Former Ambassador Explains North Korea At the White House yesterday, President Obama warned that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a "grave threat" to the world. Former Ambassador Jack Pritchard, a top aide in several administrations' negotiations with North Korea, talks about why North Korea is acting out now.
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Former Ambassador Explains North Korea

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Former Ambassador Explains North Korea

Former Ambassador Explains North Korea

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now North Korea. At the White House yesterday, President Obama warned that a North Korea with deliverable nuclear weapons would be a grave threat to the world.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, a top Pentagon official, William Lynn, told a Senate committee that North Korea could eventually build missiles that could threaten the continental United States.

Mr. WILLIAM LYNN (Pentagon Official): It ultimately could, if taken to its conclusion, it could present a threat to the U.S. homeland.

CONAN: And that as South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak visited Washington to discuss the escalating tensions. Today North Korea raised the rhetoric yet again, vowing a thousand-fold military retaliation if provoked by the U.S. and its allies; also amid reports that it plans another missile launch soon in defiance of the latest Security Council resolution.

So what are the options with North Korea? 800-989-8255, email us: Jack Pritchard joins us here in Studio 3A. He's worked on North Korean issues in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Ambassador Pritchard, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. JACK PRITCHARD (Former U.S Ambassador to North Korea): Well, thanks. Very nice to be here.

CONAN: And should we be concerned with North Korea? North Korea's rhetoric is hyperbolic at the best of times. When it gets apocalyptic, should we worry?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, you never dismiss it completely, but it repeats itself far too frequently to be concerned that this a declaration of war or that there's going to be some dire consequences coming out of North Korea in the near term. But again, I say you don't completely dismiss it. You keep an eye on it.

CONAN: In the past couple of weeks they have said for the first time that they would consider using nuclear weapons in an offensive manner. Previously they always said it was defensive.

Mr. PRITCHARD: That's correct. This is a change in their rhetoric and it has gone up. It hasn't - I mean it has continued. It hasn't let down. And when you keep going up, you've got to introduce new things. This is a new introduction.

CONAN: And they also mentioned something, an issue you're quite familiar with, suspicions for a long time. You had more than suspicions that they were enriching uranium. Highly enriched uranium, of course, is another way to produce nuclear weapons in addition to plutonium. And they said, well, we're going to go ahead with that.

Mr. PRITCHARD: This is something that's new. As you alluded to, I was there in October of 2002, when the U.S first confronted North Korea over this issue of highly enriched uranium.

We understood at the time in this discussion that the North Koreans essentially were admitting to us that they had done it. Very shortly thereafter, they began a very long and continuous campaign of vigorously saying no, we never said that. We don't have it, never had it, don't have a scientist, don't have the facilities. And now we're seeing a statement that suggests in fact they do have some kind of a program.

CONAN: And we tend to think of this here in Washington and around the country as an issue that involves North Korea and the United States. Of course the country most directly threatened and the country most directly affected is South Korea.

Their president was in town yesterday, and he stands with President Obama and says it is unacceptable to have a North Korea with nuclear weapons. And you sit there and you say, wait a minute, haven't they detonated two of them?

Mr. PRITCHARD: That's right. And this is - it's not quite a semantics game, but we're close to that. North Koreans, as you've indicated it, first detonated a nuclear device of some sort in October of 2006, and this past May 25th detonated a second one that seems to have been a little bit more successful than the first.

So there's little doubt the North Koreans possess the technology and the fissile material and have at least put two devices together. Whether they've weaponized, as they now have claimed, we don't know. But we ought to take that on face value.

CONAN: So they've got something to go bang to the tune of several kilotons at least. But whether they can weaponize it - i.e., put it on top of a missile and fire it at somebody successfully - some of their missiles have been less than successful - that remains to be seen.

Mr. PRITCHARD: That's right. What the North Koreans have not yet demonstrated is, one, a missile system with an accurate guidance system that is reliable, and second, we don't believe that they have yet miniaturized a weapon that then could be placed on that missile.

CONAN: Now, it's nevertheless something to worry about considerably. But you've just come from a lunch with the South Korean president, Lee. Can you give us some sense of his level of alarm and the conversation?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, it was a very interesting lunch. There were two former secretaries of state, two former secretaries of defense, two former U.S. trade representatives, and a couple of other people there for a very small lunch discussion at Blair House.

