we were in '93, '94. I think that there has been a single person in charge of this policy, and it's been the president of the United States. It was his decision that we should not do this in a bilateral manner. That had been tried and shown to fail before. So the president set out the policy guidance and said it had to take place in a multilateral fashion so that other countries in the region could be invested in the success of this process. And so from day one, he has been setting policy. And, as I said earlier, he's made it clear that he would very much prefer a diplomatic solution.

ACT: But you must realize the president has got a lot of other things on his plate, and is not going to be responsible for actually carrying out the negotiations like Gallucci or someone like Bill Perry , who went over there and had discussions with people. Is it fair to say that there's been a significant amount of conflict within the administration at times on how to approach this issue?

Reiss: Well, let me say that the president's chief foreign policy advisor, the Secretary of State [Colin Powell], has been very clear in terms of his guidance that he's given the building. The State Department has taken the lead on this issue. And media reports of differences are just an occupational hazard here in Washington. Sometimes we tend to focus more on the personalities and the conflicts, and it really caricatures the issues. And it's not surprising that there should be disagreement - it'd be a little surprising if there was complete consensus on any foreign policy issue. So part of the job is to try and make sure that all views are reflected and we come to a single position. And we've done that as we entered the six-party process. And we'll continue to have a vigorous discussion as we go forward with the working groups. But I don't think that that's unusual. I don't think it's unique to this administration.

ACT: In your March 12 speech to the Heritage Foundation, and again today, you talked about Libya as an example for the North Koreans. There's some pretty obvious differences in the strategic and political situations of Libya and North Korea. Why do you believe North Korea will follow Libya's lead? I mean Libya didn't face a sworn enemy for fifty years, for instance?

Reiss: Well, I don't know North Korea will follow Libya's lead. What Libya did was make a strategic determination that it would have a better future-a more secure, a more prosperous future-if it abandoned its weapons of mass destruction. What we're doing now in terms of our diplomacy with Libya is to ensure that that in fact comes true: that there are tangible and intangible benefits for Libya-with us, with our European partners, with Libya's neighbors in the region- as it is welcomed back into the community of nations.

Now North Korea certainly is located in a different place geographically, but I think it faces the same type of strategic decision. Does it want a different future for its people? Is it willing to live in peace and security with its neighbors? [North Korea's leader] Kim Jong Il faces a choice. He can continue to depend on the kindness of strangers, overseeing a devastated economy with an isolated population, or he can join the 21st century. He also has an historic opportunity to do what his father never did, which is to create a stable, peaceful relationship with all his neighbors. That's one of the great benefits of the six-party format. It's one-stop shopping for North Korea. If they want to chart a new course, we want to help them get there. The South Koreans want to help them get there. The Japanese, Chinese, and Russians want to help them get there. It's up to Kim Jong Il to make that decision, and we can't make that for him. What we can do is to explain as clearly as possible what the benefits would be of him going down one path, and what the potential consequences would be if he chooses another path.

ACT: The administration has repeatedly said that six-party talks are better than, or will be more effective than, the Agreed Framework because it could lead to a multilateral versus a bilateral agreement. But the Agreed Framework involved not only the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) , but its implementation also included the EU, South Korea, Japan, and about a dozen other countries. Why do you think the differences are that significant between the Agreed Framework and the six-party talks?

Reiss: I think you're conflating two different entities. The negotiations that led to the Agreed Framework were bilateral, and had implications for the IAEA and for Japan and South Korea. But the other entity that I think you're referring to was KEDO [The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization ] which was a follow-on to the Agreed Framework and did involve many countries, including the Europeans, as a member of the four man executive board.

The Agreed Framework itself was negotiated solely by the United States and the North Koreans. And at the time, the South Koreans and Japanese were extremely concerned - and in fact resentful - of the fact that the United States was negotiating the future of the Korean peninsula, with them not in the room. They were on the outside looking in. And I think that's clear if you talk to any of the principals who were involved at the time.

So there was a sort of a structural problem, right there from the start, that the United States was negotiating the future of the peninsula without the key neighbors involved directly in the negotiations. That's not happening here. What happened back then is that the North Koreans would then try and play South Korea off the United States-the United States off Japan, Japan off South Korea-to try and drive wedges, and try and create differences, and try and increase their negotiating room with all of these countries, in order to enhance their position.

