KOREAN BEEF: North Korea's Nuclear Weapons

Thursday, October 16, 2003

In April 2003, North Korean officials admitted for the first time that their nation possessed the ability to build nuclear weapons. Many experts suggest that the possible possession of nuclear weapons by a so-called rogue state such as North Korea sets the stage for a far more serious conflict than the war with Iraq. Just how should the United States try to diffuse the Korean crisis? Can diplomatic efforts succeed where they have previously failed? Will the United States have to consider military options? And just what is North Korea hoping to accomplish by fomenting this crisis?

Recorded on Thursday, October 16, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: how do you solve a problem like Korea?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: North Korea and nuclear weapons. Although in 1994, North Korea promised to stop the production of weapon's grade plutonium, in the spring of 2003, North Korea admitted that it had been doing just that, consigning to failure almost a decade of American diplomatic efforts to keep North Korea honest. There's general agreement that nuclear weapons in the hands of a rogue state, such as North Korea, sets the stage for a conflict even more serious than that in Iraq. How should the United States approach this crisis? Do diplomatic efforts stand any chance of success, or must we consider military options instead?

Joining us, two guests. Peter Hayes is executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. James Woolsey served from 1993 to 1995 as Director of the CIA.

Title: Korean Beef

Peter Robinson: Victor Cha and David Kang, writing in Foreign Policy about the way President Bush has handled North Korea: "Diffusing the threat that North Korea poses to its neighbors and the world will require less bluster, more patience, and a willingness to understand the true sources of the North's conduct." Less bluster and more patience. Peter?

Peter Hayes: Well, I don't, personally, think that that bluster is the problem that the administration has had. First they're dealing with extremely difficult adversary, and secondly it's more of a strategic problem than a bluster problem. The question is what is the right strategy for this particular problem? And I don't think we've quite found the answer to that, but I don't think it's been chest thumping or bluster.

Peter Robinson: Jim?

James Woolsey: I agree with Peter. Bluster's not the problem. I think the essence of it is that the North Koreans want nuclear weapons. They want to be a nuclear power. They want to perhaps be able to sell fissionable material the way they sell heroin and ballistic missiles in the international marke and we're not going to defuse this easily, unless China decides to defuse it.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now, 1994--Intelligence reveals that North Korea is developing fissionable material, could be used in nuclear weapons. President Clinton considers an air strike; instead, former President Jimmy Carter negotiates the Agreed Framework. Agreed Framework is a term...

James Woolsey: Carter didn't negotiate it.

Peter Robinson: Carter didn't negotiate it?

James Woolsey: No--no, Carter went over and had a press conference with Kim Il Sung. The Agreed Framework was negotiated by the Department of State, actually.

Peter Robinson: Carter in, but the main negotiation takes place between the State Department and North Korea. The Agreed Framework is agreed to, under which North Korea promises to disassemble its nuclear reactors and the United States in turn agrees to build North Korea two light water reactors - these are reactors that produce much less material that could be used in developing weapons - and to ship North Korea half--five hundred thousand tons of oil a year until the light water reactors come online, 1994. Today, North Korea has unilaterally renounced the Agreed Framework, kicked out international inspectors, turned off the TV cameras at its nuclear site, and announced that it now has two nuclear programs, not just the one it promised to give up in 1994. How close, today, is North Korea to possessing nuclear weapons? Peter?

Peter Hayes: It's entirely conceivable that they have weaponized fission material and they could, at this juncture, have between two and eight nuclear weapons. Eight would be the worst case. Personally, I think that's improbable that they would have made that much progress in so short of time, but it is entirely conceivable at this juncture they have two, and...

Peter Robinson: Conceivable or likely? Or is that a null?

Peter Hayes: I don't think you can put a probability estimate on it.

James Woolsey: Well, the point is that one you have the fissionable material for a society that has a program as thorough going as North Korea has for some time, the chance that they have a nuclear weapon is very good. The weapon unfortunately is not that hard to make, once you have the fissionable material.

