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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Three weeks after testing a nuclear weapon, North Korea, today, agreed to return to the long-suspended six-party talks - which could resume as soon as next month. Agreement followed secret meetings among high-level representatives from North Korea, the United States, and China in Beijing. And in Washington today, President Bush expressed his thanks to China, which is North Korea's most important trading partner and ally.

Both Washington and Pyongyang made concessions to get the talks back on track, but there's also a potentially important new area of disagreement. According to the U.S. Representative, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, North Korea now considers itself a nuclear power. I made it very clear, Hill told reporters, that the United States does not accept North Korea as a nuclear power and neither does China. A separate statement from Japan made the same point.

We'll talk about today's news, what it means for U.S. policy in the region, and for nuclear proliferation. Then later in the program, John Feinstein joins us to talk about the funeral, earlier today. of basketball great, Red Auerbach. And you letters.

But first, North Korea and the six-party talks. If you have questions about today's agreement and how it affects U.S. policy or U.N. sanctions, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail. The address is talk@npr.org.

And we begin with former Ambassador Thomas Hubbard, now a senior advisor to the Akin Gump Law Firm. He served as ambassador to Seoul in South Korea earlier in this Bush administration. He joins us by phone now from his office here in town.

Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. THOMAS HUBBARD (Former Ambassador to South Korea/Senior Advisor, Akin Gump Law Firm): Good to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And this seems to be a triumph for the United States and China, but particularly China.

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, it's certainly good news. I think we all want to get North Korea back into the six-party talks - to see those talks resume. I think it is a success for the United States, that's what we've been aiming at, but it's also a success for China. Certainly, China seems to have been persuasive and -in getting them back to the talks.

CONAN: One of the statistics - strange statistics that came out today - was Chinese export numbers, showing a drop in fuel oil shipments to North Korea. Some other fuel's up a little bit, but pressure on North Korea seems to have played the part.

Mr. HUBBARD: That's quite striking, isn't it? I think some years ago, when we were trying to get the North Koreans back into talks, somehow, mysteriously, one of the pipelines taking oil from China into North Korea developed some technical problems. This seems to - this may well have been a similar case.

CONAN: And also, one of the U.S. goals throughout this period of disengagement on the six-party talks has been to get China to take a more prominent position in the talks with North Korea.

Mr. HUBBARD: That's right. And I think that the Chinese clearly were angered by the North Koreans doing first, missile tests, and then later, actually testing a nuclear weapon against their will and their advice. And I think it's very significant that the Chinese agreed to support U.N. sanctions with some teeth. And if they have been taking additional steps, like curtailing the oil supply to North Korea, I think China's role has been very decisive.

CONAN: Yet, those teeth, not as sharp as perhaps the United States would have preferred, they were particularly calm down by China.

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, except, I think, we're quite pleased with what China has done. The president, this morning, seemed to be unabashed in expressing his thanks to China. And I think that is well-deserved.

CONAN: Well, let's talk about the concessions both sides made. North Korea had broken off the six-party talks after the United States imposed economic sanctions - banking sanctions among other things, for - based on the accusation that North Korea was, among other things, counterfeiting United States money and dealing in drugs as well.

And North Korea had insisted it would not return to the six-party talks until those sanctions were lifted. The United States said it did not want to talk about those sanctions as part of the six-party talks - not part of the nuclear discussions. Well, now North Korea's returning to the talks without prior conditions and the U.S. has agreed to talk about the sanctions.

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, I think you know, again, to get back to these talks is going to require some concessions by both parties. I think it's significant in this regard that Chris Hill agreed to meet informally in China with his North Korean counterpart. Of course, Chinese were present as well. But this is sort of a step that's between the insistence on the six-party talks - that has been the administration's position up until now - and bi-lateral talks. And I think by agreeing to these informal talks, the U.S. gave the North Koreans some sense of face. And that facilitated their decision to go back to the talks.

CONAN: Again, North Korea had been wanting direct talks with the United States.

Mr. HUBBARD: Exactly. And these are not direct bi-lateral talks, but they are talks by less than the six-parties. And clearly, the Chinese were the mediators in putting these talks together.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation, 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

We begin with Jennifer. Jennifer calling from Louisville, Kentucky.

JENNIFER (Caller): Yes. Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JENNIFER: I have kind of a really basic question. At the beginning, in your introduction, you said the United States said that they would not accept North Korea as a nuclear power. And I'm wondering what good that kind of rhetoric does? I mean, once a nation has nuclear power, what's the idea of accepting or not accepting it? It seems like it doesn't make any difference.

CONAN: Ambassador Hubbard.

