What Delisting North Korea Really Means

Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Pacific Council, explains the Bush administration's recent move to delist North Korea from the list of states that sponsor terrorism.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington and here are our headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Markets in a big rally today after a miserable week last week. Just a moment ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 750 points. And today, Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, campaigned in Virginia and North Carolina, vowed to fight for a new direction for the country. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate was in Toledo, Ohio where he offered new proposals on the economy. We'll have details on those stories and of course, much more later today on All Things Considered.

Tomorrow, on Talk of the Nation, well, after that nightmare week for financial markets around the world, a lot of investors, companies, small businesses and families are reassessing their prospects and making new plans for the future and there may be a long way to go before there's a light at the end of that tunnel. I'm Neal Conan. Hunkering down an economic storm, what are your contingency plans - the next Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

North Korea refused to provide a complete account of its nuclear weapons program and when the United States objected, it had kicked out in international inspectors and launched two weeks of fiery rhetoric and missile tests. And then on Saturday, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Today, we'll talk with Victor Cha, former deputy negotiator for the United States delegation to the six-party talks on North Korea.

If you have questions about the decision to de-list, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at NPR.org/blogofthenation. Victor Cha was deputy head of the U.S. delegation for the six-party talks and director of Asian Affairs on the National Security Council from 2004-2007. He write an op-ed in the Washington Post called de-listing North Korea. He joins us now from member station WAMU here in Washington D.C. Nice to have you in the program, today.

Mr. VICTOR CHA (Director, Asian Studies, Georgetown University): My pleasure.

CONAN: And as you note, in your piece 'On the Face of It,' this looks like a surrender by the Bush administration.

Mr. CHA: Well, I think the optics of it are quite bad. I mean, this decision comes after a number of things the North did to rollback the nuclear agreement that they had made over the summer as well launch missiles in the area around North Korea and engage in quite hostile rhetoric towards their neighbor to the south - South Korea. So it looks bad. There's no denying that it looks bad.

CONAN: Yet, they didn't do anything different and the Bush administration despite their continued bad behavior, from Washington's point of view said, 'All right, all right, all right. We'll take you off the list of terrorist states.'

Mr. CHA: Well, it looks bad but at the same time, the reason that the administration took them off the terrorism was the north finally agreed to verification protocol with regard to the nuclear declaration they submitted in the summer of 2008. This verification protocol is very important from the perspective of the United States and the other parties to the six-party talks - Japan, South Korea, Russia and China - because nobody trusts the North Koreans in terms of what they say they have. Everybody wants to have experts and inspectors on the ground to verify whether they are telling the truth or not.

CONAN: And indeed, one of the immediate benefits of taking North Korea off the list is that they did allow inspectors to resume their activities today.

Mr. CHA: Yes. The reports are that the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have been allowed back to the facility to perform their monitoring duties. At the same time, I think the hope is that the north will, very soon, reverse some of the steps that they were taking to restart their nuclear program.

CONAN: Now, this is that one facility at Yangjiang, the Russian-supplied reactor that has provided, we believe, enough material for the North Koreans to have probably several, a handful of nuclear weapons. They did test maybe successfully - maybe not, it depends on who you talk to - one of those weapons last year. Nevertheless, as you pointed out, this verification agreement has a lot of holes, the United States believes, and seems to have some evidence that there was also a Uranium enrichment program which they've not complained about.

Mr. CHA: Right. And the Uranium enrichment program was the primary reason why the Bush administration in 2002 confronted the north with it and that's why the North Koreans broke out of a prior agreement made during the Clinton administration in 1994, to freeze their nuclear programs. What appears to be clear - we don't have all the details - but what appears to be clear from the verification agreement is that on Yongbyon, the facility that you just mentioned, where they produce the majority of the plutonium for their nuclear weapons, on this facility, there appears to be a very, you know, a fairly good verification agreement. Any verification requires four elements: inspections, sampling, documentation, and interviews. And all - the negotiators apparently look like they've achieved all of that, but with regards to the uranium enrichment program as well as potential proliferation to other parties including Syria, that is not clear where that stands within the scope of the agreement, and of course, that won't be concerning.

CONAN: The Syrian connection, that was the construction of a facility in the northern part of Syria, that people believed, or so we're told was a North Korean design similar to the Yongbyon reactor, and designed to provide Syria with similar kinds of capabilities, it was destroyed by an Israeli bombing mission last September, correct?

Mr. CHA: That's right.

