North Korea Is a Greater Threat Than Iraq
Madeleine Albright is the former US secretary of State. She spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in January. Albright is the Western leader who has spent the most time with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
NPQ | How did we get from October 2000—when you were in Pyongyang having a dialogue with Kim Jong Il—to the present situation of sharply renewed confrontation with North Korea threatening to make more nuclear bombs?
Is the culprit here North Korean provocation or the hardline of the Bush administration, which until this week refused to talk with North Korea?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT | It is a combination. After I came back from North Korea in October, 2000, we began very intense discussions to follow through on the immense technical details of verification so that we could be sure the North Koreans did what they promised. A follow-up meeting of experts in Kuala Lumpur proved unsatisfactory, and then we ran out of time as the Clinton administration ended. Indeed, one of North Korea’s problems is that its timing is off.
We briefed (then-incoming Secretary of State Colin) Powell and (National Security Advisor Condoleezza) Rice about where we were. They seemed very interested in picking up the cards we left on the table. But, then, early in the Bush administration, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung came to Washington to press for his “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North. But the White House changed signals during the state visit. Powell announced that the new administration was instead going to have a policy review.
While it was a mistake for the Bush administration to not pick up the cards, the crisis today was created by Kim Jong Il, who decided to secretly push ahead with his nuclear program despite Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy and the Clinton administration’s support of it.
NPQ | What is Kim Jong Il’s objective? Is he trying to capitalize on anti-American sentiment in the South to drive a wedge between it and the United States?
ALBRIGHT | It is hard to read Kim Jong Il. He is not a nut, but he is pretty ham-handed and a tough negotiator. Brinkmanship is a North Korean specialty. His ultimate goal is to be recognized by the US and to work out a non-aggression agreement with us. That is clearly what he wanted from the Clinton administration. Obviously he misread both the Clinton and Bush administrations by keeping something in his back pocket—the uranium enrichment program—for further negotiations.
As for driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea, I don’t think he is sophisticated enough to work out that kind of strategy. In any case, the anti-American sentiment did not build in South Korea until this recent election period, well after Kim Jong Il started his uranium enrichment program. It seems he would prefer to deal with the US alone and treat the South as an adjunct—as with the armistice that ended the Korean War. But the US view is that any lasting arrangement on the peninsula must be based on agreement as well between the North and South. As far as we are concerned, any agreements must have the South Korean signature on them.
NPQ | Why not agree to a non-aggression pact, as North Korea is asking for?
ALBRIGHT | When North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok came to the US in October, 2000, to invite President Clinton to visit, we worked out a communique that said the US and North Korea do not have hostile intentions toward each other.
I understand that the South Koreans are now suggesting that a big step forward in defusing the present crisis would be to reaffirm this so-called Albright-Jo agreement. There is no reason today, as far as I am concerned, for the US not to indicate, again, that we have no hostile intentions toward North Korea if it doesn’t have such intentions toward us.
The communique, dated Oct. 12, 2000, reads in part: “Recognizing that improving ties is a natural goal in relations among states and that better relations would benefit both nations in the 21st century... the two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward the other and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.”
That is where we left it when the Bush administration took office.
NPQ | The diplomatic objective now is to get back to this kind of formal statement of non-aggression as the basis for further agreement?
ALBRIGHT | Yes. And then we must demand they dismantle and end their nuclear program. I think we are at last moving in that direction again since the Bush administration, after meeting this week with South Korean and Japanese envoys, agreed to talk with North Korea. Dialogue is not appeasement. You can’t expect the other party, whoever it is, to understand what you want unless you can state it to them directly and clearly.
Now, though, since North Korea has abused US trust, it is important to go beyond the so-called “Framework Agreement” (US and allied energy aid to North Korea in exchange for ending its nuclear program—ed.) with an agreement for more intrusive inspection and verification that the North Korean nuclear program is being terminated. The Bush administration will not agree, as Secretary Powell has put it, “to buy the same football twice.”