Peter Robinson: If they've got the material they can have the weapons quickly and easily.

James Woolsey: Essentially. Relatively.

Peter Hayes: Actually. Peter, it's not, if I may say so, I don't think that's quite accurate and I believe the terminology that was used in the CIA's work and in subsequent testimony was nuclear devices. And we just need to be careful. We're not talking about, you know, a highly sophisticated nuclear weapon that can be delivered on the tip of a missile over ten thousand miles.

James Woolsey: Well they--I didn't say anything about a missile warhead. Missile warheads are more complex than gravity bombs or a device that could be used in a test. But a relatively simple gravity bomb of the sort that the South Africans produced, simple shotgun design of the sort we had in the late 1940's. I think that is not a substantial barrier over the North Koreans.

Peter Robinson: Exactly what kind of threat do North Korean nuclear weapons pose?

Title: Far From the MADing Crowd

Peter Robinson: Back to Victor Cha and David Kang. Let me quote them again: "North Korea pursues nuclear weapons for the same reason that other highly vulnerable nations arm themselves, to deter an adversary."--in this case, a superpower, meaning us--"But even if the North develops nuclear weapons, the threat of a devastating U.S. response will prevent it from ever using them." So, the notion here is we lived for decades with the Soviet Union aiming, toward the end of the Cold War, thousands of nuclear weapons at us, but we were able to live with that because of the deterrence system that was set into effect. Aside from the question of their being able to sell fissionable materials to others, which we'll come to, but aside from that question, what's the big deal?

Peter Hayes: Well, actually I think the bid deal is precisely the threat against the United States and its allies in a military sense.

Peter Robinson: You do?

Peter Hayes: I think their insecurity is actually deeply grounded in paranoia, but it is real insecurity and has to be dealt with. If they believe that they are about to be preempted, they will, and I'm certain of this, preempt us. And the way they will preempt us is not by attacking South Korea with a nuclear weapon, for the simple reason that they're engaged in a endless struggle for the Korean soul, for the legitimacy to inherit the Korean nation through a process of eventual reunification and to use nuclear weapons against Koreans would be political suicide, not to mention, the end of the regime.

Peter Robinson: So, military reasons.

Peter Hayes: Rather, I think that they would at that point use their weapons offshore. That is an export scenario that is real and I don't think it's one that we can terminate militarily. What we have to do is avoid ever facing that awful choice because as Jim has written correctly, if we got intelligence that they have exported material or a whole weapon to reassemble it and deliver it against us, against our allies, against our friends, or even against an adversary, we would have to act and it would lead to a gigantic war. It would be a thousand times the Iraq war compressed into a month. So we have to avoid that scenario.

Peter Robinson: Jim, you have written, you wrote this this past summer in the Wall Street Journal, "It is apparent that the world has weeks to months, at most, to deal with this issue, not months to years." Now, according to the threat as Peter here has laid it out, it sounds to me as though North Korea wants nuclear weapons in a certain sense for the same reason that Israel wants nuclear weapons, as a guarantee of national existence to keep big boys like us from moving in and ending their regime. So, we contained the Soviet Union, why can't we contain North Korea? In other words, you see urgency that on his scheme, I can't see.

James Woolsey: I think the urgency is driven by the possibility, I would even say the probability which was actually implicitly threatened by one North Korean negotiator the United States earlier this year of export. I agree that they wouldn't get large-scale in terms of numbers of weapons, or numbers of batches of fissionable material in the export market, as long as they only have half a dozen or so bomb's worth of material. But, if they're reprocessing a Yongbyon and also or some other reprocessing facility, and also have uranium enrichment going on, which apparently they do, they could well have a number, produce a number of bombs per year worth of fissionable material. I agree with Peter they would also, I think, work to have that on ballistic missile warheads, so as soon as possible, they could target Japan...

Peter Robinson: How soon is that? Is that a five year project or a ten year project?