They can't do that in the six-party format. They have to give the same message to all of us. All of us have to hear it at the same time. There's utility in forcing them to be a little bit franker, a little bit more open and candid and honest, than they were when they could play one off the other. And so just in terms of a diplomatic structure, we think that this enhances our ability to reach the objective that all five parties - save North Korea - in the last round of talks, went on record as stating, which is a complete dismantlement of all of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

ACT: So you're saying that you're prepared to accept maybe slower progress up front, because you feel that any agreement will be easier to implement once it's carried out because you've got everyone in the room?

Reiss: I'm not sure I understand what you mean. You mean the negotiation part of this?

ACT: Yes, the negotiations. Presumably if you just have two countries doing the negotiations you may be able to do things a little faster than with six.

Reiss: I'm not sure you can do anything quickly or easily with the North. They're very careful, they're very methodical. They're extremely patient. And I'm not sure that whether it's a two-man game or a six-man game that it makes any difference in terms of the pace or speed of the negotiations. What it does mean is that we're able to present a united front against the D.P.R.K. side, and I think they're feeling the pressure. We were ready to go to a second round at the end of last year. It was the North that was delaying. That's why we didn't get there until the end of February. So, we've been willing to engage; they've been the ones that have been reluctant. And I think they realize that the other five countries are lined up against them, because all five are opposed to North Korea having nuclear weapons.

ACT: Why is it that the North Koreans would be less likely to renege on an agreement made in this format than they were on the Agreed Framework?

Reiss: Well, I'm not sure that they will be. Any agreement that you have isn't going to be based on North Korea's intentions or trust. It's going to have to be verified independently. And that's true for whatever agreement that you have with the North Koreans. So, in a sense, the verification piece is irrelevant to the format issue.

Then why is this format better?

Reiss: The format's better because it gives us a much stronger hand to play when going to the North Koreans unified, with our allies and partners in the region, all of us saying the same thing: telling them their current course is unacceptable.

ACT: Sure, but it was not the case, prior to the Agreed Framework, that any country was saying that it's okay for North Korea to have nuclear weapons, was it? The South Koreans weren't saying that, the Japanese weren't saying that…

Reiss: A couple of things were happening. First of all, there were different threat assessments at the time. The other countries did not share the same concern the United States had in the early '90's - that North Korea actually had an ongoing nuclear weapons program. That was one. Two was that some of the countries, to use an economics term, were free riders. They would rather the United States play the bad cop, and they could play the good cop - let the United States do all the heavy lifting here. And yes, they shared our concern, but perhaps they didn't share it to the same extent because of the threat assessment. Or perhaps they didn't share it at all, but they were happy that the United States wanted to go ahead and deal with North Korea, that was fine.

Fundamentally we're in a different position now, and I think we've seen in particular an evolution of the Chinese position. Whereas a few years ago I think they saw themselves as facilitators, over the last year, early last year, I think they changed conceptually into a role as a mediator. And what we've been seeing more and more, especially over the last six months, is an evolution into their role as a direct participant, because they realize that their national security interests are fundamentally at stake if North Korea becomes a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. And that evolution is helpful, because South Korea and China have the most leverage, short of the use of military force against North Korea. They have the most influence on the North. And so to get them on board with the United States, Japan, and Russia gives us much more weight in these negotiations.

ACT: Is it the claim then that the lack of Chinese involvement in the past is what enabled North Korea to pursue an HEU [highly enriched uranium] program and violate the Agreed Framework?

Reiss: I don't know who's made that claim.

ACT: Well, I'm just trying to understand why… because the problem with the Agreed Framework as I understand it is the reason that the North Koreans were able to violate it is with their HEU program. That's why I'm trying to understand why that's less likely to happen.

Reiss: They were violating the plutonium program.

ACT: The Agreed Framework?


ACT: That they restarted their plutonium [reactor]?

Reiss: What time period are we talking about?

ACT: In October 2002, at the start of the recent dispute…

Reiss: Information coalesced during the summer of 2002 that they had an enrichment program.

