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North Korea: Six-Party Talks Continue

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Don Oberdorfer
Journalist-in-residence, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Thursday, July 28, 2005; 11:00 AM

Amidst concern about North Korea's nuclear weapons program the six-party talks, stalled since June 2004, resumed on Tuesday in Beijing, China. Diplomats from the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea are meeting with representatives from North Korea to discuss eliminating nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. The U.S., South Korea and their allies have offered to provide energy and possible economic assistance if North Korea agrees to halt its nuclear weapons program.

Don Oberdorfer , journalist-in-residence at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History," was online Thursday, July 28, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the six-party talks and North Korea's nuclear program.

Read the latest: North Korea Rejects U.S. Plan on Arms.

The transcript follows.

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Don Oberdorfer: Hello everyone. I am new at this game so bear with me. On the plus side, I have been well acquainted with Korea since I was a US Army lieutenant in 1953-54, just after the end of the Korean War. I was Post NE Asia correspondent in 1972-75 and the diplomatic correspondent in DC for 17 years until my retirement in 1993. Then wrote a book on The Two Koreas and have been following things there ever since.

Having said that, I am very uncertain where the current six-party talks (6PT) will go, if anywhere. There is a very steep hill to climb before any substantial results.

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Arlington, Va.: If N. Korea will not give up it's weapons program, what will happen next? What will this mean?

Don Oberdorfer: Then the US and others will go to what is called in Washington Plan B, meaning some kinds of pressures to be exerted vs NK. The problem is there aren't any very effective ones out there and the allies and friends all have different ideas.

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Wheaton, Md.: Haven't economic incentives been tried before with North Korea? What's the point of re-trying a failed policy?

Don Oberdorfer: Yes but I don't think the major factor for the DPRK (N. Korea) is economic. Surely that is of great importance to them but the biggest issue is security. They fear the US seeks to overthrow the regime.

I was in Pyongyang in November 2002 speaking to their senior officials,, the same ones who Asst Sec State Jim Kelly had seen. Their demands for clearing the concerns of the US re: the nuke program were related to security. The only economic demand was not to interfere with their programs - not demand for aid.

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Anonymous: Why is North Korea suddenly playing easy on the nuke talks? Are they compromised with Al Qaeda and trying to get out, similar to what Khaddafi did?

Don Oberdorfer: I don't think they are playing easy. They avoided coming to the talks for a year for a variety of reasons, especially the fact they did not think the talks would go anywhere under George W. Bush. But finally this summer a variety of things happened, including changes in rhetoric and personnel by Bush, the emergence of S Korea as a major player and more pressures from China and others to rejoin the talks. So let us see where they go.

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Washington, D.C.: How long can these talks go on for? If there's no end in sight, will a move be made to end them and if so by who?

Don Oberdorfer: That is a very good question which I cannot answer. The earlier rounds of the talks took only a day or two, but Chris Hill, the new US negotiator, has made it known he plans to stay as long as it seems productive. It seems the talks will go on at least through Friday and they may continue for many weeks if they seem to be making any progress, possibly with recesses to consult home governments.. But this is all speculation at this point.

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Anonymous: When did N. Korea start its weapons program and why exactly?What is N. Korea's goal?

Don Oberdorfer: N. Korea has wanted to have nuclear weapons since the Korean War (1950-53) when US nuclear weapons were threatened, but of course not used. When the Chinese exploded their first device in 1964, Kim Il Sung asked Mao to help him with nuclear weapons but Mao refused. They beseeched the Soviets and everybody else. The current nuclear weapons program goes back at least to the 1970's when US intel began tracking it.

Why is a contested question but I believe it was principally for security, in that regime survival is their top priority. Until the early 1990's they faced US nuclear weapons deployed in S Korea and even after the US withdrew them from the peninsula, nuclear capable ships and planes were nearby. This is one of the issues they have brought up in the current talks.

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Arlington, Va.: The news of the talks always seem so incremental ... why aren't there more solid developments more regularly?

Don Oberdorfer: That's the way diplomacy is, especially in difficult issues. I covered diplomacy for the Post in 1978-93, the last years of the Cold War, and many of the talks - and our stories about the talks - were incremental.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you predict the outcome of the talks to be?;

Don Oberdorfer: To me it is really unpredictable - more so than in any previous encounters of this kind. There is a new and more active negotiator on the US side but it is unclear how much leeway he has in his instructions from Washington. S Korea has emerged as a much more important player. N Korea is always unpredictable and nearly always exasperating in their negotiating tactics.

About the best that can come from this, I think, is some sort of joint statement of understanding or principles that can lead eventually to more talks from a more productive basis. The negotiators are not likely to be able to deal effectively and finally with NK nuclear program. This will take the intervention - probably a personal intervention of Kim Jong Il, the NK leader

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Virginia: What do you think is the best course of action with N. Korea? Do you think they talks are working the way they should? Thanks.