CONAN: And so, the North Korean connection has never been - is that firmly established at this point, do you think?

Mr. CHA: It's hard to say, I mean, it's based on what we read in the press. It certainly looks pretty likely that the North Koreans were involved. And again that is of course a major concern. I mean, one of the reasons that North Korea was put on this access of evil list in the beginning was because of concerns of proliferation, proliferating WMD technology or materials to other terrorist groups or non state terrorist actors, so it's very important. And - But I think what the administration is done is basically decided - look the plutonium program at Yongbyon is the one that they have produce the bombs with. We've got it at least get this one buttoned down by the end of our time in office, which is not much time left. And then these more difficult issues of Uranium and proliferation will be pushed off to the next administration.

CONAN: Our guest is Victor Cha, the deputy head of the U.S. delegation for the six party talks and the director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. If you'd like to join us to talk about the decision by the Bush administration to delist North Korea, give us a call, 800-989-8255, Email us, talk@npr.org, and why do we turn to Raymond, and Raymond is with us from Waterford in Michigan.

RAYMOND (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. After the first five years of Bush's presidency, he's been all, you know, don't negotiate with terrorists. Don't negotiate. Don't negotiate. Isn't this kind of rebuttal or a counter to his own words.

Mr. CHA: Well, I think if you look at - Thank you for the question. I think that if you sort of look at the evolution of the policy on North Korea, it's certainly appears as though it in the initially of the Bush administration didn't want to talk to North Korea, and now it's ending its administration taking them off the terrorism list. But I think if you look at everything in between, there's some principles that were pretty much consistently apply I think in the policy. You know, one of this was that there was always an emphasis on resolving this through diplomacy. There aren't really any really good military solutions on the Korean peninsula, and therefore diplomacy was the only way to go.

The second principle was that it had to be done in conjunction with other partners in the region. In other words, North Korea's nuclear programs and its weapons are not just the problem for the United States, they're problem for Japan, South Korea, Russia and China. And that's why they put together this idea of six-party talks. And then the third principle was that you got to push them hard in the negotiation, really have to test the North, the North Korea to see whether they are serious and it clearly appears as though administration's really putting a lot of emphasis on that last principle in their last few weeks in office. Really trying to test how serious the North is about being de-nuclearizing completely.

CONAN: Raymond, Thanks for the call.

RAYMOND: All right, Thanks.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye. As you talk about in negotiations, the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, has been, well, reported to be sick - reported to have had some surgery lately, and to have a stroke. Again, we're not sure about where that goes, but nevertheless, he has been I think about the kindness word anybody has ever used about him is mercurial in the past, Any idea that he's going to be willing to stick with this agreement?

Mr. CHA: Oh it's obvious it's always a question when it comes to North Korea. What they agreed today, whether they will maintain their commitments tomorrow, the North Korean leader is probably the leader we know the least about of all the major countries in the world today. And there is no, as there has been in the past, there is no clear line of succession after Kim Jong-Yong, the current leader passes.

North Korea since its establishment in the late 1940s has only had two leaders. Kim Il-sung, who is the father, the first leader of North Korea, and then his son Kim Jong-Yong, and there is no clear line of succession. So the thought of him getting sick, having a stroke, passing away suddenly, certainly raises questions about how you may input, maintain political order. And then of course, how you maintain control of any nuclear weapons or missiles - long range missiles - that they may have.

CONAN: Is there not - also not a question of legitimacy, he derives his legitimacy from his father - the great leader, he is the dear leader. Nevertheless, the communist party of North Korea has not exactly brought prosperity to its people.

Mr. CHA: That's right. It's the only industrialized society in modern history to have suffered a famine as they did in the mid 1990s solely due to poor economic and political management. Kin Il-Sung, the first leader did have revolutionary credentials, in the sense that he was a guerilla fighter against the Japanese occupation during World War II. But the son, the current leader does not have that. And the way he's maintained power is to have a very close, tight association with his military, to dole out gifts to the military, but meanwhile the people of North Korea suffer terribly.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line and let's go to Kelly, Kelly with us from Fresno, California.

KELLY (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. I was just wondering if your guest had any idea if this latest action with delay any U.N. Security Council action against North Korea.