ACT: Correct, which was in violation of the Agreed Framework.

Reiss: Assistant Secretary Kelly confronted them in October. Okay, now that had been taking place, we think, for a period of years. Now, you go back to the Agreed Framework and you look at what was agreed in terms of access by the IAEA to the facilities at Yongbyon. And the IAEA was not granted access to the isotope production laboratory, which they should have been- a violation of the Agreed Framework and the understanding subsequent of the IAEA. Okay, that took place in '95, '96, '97, '98. It didn't become public until later.

ACT: OK, is the argument then that that is less likely to happen because of China and South Korea presenting this united front against…

Reiss: I think you're conflating the verification piece with the negotiation phase of this issue.

ACT: I understand that, but the agreement would obviously provide for some sort of verification that has to be worked out, and is it more likely that the North Koreans will agree to that, do you think, with the involvement of China, South Korea, and the other countries?

Reiss: Yes, I think it's more likely, but again there's absolutely no certainty that the North Koreans will agree to it. Again, I think we have much greater diplomatic weight by having all of us sit on the same side of the table wanting the same thing, and putting it to the North Koreans.

ACT: I think this is actually a good point to transition to a broader question. The question of verification is at the heart of some of the problems of the NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] more generally, not just North Korea, as is the question of enrichment facilities What are your ideas on coping with this problem in the long term?

Reiss: Well, the place to start really is with the president's address at NDU [National Defense University] on February 11, where he identified a number of measures that need to be adopted in order to enhance both our nonproliferation efforts and global nonproliferation efforts. And let me just go down a quick check-list of them: it was expanding PSI [Proliferation Security Initiative]; it was criminalizing proliferation activities through a UN Security Council resolution; it was highlighting the accomplishment of the administration at the G-8 Summit in Canada in getting a commitment of $10 billion from the United States plus $10 billion from the other G-8 partners over a period of 10 years; it was reinterpreting Article IV in terms of enrichment and fuel services for countries and the conditions under which those should take place in the 21st century; and it was calling for an expansion of the Additional Protocol , and using that ratification as a condition of countries giving civilian nuclear assistance to other countries. I think all of those were important steps that were taken. And I think this administration has done a number of things that really aren't yet sufficiently appreciated in terms of its support for the IAEA, in terms of budgetary support, significantly increasing the budget - especially the safeguards budget for the first time in decades - making a significant increase there. And PSI is important for its ability to capture people that are violating international rules and regulations, its deterrent effect, and I think third and intangibly but importantly, its ability to highlight the lack of enforcement in the international regime, and really the need to consider creative ways to enforce the rules and law against violators. And PSI scores on all three counts-capture, deterrence, and addressing the enforcement issue, which I think is essential.

ACT: We've certainly taken note of the president's speech. But what is going to happen in terms of follow-up? For example, is there going to be a UN resolution on PSI? As you know one of the problems is, how do you deal with interdiction on the high seas, which is not permitted under the current draft of the resolution. The PSI part was dropped out of that, from what I understand, at Chinese insistence.

Will there only be Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) agreements on these things since that obviously leaves out some important countries such as Pakistan, which is the root of the problem? And there are number of other questions along these lines.

Reiss: In terms of the high seas, talk to Undersecretary of State John Bolton about that . I think he also has a good argument in terms of boarding ships on the high seas under a self-defense rationale. I think the larger point that I'd like to make, so I'm just going to reinterpret your question, is if we look out over the next 20-30 years. How can we continue to be as successful, or more successful than we've been?

First of all we have to recognize that despite all the problems - and in some cases failures - that this regime has been much more successful, much more resilient, than people had anticipated. And of course the best known quote is from President Kennedy with his nightmare scenario: 20-30 nuclear weapon states by the mid-'70s. We have been very fortunate in not having that nightmare vision realized. We need to understand that a lot of the basic structures and programs are already in place. And so job number one is to make sure that we shore those up, make sure that we reinforce them, make sure they're maintained and improved. And again, the administration has been very good in terms of funding, especially the IAEA, in this regard.

