An Inside Look at North Korea's Nuclear Goals

Jim Walsh of Harvard University's "Managing the Atom Project" recently returned from North Korea, where he engaged in informal talks with officials regarding the country's nuclear ambitions. He tells Steve Inskeep what he learned.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today, representatives of six countries are discussing North Korea's nuclear program. The country's neighbors and the United States want North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In the days leading up to these talks, an American private citizen received a preview of a North Korean proposal. The American is Jim Walsh who directs the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University. North Korea's chief negotiator invited Walsh to Pyongyang for a chat. So Walsh made the trip to a country that few Americans ever see.

Mr. JIM WALSH (Managing the Atom Project, Harvard University): Well, you know, it all starts back in Beijing. You can only really get into North Korea from China and there's a small line of people waiting to get their tickets on Air Koryo, the North Korean national airliner, and you can tell who's visiting for the first time because we all looked pretty anxious as we were standing in line and you get on the airplane and you hear martial music and you hear stuff about the great leader from the stewardesses and then you land.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. They're not doing safety announcements? They're talking about the North Korean leadership on the way in?

Mr. WALSH: Exactly. And then you land, and once you actually start to drive around Pyongyang, one sees that it's a beautiful city, it's--there are large modern buildings and everything is supersized. The buildings are really big, and the streets are really wide, but everything is pretty empty.

INSKEEP: It's often assumed that North Koreans try to send messages when they meet with private citizens from the outside. Did you get that sense when you were speaking with them?

Mr. WALSH: I did get that sense. Often when you begin a meeting with a North Korean official, there are respectful pleasantries and then they ask you to ask a question. You ask the question and then they pull out formal talking points.

INSKEEP: What are they offering to give up?

Mr. WALSH: Well, Steve, they say that if the US drops, quote, "its hostile policy," unquote, that they're prepared to completely dismantle those nuclear weapons. Now the US in the past has argued, `We want proof that you have given up these nuclear weapons.' They're prepared, they say, to give up their nuclear program, but they want to see verification applied not only to themselves but to the South Koreans, as well, and, perhaps, even, to the Japanese.

INSKEEP: Would this also apply to nuclear weapons held by the United States?

Mr. WALSH: You know, I think it would apply to that. The first President Bush promised way back in the 1990s to remove tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula, which I presume was done, but the North Koreans, in my discussions with them, said, `Well, how do we know that's true? And if we're going to be subject to verification, we want it also verified that there are no US nuclear weapons being stored in South Korea, as first President Bush promised.' They also don't want any--what they call--nuclear war exercises on the Korean Peninsula, and they don't want US ships or planes that have nuclear weapons visiting or docking-up in South Korea.

INSKEEP: Is this remotely realistic?

Mr. WALSH: I think there are some pretty tough obstacles, but it's not clear to me at all that this verification issue is one of them. There are other issues like highly enriched uranium, like the North's desire to hold on to its civilian nuclear program that might prove tough to negotiate.

INSKEEP: The North Koreans want to hang on to their civilian nuclear program, which is a program that they were allowed to keep in the '90s, in the last round of negotiations, and ended up violating the agreement?

Mr. WALSH: Well, what they want is a nuclear power reactor. They have a research reactor that they've used to produce plutonium, which is the stuff you make nuclear weapons with, but they don't actually have a reactor that can generate electricity. And they want energy, and they say they want energy in the form of a civilian nuclear program, which was consistent with that original agreement between the US and North Korea dating back to the Clinton administration.

INSKEEP: So now, Mr. Walsh, you've got this very unique window into these talks. You've spoken to North Korean officials. You've spoken to American officials. As these six-party talks resume, do you have a sense that there's a real opportunity to make progress here?

Mr. WALSH: I think there is a real opportunity, but there's one big issue hanging over these talks and that's the issue of seriousness. The Americans say that they really want to bargain and get into the details but they doubt that North Korea is serious. And the North Koreans, for their part, say that they doubt whether the Americans are serious. If one or both parties fail to signal to the other side, then I think that will represent a setback and it will be very difficult to get any progress.

INSKEEP: Jim Walsh is back at Harvard University after a recent visit to North Korea. Thanks very much.

Mr. WALSH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And after his informal meeting, North Korea's formal talks with its neighbors and the United States resumed today after a 13-month North Korean boycott.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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