Mr. CHA: Thanks for the question, Kelly. There are two U.N. Security Council resolutions that currently hang over North Korea, resolution 1695, which happened to the aftermath of North Korea's July 2006 missile test. And then U.N. Security Council resolution 1718, which followed North Korea's detonation of a nuclear device in October 2006, both of those resolutions are still in existence. And the sanctions that are mandated by those resolutions are still in existence. And there is a U.N. sanctions committee that has drawn up a list of things that the U.N. member states would sanctions in the event of more bad North Korean behavior.

And I think one of the things that people don't really pay attention to is that when the north finally agrees to things like a nuclear declaration or carrying down the cooling tower from which they operate the reactor, which they did this past summer, or when they agree to verification protocol is that these U.N. Security Council sanctions hang over the regime, and they'll always be a part of North Korea's reality ever since they made those two big mistakes in July of 2006 and October of 2006.

CONAN: Thanks for the question, Kelly. I appreciate it.

KELLY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking here with Victor Cha, about his piece on the delisting of North Korea. The Bush administration, over this past weekend, removed North Korea from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Sylvia. Sylvia is with us from El Dorado in California.

SYLVIA (Caller): Yes, I have a question. I'm just concerned that, you know, the Bush administration, like your previous caller said, has been hesitant to talk to the evil powers, as he put it, and he didn't want to deal with anyone. And now that his Republican sentiment has gone down, and his administration is ending, he's in a rush to go ahead and climb - get any kind of a deal with North Korea. And in his rush, I think the Koreans are going to say, well, you know, we thought it's easy now. We can say that we're going to do this and then later change our mind and not do it, just because they see that the Bush administration is willing to deal with them at any cost, kind of. And then now, he's going to leave, I think, the new administration in a harder or in a tougher dealing capacity. And I'm just wondering, what do you think of that?

Mr. CHA: Thanks, Sylvia. It's a very good question - a couple of things in response. I think the first thing is, when people say the Bush administration did not want to talk to North Korea at the beginning, the circumstances surrounding that were basically that the Bush administration inherited an agreement from the Clinton administration in which they were to provide oil in return for a freeze of North Korea's nuclear programs. There were revelations that the North Koreans were cheating on that agreement and the Bush administration confronted them because they could no longer go to Congress and ask for the provision of that oil.

With - while they knew that the North was violating the agreement, hence, the break up of the agreement in 2002, and that was why the administration, you know, so called did not want to talk to North Korea. So it wasn't for no reason, there were some reasons. Your question about the end of the administration and the transition to the next one is a very good one. You know, the counter factual would be, what if the administration chose not to de-list, what would the situation be. And it's very difficult to say, but I think based on my own study of the situation that we were headed for a full-blown crisis, that the North was headed down the path of not just rolling back all of this nuclear agreement but potentially testing more weapons, more missiles. And that would have been an even worse situation for an Obama or a McCain administration to inherit.

I think, at least at this point, what an Obama or McCain administration will inherit is a working denuclearization process, where the United States and other countries have inspectors on the ground that are learning more every day about North Korea's nuclear programs. We learn more about their programs when we have experts on the ground than when we don't. And the more we learn about their programs, the better chance we have in understanding the full scope of them and the better chance we have at denuclearizing them.

CONAN: And yet you also point out in your piece that among those who object to this line, given North Korea's behavior over the past couple of weeks is Japan, America's most important ally in the region.

Mr. CHA: Yes, that's absolutely true. The Japanese understood when we - when the president made the announcement on June 26th this past summer to Congress of his intention to de-list North Korea, there was a 45-day notification period minimum that's required. The government of Japan was quite upset because the North Koreans had not made progress on the - what is known as the abduction issue, which is in the 1970s, the North Koreans had abducted a number of Japanese citizens from Japan and brought them back to North Korea for the purposes of having them teach their spies Japanese so that they can infiltrate the South Koreans through Japan.

And the north has admitted that they have abducted some of these citizens but they have not provided a full accounting of what happened to them. And the government of Japan, for understandable reasons, wants resolution of this before the north gets taken off the terrorism. So it was a very difficult decision, and one that I think was quite difficult for the Japanese to swallow. At the same time, though, this is an agreement - this verification agreement will get us closer to denuclearizing North Korea. And that is the most extent security to Japan today.

CONAN: Sylvia, thanks very much for the question. I appreciate it.

SYLVIA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Victor Cha, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. CHA: Sure.

CONAN: Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University. He joined us from member station WAMU here in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow, we'll talk about economic contingency plans. But today, well, stock market up more than 850 points just a moment ago. Stay tuned for details on that and much more later today on All Things Considered. I'm Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, NPR News in Washington.

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