We've also developed new programs, as I mentioned, PSI. But with lots of good ideas, implementation is the key, and so we need to keep our eye on the ball as we go forward and make sure that people honor their pledges in terms of financial commitments, and that we actually use this money so that it makes a real difference. The IAEA needs to continue to be strengthened. We're coming up to the NPT review conference, obviously that is important. We think we have a very good position going into the conference in terms of the accomplishments the administration can point to under Article VI . We also think that it's necessary to have a broad discussion of Article IV and the so-called inalienable right of countries to acquire the entire fuel cycle. Does that make sense in the 21st century, with all the threats that are now out there? And that's an important conversation to have.

ACT: Is it just a discussion or will there be some attempt to modify the NPT, or any specific proposal?

Reiss: I don't know of any attempt to try and amend the NPT. But I think that you can reinterpret provisions. But before you do that, you need to have a broad-based discussion and conversation with all the members. The Nuclear Suppliers Group is one area the president highlighted in his speech that's extremely important and that needs to be improved. The A. Q. Khan network really highlighted that.

Looking out again towards the future, one of the things I think about is when it comes to this revival with civilian nuclear power: how can we manage a possible upsurge in the civilian nuclear industry without creating the anxiety on the proliferation front that took place in the mid to late 1970s after the oil shock, when civilian nuclear power became much more popular, much more fashionable. It's possible with developments in China and in East Asia that civilian nuclear power will become again much more popular. So I'm repeating myself, but how do we manage that so that it doesn't lead to proliferation anxiety?

The nexus between terrorism and nuclear weapons, or even nuclear material, is obviously a current concern. I think its going to be with us for a very long time. The administration has a policy to try to capture radioactive material. We just need to push forward with that.

One of the things that I'm also concerned about is what I call "just in time" proliferation. And it's based on a manufacturing concept that was developed by William Deming and first adopted by the Japanese, and then much more broadly by the rest of the world. And it has to do with having no inventory or stockpiles on the shelf, but items arrive as you need to build your product. What that means is that it's much more difficult to actually find stockpiles of already built weapons. It's much more difficult to track supply lines because they're all disparate, and they only come together for a very short period of time right before a country is actually going to build something. The concept works beautifully in the private sector, and there's no reason why it can't work for the bad guys. But this will create enormous challenges for the IAEA, for the Nuclear Suppliers Group, for all the countries of the world, in order to prevent nuclear proliferation. And, in a sense, it's expected - it should be anticipated - because as we become more effective, as we become more successful in terms of stopping some of these things, we should expect the adversaries to adapt their tactics. So this is one of the tactics that I worry about as coming down the road. And as you think it through, it's going to require different types of efforts by existing institutions and programs in order to deal with it.

What kind of efforts or tools are you thinking of? For instance [former Iraq Survey Group lead inspector] David Kay and others have talked about the role of on-site inspections, and how that seems to them to be the most effective tool. Is that where you're coming from, or are there some other strategies?

Reiss: Well, on-site inspections certainly are important - essential in some cases. Still, there is a concern that you can inspect a place one day and there will be nothing there, and you come back the next week and everything will be there. And that's the whole idea behind the "just in time" concept. And that's going to require different mechanisms to try and prevent it from happening. And again, part of what I want to do in this interview is just start a conversation. We need to do a lot more thinking about how the regime is going to evolve, how the bad guys are going to adapt their tactics, and what measures we're going to need in order to go forward.

Then the final thing is enforcement. What happens when we actually catch somebody who has violated international law, rules, and regulations? And we've got a couple of important cases right now with North Korea and Iran. And so these are test cases to see how the international community and how the nonproliferation regime responds. And again to emphasize the point, this administration is neither unilateral nor preemptive. We are supporting the three European countries who are taking the lead with respect to Iran, we are supporting the efforts of the IAEA to deal with the very serious threat that Iran's nuclear program presents. And there's the six-party format for North Korea, again a multilateral approach seeking a diplomatic solution.

ACT: Speaking of enforcement, I don't know if its status has been clarified yet, but the last thing I heard is that North Korea still had not technically withdrawn, or its withdrawal had not been accepted, from the NPT. So even though they could be subject to more sanctions, nothing has been done in the Security Council which is where you would usually expect action against a state in noncompliance with its NPT obligations. Am I right? And if so, is that a concern given the issue of enforcement?