James Woolsey: I don't know, it depends entirely on far along they are in weaponizing. That may be known inside the government. I don't know it, but that could conceivably be years rather than months, in terms of say, ballistic missile warheads. But, some aspects of the fusing, and so forth, if you do this in a relatively simple way, is not rocket science squared, it is rocket science, I guess.

Peter Robinson: Let's go back to 1994. Was the Agreed Framework a mistake?

Title: Threat Matrix

Peter Robinson: Clinton considers an air strike in 1994, once it becomes clear...

James Woolsey: I think he was considering more than an air strike. I think he was considering war, but I don't think he was necessarily--I don't think he made up his mind. He was looking at those options.

Peter Robinson: All right, but the options included military action. Instead, they negotiate the Agreed Framework. The North Koreans agreed to take apart their nuclear reactor; we'll build them two new ones, but nuclear reactors of the kind that produce much smaller amounts of this kind of material.

James Woolsey: Not take it apart, but shut it down.

Peter Robinson: Shut it down, okay.

Peter Hayes: And actually just technically, the reactors that they would be provided with under the Agreed Framework would actually give, or provide more plutonium but in a less usable form...

Peter Robinson: Yes, less usable form.

Peter Hayes: ...and more observable form and therefore, safer from a proliferation prone perspective.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so now here we are today...

James Woolsey: And then they agreed to do one other thing.

Peter Robinson: What's that?

James Woolsey: By incorporating the North-South Agreement, they agreed--between North Korea and South Korea--they agreed not to enrich uranium. So once they started doing that, probably within a couple years of signing the agreement in '94, they were already in breach.

Peter Robinson: Should Clinton have used military action? Should he have taken it out right there and then?

James Woolsey: Well, I think that it, at the very least, what it should have done was get the rods, the eight thousand rods out of North Korea. Now I wasn't...

Peter Robinson: That's the material from which the enriched plutonium is made?

James Woolsey: Right.

Peter Robinson: To get those out and they can't do it, period.

James Woolsey: Well, they couldn't do with what they had all--do it with those rods. They could enrich uranium secretly, as I think they may well be doing, or they could have still perhaps had the one to two weapons' worth of their own plutonium that they had at the end of the eighties. But I think that it would have been a big step in the right direction. Now, I hate to second guess the negotiators. I wasn't there, they were. But if we had pushed very hard to get those eight thousand rods out of the country--as for example the Russians are now trying to work things out at the Bushehr reactor with the Iranians, so that the fuel goes in and the spent fuel comes out and the Iranians don't get involved in the reprocessing. That would help. It would help--have helped a good deal.

Peter Robinson: Give your old boss Bill Clinton a grade in dealing with North Korea. Was it so bad that it was an F?

James Woolsey: Probably not, it was a difficult circumstance. Let's say some sort of a C. You can decide whether C+ or C-.

Peter Hayes: I would have B-.

James Woolsey: I would say C-.

Peter Hayes: Yeah, I personally think the fatal flaw was not the spent fuel staying in the country because I don't think we had the ability to change that fact. We didn't have the leverage at the margin.

Peter Robinson: What was the flaw?

Peter Hayes: The flaw was the underlying assumption that the North Koreans would do us the favor of going away of their own volition, by collapsing of their own weight before the Agreed Framework really ran its course with the mutual commitments.

James Woolsey: It probably was one of their assumptions. It was a Clinton Administration propensity to kick the can down the road and I think this was a manifestation of that.

Announcer: From President Clinton to President Bush: in handling North Korea, has the current President done any better?

Title: The Wrath of Kim

Peter Robinson: January 2002, President George W. Bush stands at the rostrum in the House of Representatives delivering his State of the Union Address, and places North Korea in the "axis of evil", his phrase, with Iraq and Iran. Now, if you are sitting in North Korea and you see the leader of the world's only remaining super power announce that he's coming after you, doesn't that give you a tremendous impetus to begin, to develop those nuclear weapons? In other words, the question is, by that statement, didn't George W. Bush do a great deal to re-ignite the crisis that we now...? Peter?

James Woolsey: No.

Peter Hayes: No.