He is not showing any degree of alarm. He is very confident and very calm about his approach to North Korea. And after having a very successful meeting with President Obama yesterday and receiving - first time that we can remember - written assurances of a - an extended deterrence that includes our nuclear umbrella...

CONAN: Now just (unintelligible)...


CONAN: ...not to put too fine a point on it. In other words, if someone attacks South Korea with nuclear weapons, we will accept - we will react on their behalf.

Mr. PRITCHARD: That's correct.

CONAN: So that's new.

Mr. PRITCHARD: Yeah. Well, the written portion of this is new. This is something our mutual security treaty with the South Koreans over the last 50-plus years has guaranteed that we come to their aid and then help defend their country as we did during the Korean War. And now, we have a more robust written document that says, yes, absolutely, to conclude being attacked with nuclear weapons.

CONAN: Our guest is Ambassador Jack Pritchard, former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. He worked in the Bush and Clinton administrations.

800-989-8255. Email us

And James is on the line from San Antonio.

JAMES (Caller): Yes. I wanted to know - ask both of you guys, what - to what extent would a Cuban missile crisis-style blockade where we actually, you know, blockage, exporting ships and possibly board and interdict those ships carrying, you know, missiles and nuclear, you know, material. To what extent what - could that actually precipitate a war and is it legal?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, let me just start by saying the United Nations Security Council just passed, this past Friday, on June 12, a new and - a new U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 that gave the authority to intercept, if you will, under reasonable grounds if North Korean ships or others that are going to North Korea, if we believe that there is illicit cargo, in this case anything above small arms, to include weapons of mass destruction, have the authority to ask the flag nation if we can board it and look around and if necessary search and seize that material.

What we don't have the authorization for - this council resolution denied, give the authorization for is to do that by force. So...

CONAN: Chapter 7, it would be.

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, it's all under Chapter 7. It's Article 42 that gives you the authorization to use force. This was done under Article 41 as everything but force. So we are not at that point where we could actually employ a blockade. We can't force the - a vessel to stop on the high seas.

CONAN: And we just saw a news statement today from Russia and China expressing their alarm with what North Korea has been doing. If North Korea continues to launch missiles, if it sets off another test atomic weapon, as some people believe it's preparing to do, might Chapter 7 be next?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, the answer is probably not. And that goes to the perspective, particularly from the Chinese. And from the Chinese point of view, their national security interest evolve first and foremost about stability - peace and stability along their border. And so the potential for chaos, a collapse of North Korea that could be precipitated by the use of force, is something that they are not at all moving toward. So the North Korea…

CONAN: Of course have a veto at the Security Council.

Mr. PRITCHARD: That's correct. And they have gone from being very passive in the Security Council to being very active in the last three years that's why we had three U.N. Security Council resolutions applying sanctions against North Korea where we have not had in the past.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call.

JAMES: Appreciate it. Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go next to Mike. Mike's calling from Kalamazoo.

MIKE (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I want to know when we're going to remember the lessons of history. Before the Second World War, there was a lot of treaties and everything else, where Prime Minister Chamberlain, at the time, swear up and down Germany wasn't going to do anything, and then all of a sudden, you know, they got hit.

When - you know - when are we going to start holding people accountable to the treaty they signed for nonproliferation? I mean, they - most of the world has signed this treaty, you know, saying we're not going to create nuclear weapons, and then all of a sudden, you know, they come up, well, we've done it anyways. What are you going to do about it? You know, oh, by the way, if you do try to do anything to us, we're going to nuke you.

CONAN: And North Korea is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Mr. PRITCHARD: Yes. But let me give you a little bit of a quick history on that. The North Koreans were really arm-twisted by the Russians in 1985 to join in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, something they probably didn't want to do. They stayed part of that until about 1993. And under the threat of special inspections by the International Atomic Energy Association - Agency, excuse me - they began a process of withdrawing from the NPT in 1993.

That was suspended. And then, there was an agreement with the United States in 1994. Well, the second most recent nuclear crisis which began, as I have mentioned, in October of 2002. And in January of 2003, the North Koreans said, we're un-suspending our withdrawal from the NPT.

Now, they went - they're supposed to give 90 days notice. They went 89 days and some number of hours. So, about 11 hours later, they said, we have finished the withdrawal process and we are now no longer a member of the NPT. That didn't sound quite kosher, but nonetheless they did it. And they are no longer a member of the NPT, and thus part of the problem we have.