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, I think what we mean by not accepting it is that, you know, this is not something the United States recognizes that it can tolerate forever. The objective of our policy remains a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. And you know, we'll keep working with the North Koreans in a variety of ways -probably a combination of pressure and diplomacy - to ensure that North Korea does not become a permanent nuclear state.

CONAN: Is the implication that if you accept North Korea as a nuclear power, then the possible outcome of these talks, leaving with North Korea with nuclear weapons, could be acceptable too?

Mr. HUBBARD: That's right. And that is not acceptable to the United States. Nor is it acceptable, I believe, to China, South Korea, or other partners in the center.

JENNIFER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Good question, Jennifer. Thanks very much.

Let's go now to Gary. Gary's with us from Memphis.

GARY (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call today.

CONAN: Uh-huh, sure.

GARY: My question is that recently, actually after the first nuclear test by North Korea, and I believe that Condoleezza Rice was in the area. And there was an anticipated second nuclear test. And then, all of a sudden, as I recall, North Korea - Kim Jong Il had meetings with some Chinese officials. And it was reported that Kim Jong Il apologized. Now, do you recall that? And do you know anything about what transpired in those meeting that caused Kim Jong Il to offer what was reported as an apology?

CONAN: Not described that way by the North Koreans, but Ambassador Hubbard?

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, that's right. The North Koreans have denied that they apologized. And I think the Chinese have also said that is a mischaracterization of what the North Koreans said to them. The North Koreans do seem to have told the Chinese that under current circumstances, they will not conduct a second nuclear test. And their agreement to come back to the six-party talks seems to pre-suppose that there will not be a second test.

GARY: I was just wondering, what particular kind of means or pressure does China uniquely have to bring to bear against North Korea, or against Kim Jong Il, to make these good things happen; these results happen?

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, first and foremost, I think China is one of North Korea's few friends in the world - a former ally, still a close friend. There's a - and China, of course, is a very large country that is very important to North Korea. More concretely, China provides a very substantial portion of North Korea's food supply, and an even larger proportion of North Korea's fuel supplies. And there are indications that perhaps China cut off oil exports to North Korea during the month of September. So China does have a lot of leverage and the real question is: Will they choose to use that.

GARY(ph)(Caller): Okay. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the question, Gary. And Ambassador Hubbard, of course after the explosion three weeks ago, the United Nations Security Council passed sanctions against North Korea. Does today's agreement do anything about that?

Mr. HUBBARD: No, I think the sanctions remain in place and that - I think President Bush this morning said that even as we return to the six-party talks, it's important that we continue to implement that U.N. Resolution 1718 that has sanctions on North Korea.

CONAN: South Korea had been considering joining the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which is a multi-state - multi-country effort to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by, among other things, inspecting vessels at sea. This was of course seen as provocative by North Korea, which said if South Korea joined it, I think there would be catastrophic consequences. Do you think South Korea's now going to go ahead with that?

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, you know, PSI consists of several elements. One is a statement of principle - of principles. Another part is - of it is various activities that supporting countries would engage in. The South Koreans have, I think, indicated they're already cooperating in some aspects of the Proliferation Security Initiative. Where they have had some hesitation, I think, is in the concept of stopping North Korean ships on the high seas. They think that carries with it a real threat of war, particularly if South Korea participates - but they are cooperating in various aspects of that program.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Marcus. Marcus calling us from Georgia.

MARCUS (Caller): Yeah, hi. I'm traveling in Georgia and my question is: polls have shown that North Korea's an issue in the upcoming election. Does your guest think that China has a stake in that election in perhaps trying to maintain the status quo?

Mr. HUBBARD: That's a very interesting and very complex question. And you know, I think China has very strong reasons that are actually closer to home for doing what it can to prevent North Korea from becoming a permanent nuclear weapons' state. That has tremendous implications for security and stability in Northeast Asia. So I think the stakes for China are far greater than the U.S. midterm elections.

CONAN: Interesting timing, though, nonetheless - a week before Election Day.

Mr. HUBBARD: That's right.

CONAN: Marcus, thanks very much for the call.

MARCUS: You're certainly welcome.

CONAN: And Ambassador Hubbard, we're going to let you go with thanks.

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, thank you very much. It was good to be with you again.

CONAN: Thomas Hubbard, former United States ambassador to South Korea, 2001 to 2004. Presently senior adviser to the Akin Gump Law Firm here in Washington, D.C. When we come back from a short break we're going to be joined by David Albright, president of the Institute of Science and International Security to talk about the implications of today's agreement for proliferation of nuclear weapons.

And later in the program John Feinstein will join us to talk about the funeral today of the former coach, general manager and president of the Boston Celtics, the great Red Auerbach. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. North Korea announced today that it will return to six-party negotiations over its nuclear weapons programs. Talks may resume soon but the fact remains North Korea has now tested a nuclear bomb. Joining us now is David Albright. He's president of the Institute of Science and International Security. He's with us by office - from phone by his office. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (President of Institute of Science and International Security): Oh, thank you. Good to be here.