Peter Robinson: You both let him off for that.

Peter Hayes: No, in fact that he got it right, anyway. I mean it is an evil, authoritarian state. The fact is that they mirror image us and see that the President has the same kind of power role that Kim Jong Il has, which is not accurate but what they respect is actions, not words and their words of course are fire throwing--the worse kind of propaganda all the time.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so the Bush Administration says, "You're in breach of the Agreed Framework." The North Koreans want to sit down at a table with the United States and the Bush Administration says, "No, not again. We're not going to let you extort us again." We're going to sit down, but this time we insist on sitting down with North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States. The Koreans delay a long time. Finally, they agree to do that, as we tape this show, there was a session of this six-way talk but it broke down immediately.

Peter Hayes: Actually, there's a sort of two year interregnum before you get to that point which is I think a continuation of the Clinton policy of malign neglect.

Peter Robinson: Malign neglect?

Peter Hayes: With certain kind of conditional attitude.

Peter Robinson: Kicking the can down the road.

Peter Hayes: Yeah, frankly, they thought that they could basically--

Peter Robinson: Okay, give Bush--let's be fair now, I've both given you a chance to give Clinton a barely passing grade, give Bush to this point a grade in handling North Korea.

Peter Hayes: Well, I'll go first this time. I'd give it a C- because...

Peter Robinson: Worse than Clinton.

Peter Hayes: In terms of the outcome and in terms of the process. First of all, in the process, I think it's been a much more difficult and gridlocked process in Washington and the White House has not driven the process and it shows. And so we have an incoherent strategy at the moment that is not working. In terms of the outcome, I think...

Peter Robinson: Do you agree with that? I want to check his body language.

Peter Hayes: We're chasing their narcotics through the Proliferations Security Initiative, and they're about to walk free with nuclear weapons and there's not a damn thing that we can do about it.

James Woolsey: I'm going to give both administrations a C, plus or minus a schwa, but I think that it is not going well and I think Peter essentially has it right. What we have here is not something that was sparked by the Bush Administration's speech.

Peter Robinson: That's nonsense. And you both agree that it's nonsense.

James Woolsey: That's sort of the typical kind of blame-America-first kind of nonsense. I think that's not what's going on at all. It is a systematic plan by North Korea, over the years, to obtain fissionable material and use it for one of at least several different purposes, to some extent to deter us, so that the regime stays in place.

Peter Robinson: Have we even slowed them down? We obviously haven't stopped them, have we even slowed them down?

James Woolsey: We may have slowed them down a bit with respect to Yongbyon. They could have started reprocessing those rods right away, but not enough to matter.

Peter Hayes: No, from '96 to the year 2000, they could have if they'd completed the reactors that they froze and were to dismantle, produced enough for about sixty nuclear weapons per year. So, we've avoided approximately four sixes term, forty nuclear weapons worth.

Peter Robinson: Which is not insignificant.

Peter Hayes: No, that was the signal achievement of the Clintonites. They did achieve that.

Peter Robinson: Now, advice from our guests on the North Korean crisis, beginning with James Woolsey's plan.

Title: Chinese Checkers

Peter Robinson: Jim Woolsey notes that China provides an enormous amount of North Korea's food and some 90% of its fuel. So if the Chinese want to shut down anything that's going on in North Korea, there's a pretty good chance they can. The Chinese have not done so, but, to get their attention--I'm sure I'm distorting your plan but I'm going to put it in the most provocative way--to get their attention what we need to do is sit down with the South Koreans and draw up a war plan.

James Woolsey: We don't need to draw up a war plan. There's been a war plan for that part of the world for half a century.

Peter Robinson: Well, what were you writing about in the Wall Street Journal this past summer?

James Woolsey: Well, what I said was that we should get prepared and stop talking as if force was under no circumstance is an option.

Peter Robinson: "The U.S.," I'm quoting you, "The US and South Korea must come together and assess what it would take to conduct a successful military operation to change the North Korean regime." What would it take?