MIKE: Well, question then is why are we not withdrawing from them? I mean, if they're going to withdraw from civilized or whatever you want to call it, actions, you know, saying, you know, we're going to do this, we're going to do what we want and that, you know, basically the hay with everybody else, why are we trading, why are we talking. I mean, their economic ways are putting the thumbscrews to them.

We did it to Cuba. We should be able to do it to nations like North Korea or even Iran for that matter.

CONAN: Ambassador?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, it's an interesting point. You would think that all these large countries surrounding North Korea would be able to induce North Korea to better behavior. That hasn't been the case.

One of the bright, or brighter spots, if you will, is this U.N. Security Council resolution that I just mentioned…

CONAN: Last week, yeah.

Mr. PRITCHARD: …1874, last Friday. It does, as an example, tell nations don't enter into any new contracts for trade or otherwise that will benefit - could possibly benefit - the North Korean's arms - weapons trade.

We're actually putting the screws on the North Koreans. We are, in a sense, helping them isolate themselves.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mike.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with North Korea Jack Pritchard. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And how much of what is going on in North Korea is due to the succession crisis? Kim Jong Il, the dear leader, is - suffered a stroke last year, is physically - visibly diminished. We're hearing talk of passing the torch to his youngest son in the event of his demise.

Nevertheless, there was great concern when he took over from his father. And is this going to be a dynasty that's going to continue. Is the military going to take over? What's going to go on in North Korea?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Very interesting and complex issue. I have never believed that the North Koreans would be able to successfully pass down leadership to a third generation. It was something they plan for very long, for over 20 years in the case of Kim Jong Il.

He was, at the end of his father's life, running the country on a day-to-day basis. When his father died in 1994, there was a question even then, whether that individual, some 50 years old at the time, was going to be able to survive with all of that preparation.

Now, the prospects of Kim Jong Il's third son, his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, aged 26, with no experience, anytime in the near term being prepared to do that - I just can't buy in to that.

So the best guess at this point is there would be a consortium that would involve the military to a large extent. But perhaps, at this point, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Seong Taek, is now part of the highest National Defense Commission and could be seen as part of that coalition trying to rule until this young son is both mature enough and has enough support to actually make it. And I still don't think it'll work.

CONAN: And in the long run, what do they want? Is it simply a regime survival? Is it simply to keep us in power? The country is in a terrible state, economically, people are literally starving to death. Its human rights record is appalling. What do they want?

Mr. PRITCHARD: Well, this is, in fact, a regime that has, as its first priority, survival. And so as you take a look over the last number of years where you would see the population - in fact, as you mentioned, starving to death - they do - I look at this as concentric circles. They - the centermost circle is those that are in power and the normal everyday people are that last circle out to the edges are the pond, and they don't get a whole lot of attention. And that's not the priority of this regime. It is staying in power.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get last one caller in before we have to go. This is Phil. Phil calling from Cincinnati.

PHIL (Caller): How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

PHIL: Hi. My question involves China, because personally I view China as the solution to this issue. The use of force really worries me. With a country with, you know, an irrational leader like Kim Jong Il using nuclear weapons. So my question is to what extent can the United States and Japan as perhaps China's two largest trading partners - or some of the largest - really help China to close off the border or to put the pressure on Pyongyang.

You know, it seems to me that the North Korean state is becoming less stable everyday. And if China is working for stability, what can they do about this situation? What are they worried about?

CONAN: And China is, of course, supplies a great deal of power to North Korea and is its major trading partner.

Mr. PRITCHARD: That's correct. This is an interesting situation. Now, we mentioned that the Chinese were extraordinarily angry with the North Koreans, following the 2006, the first missile launch and the first nuclear detonation. But yet, the following year, their trade with North Korea went up 42 percent.

And so you go back to looking at this from the Chinese point of view, and their most concern - as I had mentioned about the…

CONAN: A drop in the bucket compared to what they trade with Japan or the United States for that matter.

Mr. PRITCHARD: Yeah. Trade is not the important part. It is the stability along the border. But Phil raises an excellent point, and this is one in which is part of today's lunchtime discussion with President Lee and most other people, and that is how can we have a serious discussion with China and find what is the common elements that we have that we can begin to talk to with them about what we can do with North Korea, or as a very minimal what the consequences of a failed North Korea means and how we can work together to mitigate that.

CONAN: Phil, thank you very much for the call.

PHIL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Ambassador Pritchard, as always, we thank you for your time.

Mr. PRITCHARD: It's my pleasure.

CONAN: Jack Pritchard, former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea joined us here today in Studio 3A.

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