Today's date:
Spring 2007

The Cost of the Last Six Years, From North Korea to Kosovo

Madeleine Albright is a former United States secretary of state. She spoke in March with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels as part of her ongoing series of conversations with our Global Viewpoint service on topics related to American foreign policy and world affairs. She is the only American diplomat to ever meet with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, and met informally with North Korean negotiators recently in New York.

NPQ | The recent deal with North Korea, in which it would receive fuel aid in exchange for freezing its nuclear program and allowing inspections, looks a lot like the plan you handed over to President George Bush six years ago, which Bush decided not to continue. Now, they have gone back to where you left off with North Korea. What changed to make this deal possible, both on the part of the United States and North Korea?

Madeleine Albright | The US invaded the only country of the "axis of evil"— Iraq—that didn't have nuclear weapons. And, in the past, we didn't invade the Soviet Union or China. Thus, from the North Korean standpoint, the signal was clear: Nuclear weapons are a deterrent. So, Kim Jong Il, a terrible dictator who starves his people, genuinely believes he is threatened by the US and that only a weapons program would give him security. Also, selling various components of missile technology is a cash crop.

Their recent nuclear detonation made people realize just how far the North Koreans have gone down this dangerous road. At the same time, they are energy dependent and very poor. They are in desperate need of help.

On the US side, something—perhaps the detonation last fall—made the Bush administration realize it had to talk directly to the North Koreans for the first time in Berlin in January. I'm glad it has done it. I hope very much this agreement, which some call "Clinton Lite," is carried out because North Korea is dangerous.

Yet, the fact remains that when we left office we thought North Korea had the capability of making only one or two nuclear weapons. Now it has the capability of making eight to 10. That is a big problem that didn't have to be there.

Now, it also turns out that the reason for the Bush administration's dismissal of the Clinton plan—intelligence saying there was a robust uranium enrichment program—is also in doubt.

Look, you make arms control agreements with your enemies, not your friends. We had them with the Soviets through SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks). When we thought they cheated, we took them into a process in Geneva to work it out.

I'm not surprised the North Koreans might have cheated. That's why you want to have an arms agreement with them so you'd have a process to call them on it.

The time lost is very unfortunate. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) director, Mohamed ElBaradei, has now gone back to Pyongyang to start rebuilding confidence. We're on the right track. The sequenced, step-by-step approach is a good one. Verification will be essential. It is just too bad the Bush administration didn't pick up the hand of cards we left them six years ago.

NPQ | The accord with North Korea holds out the ultimate promise of not only a security guarantee from the US, but also diplomatic recognition and normalization. Surely adding that to the mix was an incentive for North Korea.

Albright | What the North Koreans want more than anything else is diplomatic recognition by the US, which would also get them off the "terrorist list," something they raised with me back during the Clinton administration.

I recently met with the North Korean negotiators in New York. Again, they raised these same two goals. Their major desire all along has been to develop "normal" relations with the US. Whatever the merits of the "six-party" negotiations, that is why it is the bilateral talks between North Korea and the US that matter. Normalization is the big deal for them.

As for the security guarantee, when I was secretary of state I signed a "memorandum of intent" with North Korea's number two man, Vice Marshal Cho, indicating the US had no hostile intent toward North Korea. We don't. So, the question is why it is so difficult for the Bush administration to make that statement.

NPQ | Is it possible now to "walk back" North Korea from having nuclear weapons? Or is the best we can do now is just to contain it?

Albright | I think it is possible to walk North Korea back. Libya never detonated a bomb, but it did give up its program. Why? Partially it was for economic reasons. Partially it was because it was isolated and wanted to reconnect to the world. Also, Khaddafi was the sole ruler, who could simply change his mind. The situation is very similar for North Korea.

So, if there is a proper framework of economic incentives and security, I think North Korea could give up its weapons. Opening diplomatic relations is not succumbing to blackmail, as the right wing says. It's not blackmail. Having diplomatic relations is not a gift or reward, it's a channel to talk with enemies and friends alike.

NPQ | To what extent might the accord with North Korea apply to Iran—talking with it, offering a security guarantee and ultimately normalization of relations in exchange for giving up its nuclear program?

Albright | The situations are somewhat different. The Iranians are looking at enriched uranium in a more robust way than North Korea. At the same time, it argues it is only seeking peaceful nuclear power.