James Woolsey: Well, this would not be easy, and one does not ever want to go to war lightly. But I think what we have to recognize, as the piece says, is that the use of air power against North Korea, in many ways I think, would be easier than against Iraq, not harder. More importantly, my coauthor on that, Tom McInerney who's a retired Air Force three-star general who was command of the forces out there not too long ago, thinks that we could generate something on the order of four thousand sorties a day rather than the eight hundred that we had in Iraq.

Peter Robinson: You can shut down their artillery to keep them from taking out Seoul?

James Woolsey: I think we could do a very, very good job. But I want to do it my way.

Peter Robinson: What happens to our thirty-seven thousand troops on the ground up near the DMZ?

James Woolsey: Look, no war should be undertaken thinking that you're going to have no casualties, or light casualties. The only thing that would be worse than having a war in Korea is having North Korea become a nuclear power and starting to sell fissionable material to the likes of Al Qaeda. The point though, the key point is that by planning this with the South Koreans, one increases the likelihood, not high, but it's imaginable, the likelihood that China, particularly in so far as the new generation of Chinese leaders may be able to take over from the older generation, we may be able to try to work..

Peter Robinson: That's questioning the military side.

Peter Hayes: Well hang on; I've just come from Seoul...

Peter Robinson: Quickly though because it's television. We're running out of time.

Peter Hayes: ...but before that I was in Vladivolstok, meeting with North and South Koreans and Seoul is meeting with U.S. forces Korea analysts and basically, I concur that airpower and precision guided munitions is a trend that is greatly in our favor and against the North Koreans. I don't concur that they can't still wreak havoc on Seoul. All the North Koreans have to do is essentially lob a few chemically armed rockets, not even artillery, at Seoul to create enormous chaos and confusion. The point is that before we have stopped their advance and before we have terminated the North Korean regime, which I believe would be inevitable if there were a war, there would have been enormous damage wreaked both on civilian, American civilian and international civilians living in Seoul as well as of course tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of South Koreans...

Peter Robinson: The population of Seoul is what?

Peter Hayes: Close to thirteen million, I think.

Peter Robinson: So, it's a gigantic modern city.

Peter Hayes: It's one of the world's great cities and so to me, I guess the question I have to ask to Jim is, why go to war to solve a problem that I believe still has a chance of being negotiated and I don't think that we can rely on the Chinese to terminate the North Koreans treatise.

Peter Robinson: But you said they're about to become a nuclear power and there's nothing we can do about it. You think we can still negotiate our way out of it?

Peter Hayes: Oh, I think we're very close to the window being slammed shut, but not yet completely closed. If I can just speak about China and North Korea. The North Koreans have detested the Chinese for a long time, but especially the early nineties when they recognized Seoul, the South Koreans in Beijing, but did not arrange for the cross recognition of Pyongyang by the United States. So there was no love lost between the Chinese and the North Koreans. And if the Chinese tried to bring the North Koreans to their knees, as against just merely keeping them weak, which is where they keep them now by design, then the North Koreans have enough petroleum, oil, and lubricants stockpiled for at least a year for their military. We've done the quantitative analysis of this and I can assure you that's correct. They couldn't fight a war for that long, but they could last for that long. And that is certainly time enough to make nuclear weapons and aim them at China and the North Koreans would not hesitate to do that. China cannot bring them down.

James Woolsey: Whether Peter's right and the window's nearly closed or I'm right and it is essentially closed, the only choice we have between being able to execute military action against North Korea and leaning hard on the Chinese to try to do something is accepting North Korea as a nuclear power and that means accepting, I think not just the possibility, but a real probability that they would sell fissionable material to terrorist groups and we lose cities in the West.

Peter Robinson: Finally, how would Peter Hayes suggest we try to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis?

Title: Caveat Emptor

Peter Robinson: Is North Korea as a nuclear power acceptable to you?

Peter Hayes: No, and I think there's a way out of this bind.

Peter Robinson: Quickly, what is your way out?