NPQ | You are the only Western leader who has spent a significant amount of time with Kim Jong Il. (Former British Prime Minister) Maggie Thatcher once said of Mikhail Gorbachev that “I can do business with this man.” Can the US do business with Kim?
ALBRIGHT | Not in the same way, of course. Gorbachev was a reformer who was changing the Communist system in the Soviet Union. There is no indication that Kim Jong Il is doing any such thing.
I would say rather that there is no reason not to talk to him. We talked to Stalin and Mao, after all.
I have no illusions about Kim. He was raised and trained in a totally closed, Marxist system, and he believes his own propaganda. He lives in this completely unreal world where he, like his father before him, is glorified in statues. Every North Korean has a lapel pin with his picture on it. It is a mega-personality cult.
In dealing with him, I found that underneath his bravado is a recognition that he has a dysfunctional economy. Though publicly blaming the weather for famine, he knows that the system doesn’t work. He told me he was looking at other economic models, including the Swedish model—a clearly ridiculous notion.
He knows that ultimately he is sitting on a system that can’t work. He is isolated but not uninformed. He watches CNN. He has computers. While he lives in his own little world, he knows what is going on out there—even if he twists the information in his own warped way.
NPQ | What would be the impact on East Asia if North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are not curbed?
ALBRIGHT | The regional implications are what make this situation so dangerous. For the last 40 years we have tried to avoid an arms race in Asia. That is why the US has forces in South Korea and has provided a defense umbrella for Japan so it would not rearm.
While recognizing the growing importance of China as a regional and global power, we don’t want it to become the policeman of Asia.
An unchecked North Korea will both spark an arms race—because an ultimately unified, nuclear Korea that pushes US forces out will force the Japanese to go nuclear—as well as draw China into a more militarized role as top guarantor of security in the region. In short, it will undo the balance of power, in which the US has been a key player, that has enabled stability and prosperity there.
A rogue North Korea is a stone that will cause as many ripples across East Asia as Iraq will across the Middle East.
NPQ | Clinton said recently that when he gave his farewell briefing to incoming president George Bush, Osama bin Laden and North Korea were near the top of his list of threats to the US, while Iraq was at the bottom. Is North Korea a greater threat than Iraq?
ALBRIGHT | By all standards, North Korea looks more imminently dangerous than Iraq. We thought they were dangerous during the Clinton years. Their recent actions have made them even more dangerous.
North Korea already has a primitive nuclear weapon or weapons. It has mid-range missiles. And if it unfreezes the fuel rods at the Yongbyan facility, it can produce 50 or so nuclear weapons in the next few years, positioning it to be a purveyor of fissionable material as well as missiles. And they have an unfriendly attitude toward everybody.
So, we know North Korea has a ruthless dictator, nuclear capability and a million-man army. On the other hand, what is emerging from the UN inspections in Iraq is that we don’t know what Saddam has. All the reasons President Bush has for regime change in Iraq I agree with, but why now in face of these other threats?
The “how” is also a question with Iraq. Saddam is already contained, he is already in a box. My concern is that the sparks from exploding that box might ignite the oil-rich, flammable region.
Further, I actually believed President Bush when he said that Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden where his top priorities, but that has now been supplanted by Iraq.
Clearly, there is some confusion over priorities. President Bush seems to have them reversed, with Iraq at the top and the more operational threats—Al Qaeda and North Korea—at the bottom.
I have to also say that I am surprised that the military option against North Korea—though a horrendous one—has been taken off the table. I don’t believe, in the end, that there is a military solution to the North Korean crisis. But if there is one thing I learned as secretary of State, you don’t take options off the table.
NPQ | Paradoxically, now that Bush has agreed to talk with North Korea, his policy is the same as the Clinton policy he once rejected. In the end, is it the only course?
ALBRIGHT | Yes, I think it is. It is unfortunate that two years have been lost in dealing with this issue of such critical import to American security.