CONAN: And by the way, of course, if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call. 800-989-8255, or zap us an e-mail, talk@npr.org. And David Albright, remind us, what do we know about North Korea's nuclear program? Two weeks ago we were all worried about a second nuclear test.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, quite a bit is known about the North Korean nuclear program. I mean, it's very old. It's been making plutonium for nuclear weapons since the 1980s. I mean, there was roughly an eight-year halt as the result of the agreed framework in the production of plutonium.

CONAN: Back in the Clinton administration.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right, but North Korea started producing plutonium again in early 2003. And so we know that they have quite a bit of plutonium, enough for perhaps up to a dozen nuclear weapons, and we're confident that they can build a nuclear weapon. I mean, they've been working on it for 20 years. During the inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency in ‘92 and '93, the inspectors actually visited a high-explosive test site at the main nuclear site, which inspectors believed was where North Korea was testing high explosives for nuclear weapons. Of course, the North Koreans denied it but nonetheless, the conclusion of the inspectors was the program - or nuclear weapons themselves - was progressing and certainly by now has made quiet a bit of progress.

CONAN: A plutonium bomb, of course, works with a shell of conventional explosives around the plutonium core, which compresses it, but those conventional explosives have to be set off with exquisite accuracy and there was considerable speculation after this test explosion in North Korea that in fact what they had was a fizzle, that there were problems with their test.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Yeah, certainly. North Korea said they expected four kilotons explosive yield. They got almost - or only about a tenth of that. Official assessment from the intelligence community is the yield was less than a kiloton, so it is a fizzle. Now, why that happened it's hard to know. I mean, at ISIS, I think our best guess is it wasn't in the high-explosives failing to go off in a synchronized way, but probably more in the initiation of the fission chain reaction. The nuclear explosive itself probably had some problems. Now, we're all guessing, but on the high explosives we know that you can learn everything you need to learn through tests that don't involve any plutonium. And you can - so we've concluded that North Korea probably mastered that.

Now, mistakes can happen in any case, but I think our effort is mostly focused on a problem in the neutron initiation of the chain reaction.

CONAN: And how far away - how much difference is there between a device which can be tested underground and a device which can be small enough and light enough to be placed upon one of nuclear Korea's many missiles?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: It doesn't have got be very different at all. And in fact, again, we have to assess these things because North Korea isn't providing much information. But if you look at the age of the program, you look at their need for a deliverable nuclear weapon - I mean, they want a credible nuclear deterrent that can somehow stop the United States from attacking it. I mean, that's their point of view. They probably already have miniaturized a nuclear warhead that could very likely sit on a No-dong. Particularly when you think that they started this in the 1980s, at least. They may have had help from the Pakistani A.Q. Kahn, he was peddling nuclear weapons designs that were warheads for missiles. A little bigger, probably, than what North Korea needed. But if it did get that design then it wouldn't be all that big of a step to miniaturize it further.

So I think you can't exclude that North Korea has a warhead they can put on a No-dong and if this test, while it was a fizzle, actually helped them a great deal in building better nuclear weapons.

CONAN: And what would it mean to them, in your experience, to go into a diplomatic conversation with representatives from China and the United States at the assistant secretary of state level and say: we now consider ourselves a nuclear power?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that has to be opposed. I mean, I don't think we should accept North Korea as a nuclear power. I don't think we should attack them, but I do think that the diplomatic effort and the international pressure that's brought to bear should aim to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula - that that should remain the goal. I think North Korea can be, through pressure and incentives, can be convinced to give up its nuclear weapons. And I think it's critical that the powers that be, particularly the United States and China - Japan - stick to that goal. And I should add in South Korea.

CONAN: Mm hmm, of course.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Stick to that goal and work toward that.

CONAN: The other party, of course, to the six-party talks is Russia, which said today was very pleased by this announcement. So did South Korea. Japan took a somewhat more cautious line exactly on that point that you were mentioning - the idea that any result of talks that would leave North Korea with nuclear weapons being unacceptable.

Let's get a caller on the line. This is Jill. Jill with us from Williamsburg in Virginia.

JILL (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JILL: Good. I have a question about what this means for Japan Article 9, that the U.S. wrote in after the war, states that they're not supposed to have an army. And I know U.S. troops have been there since then. And I wanted to know if they're rethinking amending Article 9 or what their plan is?