I wouldn't have any problem with diplomatic recognition of Iran, but a lot has to happen in the interim. Iran really is supporting terrorists, for example, Hezbollah. President Ahmadinejad's threats against Israel and his denial of the Holocaust are unacceptable. All that would have to stop.

But I am in favor of talking to Iran. In a sense, we need to talk to our enemies more than our friends. A security guarantee, yes, but within the framework for the whole Middle East region. So, we can follow the North Korea template in terms of talks and security guarantees, but, overall, the process with Iran is more complicated.

NPQ | First, the Bush administration made almost the same deal you had with North Korea; now it's talking directly with Iran. It was said about China and Russia after the Cold War that the longest road from capitalism to capitalism was communism. Is neo-conservatism the longest road from realism to realism?

Albright | (Laughing). Yes, after this whole neo-con episode with the axis of evil, we are back where we started. I consider myself an idealistic realist or a realistic idealist. If you aren't idealistic, you don't know where you are going. If you are not a realist, you don't know how to get there.

I do think reality has set in for the Bush administration. The neo-cons' Manichean view of a black-and-white world has undergone serious testing—and failed. You just can't divide the world into good and evil and not deal with the bad guys except through war.

NPQ | The US wants to place outposts of its missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia is outraged, claiming it is aimed at them. The secretary-general of NATO says it risks dividing NATO. French President Jacques Chirac has said it threatens to ignite a new Cold War. What is your view?

Albright | It is not against the Russians. It is also not a system that is operational. Why has the US pushed the issue at this moment? It is an unnecessary act at this stage when there are so many other issues for NATO, such as Afghanistan, and between Europe and Russia. I can only gather that it is meant as a signal to Iran, which has tested missiles that can reach Europe.

But the Russians are very important in dealing with Iran. They are a very useful point of pressure. They could take away the spent fuel. We need the Russians on Iran. I never would have looked into (Russian president Vladimir) Putin's eyes and said I trusted him, but I certainly understand the importance of working with Russia. At the moment, the Russians are more important than a theoretical missile shield.

At the same time, I know some Czechs view this missile shield installation as something America insists upon that only complicates their lives. Both the Czechs and Poles want to be good allies with the US And they have been. But they need to recognize that being a member of NATO is not a gift; it also bears responsibility. Some of the controversy in these countries and within Europe as a whole makes me think NATO has not done a very thorough job of communication and discussion among its members.

NPQ | "Madeleine's war" was waged to stop Serbian repression and genocide against Muslims in Kosovo. After the NATO victory there, the ultimate status of Kosovo was put off for the future. The future has now arrived. The UN envoy for Kosovo, Martii Ahtisaari, has proposed that Kosovo have its own flag, a seat at the table of international institutions, its own national anthem—in short, independence in all but name. The Muslims in Kosovo view independence as inevitable; Belgrade says it is "unthinkable." How should the end result of "Madeleine's war" turn out?

Albright | We've been talking here about the cost of the last six years in terms of North Korea. There has also been a cost in the Balkans because of Bush administration neglect. I can assure you if we stayed in office, if Al Gore had been president, we would have paid attention to what happened in the Balkans. It was for us the last piece of the puzzle of making Europe "whole and free." As it happened, the new occupants of the White House lost interest even as the United Nations and the EU failed to fully engage.

They didn't work systematically to turn over a variety of duties to the Kosovar government and help institutions mature.

When I was last in Pristina, I was concerned to see that while it was once the mosques that were destroyed and surrounded by barbed wire, now it was the Orthodox churches! I met with Serbs who were terrified to come out of their enclaves. At the time, I made some forceful statements about the need for minority rights.

I put part of the blame on international authorities. Now, we've come to the endgame, as the UN prepares to take up the issue of final status. I think Martii Ahtisaari's proposal is a logical compromise. I do think Kosovo deserves to be recognized as independent.

The problem now is that the Serbs are living in the past. They need to live in the future. Milosevic left Serbia impoverished. Its future depends on it being a part of Europe. The harder the Serbs and the Russians make it for Kosovo's bid for independence, the worse it will be in the end for Serbia.

It doesn't need to be explosive. Belgrade could have a perfectly good relationship with Pristina as well as a perfectly good relationship with Brussels, that is, with the European Union. If it gave up (Ratko) Mladic and (Radovan) Karadzic, the Serb war criminals, it could become part of the European story.

For their part, the Kosovars need to understand they are a multicultural society and must respect the rights of Serbs in their community. That is also what being part of Europe means.