Reiss: My understanding is their noncompliance was referred to the Security Council in 2003, and that it has not yet been taken up by the Security Council. This administration, under the instructions of the president, is trying to seek a diplomatic solution. And I don't think any options are off the table, but I think the president's often-repeated preference is that he wants a diplomatic solution. So, that's what we're trying to do in the working group and the six-party talks.

ACT: It seems like one of the things that's being rethought in broad terms with the nonproliferation treaty is the role of Article IV and Article VI. But weren't those two articles the main incentives to get other countries to accept a treaty that let five states have nuclear weapons when no one else really could?

Reiss: This is a point I've tried to emphasize in a speech I gave on the 50th anniversary of Atoms for Peace at the Woodrow Wilson Center December 9, and it is that non-nuclear status is not a present that the non-nuclear-weapons states give the nuclear states. It is fundamentally, existentially, in their own interest that they and their neighbors do not acquire nuclear weapons. They are the most vulnerable members of the international community, and therefore the NPT is, above all, in their interests, more so than the nuclear-weapons states' interests. And so the idea that somehow they're making a concession or giving us, bestowing a gift upon the nuclear weapons states by adhering to non-nuclear-weapon status I just think is erroneous. I don't think it's logical. Fundamentally, the NPT is important for international stability and security. But, in terms of which countries benefit most, it's the non-nuclear-weapons states that benefit most from it. So I just want to be cautious in saying that Article VI was in return for Article IV, or Article IV was in return for Article VI. There are fundamental reasons why countries sign up to the NPT that have nothing to do with whether the United States or Soviet Union had 20,000 nuclear weapons or 5,000 nuclear weapons.

Well, my question is if we don't stick to Article IV what do we give non-nuclear-weapon states to overcome their objections? -What's the practical politics of getting them to accept the changes we want to the treaty?

Reiss: The president was very clear in saying that he thought that the private industry should be the ones that adjust their rules of engagement on supplying fuel to certain countries. So it wasn't within an NPT framework.

ACT: Getting back to North Korea, in your speech you also seem to suggest that the North Korean regime could fall apart in the event that it refused to make certain changes. That is if they failed to change their economic policies. But the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research told Congress within the past year that North Korea's not at risk of imminent collapse . What is the basis for believing that North Korea will change its behavior in order to avoid political and economic collapse when no such collapse is likely?

Reiss: North Korea surprised many who predicted that it would collapse in the mid-90s after Kim Il Sung died, and then they went through a very difficult period in terms of their inability to feed their own people. I think during the '96, '97, '98 period, an estimated one to two million North Koreans died of starvation or malnourishment, malnutrition, or a disease related to that. [Still] I don't think anybody is optimistic about the long term future of the North Korean economy. They may be muddling through right now, but it's unclear whether the minimal economic reforms that they've adopted are really a long-term solution to their problems. They still can't feed themselves. They're still dependent on the generosity of the World Food Program and all those who donate to the World Food Program in order to feed their own people. That's job number one for any regime, especially one in Asia.
So even if there's not an imminent collapse, it isn't a particularly attractive future when you look out over the next five to ten years if you're sitting in Pyongyang, if you continue to pursue the course you've been on. There is a different future that is available to North Korea, if they choose differently.

ACT: Is there a red line over which the United States will not allow North Korea to go? Last fall, Secretary Powell seemed to indicate that nuclear testing isn't a red line. So what is?

Reiss: Well, I didn't see the quote, so I can't comment on that. But I don't think it's in any country's interest to conduct a nuclear weapons test, especially North Korea. Let's just leave it at that.

ACT: Vis-à-vis Iran, what's the expectation for the June meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors?

Reiss: Well, there was a March 13 statement resolution by the board of governors which strongly criticized Iranian behavior and the lack of candor in their statements about their program. The delay in allowing inspectors to enter the country, the announcement about Esfahan, I think are further indications that Iran has still not made a strategic determination to surrender its nuclear program. What we appear to be seeing are tactical maneuvers to do as little as possible to avoid censure. The Director General's report will be very important in assessing the extent to which Iran has complied with its obligations, and the matter will be taken up at the June board meeting.