CONAN: Article 9 is a Japanese constitution which of course was written in post-World War II Japan under U.S. auspices. Go ahead, David Albright.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Certainly Japanese are under tremendous pressure. I mean, the public of Japan is increasingly alarmed by the developments in North Korea and I think you're going to see a growth in the Japanese military. I think there'll be some movement toward doing things that they haven't done in the past. I think the government's probably going to resist amending the constitution, although I think that's going to come - particularly if the situation with North Korea isn't resolved. And in fact, it's one of the tragedies. I mean, No-dong, if it has a nuclear warhead, the likely target is Japan - mostly, I would believe, to deter the United States, not so much to deter the Japanese. And so - but the Japanese are very nervous. They're scared and they want their government to defend them better, and I think the government's response so far has been to increase conventional military capabilities, go for a regional ballistic missile defense, but avoid developing a conventional force that could launch, for example, a preemptive military strike against North Korea.

CONAN: But Jill's question explains why the Japanese armed forces are called the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and not the Japanese Army.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right. But I think you're going to see more involvement of the Japanese military, such as the navy and joint military exercises. I think you'll probably see the Japanese in more peacekeeping missions, and I think you're going to see an up-tick in their military expenditures.

JILL: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Jill, thanks very much. Let's go now to Dan and Dan's with us from Cleveland.

DAN (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I wondered - are we setting a dangerous precedent for small countries to develop nuclear weapons if we end up essentially paying off North Korea for getting rid of their nuclear weapons program?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: No, I don't think so. I mean, I think, in a sense you're not really paying them off. I mean, it's - what you're trying to do is reach an agreement where you convince them that they are secure enough without their nuclear weapons that they don't have to fear - with for example, with the case of North Korea - an attack by the United States. They also, if they're going to get on nuclear weapons they want some assurances that they're - you know, that they'll get help on their economy - and this is unfortunately not the first time this has happened.

And there's been - I wouldn't call, again, I wouldn't call them payoffs - but incentives have been brought to the table in other cases to convince a country to forego nuclear weapons or to not develop nuclear weapons in the first place. And I think we're dealing with nation-states and they're always going to represent the interests of their own government and their own people, and I think that they're going to want both. You're going to have to provide guarantees of security and you're going to have to provide incentives so that they can go back to their own constituencies and say look, this was worth giving up.

CONAN: Because their goal in this is to, you know, establish and protect the regime that's in power now.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: That definitely is the case. And so I think the regime is - or I would say the North Korean military - is not going to give up nuclear weapons easily if it feels insecure about an attack and if it feels that it hasn't been worth it, in a sense; the sacrifices, the problems of developing a nuclear arsenal and the immense cost. They're going to want to have some kind of compensation for those things.

DAN: Why couldn't another country outside of North Korea look at this situation and say well, we could develop nuclear weapons and get economic incentives out of it rather than actually having to use them.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Unfortunately, this is by no means the first time. I mean, the only clear case where a country didn't, in a sense, try to get a bunch of money from the international community, was South Africa, where they made a decision to give up their weapons after their security assurances were satisfied. And the U.S. had a huge influence in setting up a stable security situation in Southern Africa in the 1980s.

CONAN: Well Sweden decided not to develop nuclear weapons, too.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's right. And there they - I forgot Sweden - there they had a situation where they decided that even though they weren't in NATO that their security would be met there and in fact the nuclear weapons would make them less secure. But in many cases, what you have in addition to the security assurances is some desire for an incentive.

We gave a lot of money to the former Soviet states to give up their nuclear weapons and return the Soviet weapons in their territories back to Russia. In Argentina and Brazil, there was some direct help on integrating them more into the international community, making it easier for them to get loans and participate internationally. And so…

And then even if I could go back to South Africa case - there were several nuclear weapons people, one who I knew quite well - who actually regretted that they didn't ask for $4 billion as part of their price of giving up their nuclear weapons - cause they think they could've gotten it. And, two, South Africa certainly could've used the money for development back in the early 1990s.

CONAN: And I guess the lingering question out there, that is part of Dan's question, is the question of Taiwan.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, we don't know what Taiwan will do. I mean they've cut twice with a secret nuclear weapons program. In that case, most cases the United States stepped in and stopped the program. There's certainly International Atomic Energy Agency inspections going on.

It looked, actually, more broadly than just the nuclear material. They look at potential nuclear weapons capability developing in Taiwan. And so you have worry that in the long run maybe Taiwan will try something - and one would guess in secret again. And so they're going to - the United States and others, including the IAEA - are going to have to watch the situation in Taiwan very closely to make sure that Taiwan doesn't feel a motivation or see an opportunity to recreate a nuclear weapons program.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call.

DAN: Thanks.

CONAN: And David Albright, we want to thank you for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: David Albright, president of the Institute of Science and International Security and he joined us today by phone from his office there.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

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