Peter Hayes: ...which is to find out whether they have a trade-in price over time and is that something that we're willing to live with over that period of time, whilst we trade them in and them dismantle them.

Peter Robinson: If there, so in that pri--we ought to be willing to pay a very high price to buy them off because almost anything is better than war.

Peter Hayes: What was the price of buying the Ukrainian strategic nuclear arsenal? Some billions? And it costs us five billion dollars a year for USFK, twenty-five billion for West Pacific forces devoted to the Korean contingency, on the order...

Peter Robinson: So Colin Powell bought either at a table or through back channels to say to Pyongyang, "Look, what's your price? And, we're willing to go pretty high here." You know, just to pay them off.

Peter Hayes: The price has already basically been negotiated which is the Japanese reparations of about eight billion dollars. We have the North Koreans on a terrorist list. We keep them there, they can't join the World Bank, there's no intermediary for the Japanese money to kick start their economy, and the North Koreans stay in the bottom of a hole with a bunch of nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: How long--how much time do you give your plan?

Peter Hayes: I'd say two months and the North Koreans would have to perform on the war on terrorism and roll up their narco-criminal syndicates and hand them over to the secret service.

Peter Robinson: And you think there's at least--and it's worth waiting two months to test that one?

Peter Hayes: Well, I actually don't think we have any alternative but to do that.

James Woolsey: I think there's nothing inconsistent between trying that for two months and continuing with the planning of the sort that I've described.

Peter Robinson: And North Korea is a nuclear power is flatly unacceptable to you.

James Woolsey: North Korea as a nuclear power is unacceptable and I think they will not stay bought. I think what will happen is no matter how much we pay them, they stay in power. They will secretly work on nuclear weapons and fissionable material and we'll be right back where we are now.

Peter Robinson: So we have to have...

James Woolsey: That's what we thought would happen in 1994. That's what people thought would happen, that we would buy them and they would stay bought, but they didn't stay bought.

Peter Robinson: Now I asked you both to give Bush a grade on how he'd handled things sort of, so to speak, up until this point. Do you both have the feeling that among the Powell and Rumsfeld and Bush himself and Condi Rice are pursuing roughly the plan that the two of you have worked out here, that is to say, probing the North Koreans to see if there's a reasonable price while at the same time, moving ahead very vigorously with the military planning.

James Woolsey: I think they're kind of kicking the can down the road.

Peter Robinson: You do?

James Woolsey: Perhaps, not quite as resolutely as the Clinton Administration did, but I think they're roughly kicking the can down the road.

Peter Robinson: Are they to be forgiven for doing so because they have Iraq on their platter? You've been there, you can only handle so much at a time. Isn't that right?

James Woolsey: I think we ought to have a bigger military than we have. I think it might be, you know, it would certainly stress the army not maybe necessarily the other two, three services if we should have to plan for soon for hostilities in Korea. But I think there's no choice. We need to expand the size of the armed forces. We need to get ready to fight and if we get ready to fight, we will increase our chances of having it worked out some other way.

Peter Robinson: Last question for both of you. Three years from today, will North Korea be a nuclear power? Peter.

Peter Hayes: Well, if we can overcome the bipolar disorder in the Administration and come up with a coherent strategy and lead with that and put the back foot down very firmly in terms of increasing military readiness quietly, but clearly and visibly, then I think we have a fighting chance of that. I think what is crucial to that outcome is unleashing the precision guided markets and the precision guided non-governmental organizations that will transform North Korea inside out, rather than putting pressure on it, which simply solidifies it into the black hole where it already is.

Peter Robinson: Give me your predictions. Television, so I have to force you to be crude. You do think?

Peter Hayes: I said we have a fighting chance. I think it's equally possible that they will walk free.

Peter Robinson: Fifty-fifty. Jim Woolsey?

James Woolsey: I'm afraid I think it's probably close to that. We can influence this by being very resolute. So far, I don't see our doing it, our being that way.

Peter Robinson: James Woolsey, Peter Hayes, thank you very much.

Peter Hayes: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.