Don Oberdorfer: It's really hard to say whether or not they are working since this is the first week or what may be many -- IF the talks get anywhere at all.

But there are not any good alternatives to diplomacy, since military actions would be a horror in NE Asia and economic and other outside pressures vs NK are of dubious effectiveness. So I think this should be tried and tried hard, as it is the safest and best way even without any assurance of good results.

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Arlington, Va.: Please explain ... is N. Korea a threat?

Don Oberdorfer: NK, especially a nuclear armed NK, is a threat of different kinds to different nations. The most serious threats to the US are that they could sell or transfer nuclear materials to terrorist groups or others opposed to the US. And that the example of NK could cause or encourage many more nations to acquire nuclear weapons, making a much more dangerous world.

S. Korea, which used to reward NK as its main enemy, has revised its doctrines and policies and is trying to live in greater contact and harmony with NK - but a nuclear armed NK is a grave danger.

So there are all kinds of threats -- and nuclear weapons in the hands of NK is a very serious international problem.

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Baltimore, Md.: How, if at all, has China used it's relative influence over North Korea to pressure it's more democratic neighbors and Taiwan?

Don Oberdorfer: I'm not quite sure what you mean by pressuring its more democratic neighbors etc.. The US has looked to China to pressure NK to come to the talks, which China has hosted, and to give up it nuclear weapons programs. China has made position known but has refrained from very hard pressures so far as we know. China would like a non-nuclear NK but it also wishes to preserve the NK regime and not to have any instability on its border.

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Anonymous: If the talks are so incremental, how do you determine when there's a larger development?; Has there been a significant development as of yet?; Or does there basically need to be a final outcome in the end for the news of the talks to be more significant?; What are your thoughts?; Thank you for providing some help into sorting through the news of a subject I'm trying to learn more about.

Don Oberdorfer: Trust me, the journalists who are present at Beijing will be trying to sniff out any significant developments and will report them if they are announced. And reporters in DC such as the Post's Glenn Kessler will be following the talks closely.

Yes, the way the talks are proceeding -- a different and more hopeful process in the 2nd Bush administration - is important. But the end result, as I have said above, is unknown.

My suggestion is to read the stories from Beijing and especially stories from there or elsewhere about the talks which seek to put the developments into perspective and context.

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Washington, D.C.: If N. Korea does give up its weapons programs, what will this mean for its surrounding countries? Will the relationships change?;

Don Oberdorfer: NK's relationships with surrounding countries was changing before the nuclear issue began to be more serious recently. The changes will accelerate if and when the nuclear issue is solved. China has been seeking to convince NK to change its economic system in the direction of the China reforms and that would increase. NK and SK have changed their relations dramatically in the last 5 years, since SK Pres. Kim Dae Jung went to NK and met NK Chairman Kim Jong Il, and this will surely accelerate and improve if the nuclear question can be solved.

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Arlington, Va.: You said there's a very steep hill to climb before the talks are concluded ... can you expand on this please? Why is that?

Don Oberdorfer: The US and NK, which are the most important parties in this negotiation, are far apart in their positions, and it will take decisions of great gravity and importance to find a result acceptable to both. So far as I mentioned above there has been a major change in US process - ie, negotiating procedures and style - but the substance is a question mark. Also some important words from NK, especially in a meeting between Kim Jong Il and the SK Unification minister a few weeks ago. But again its not clear how much change in substance is involved. This is a very difficult negotiation.

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Beijing: What do you think about North Korea's desire to have a peace treaty with the U.S.? What is the likelihood that the six-party talks would lead to the official end of the Korean War? What are the implications of this? Is it likely not possible because it would mean US troop withdrawal from South Korea? Or is it possible that North Korea would agree to letting US troops stay in South Korea? Or would the US be willing to withdraw its troops? Could this line of negotiation even lead to the unification of North and South Korea?

Don Oberdorfer: These are some very good questions and it is fantastic for me to be answering questions on line from Beijing.

A peace treaty ending the Korean War - which ended with only an armistice agreement in 1953 - July 27 by the way - would be a good thing but it is hard to expect anything of that kind until and unless the current nuclear issue is solved.

If NK and SK are able to reduce the tensions on the divided peninsula, I think there is every prospect for US troops to be greatly reduced. Both Koreas would probably want to have some modest number of US troops remain - principally because of their worries about China and Japan. But whether the US would be willing to do so, remains uncertain - although I am sure the Pentagon would like it.

NK Chairman Kim Jong Il has said privately on several occasions that he hopes US troops would remain - although his propaganda agencies continue to say the opposite.

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Columbia, Md.: You mention that any real progress would probably require the involvement of Kim Jong Il. What is your assessment of him? Is he as crazy and out of touch as we are led to believe, or is there perhaps a bit of the "crazy like a fox" mentality at work?

Don Oberdorfer: I have never met Kim Jong Il. Those from the outside world who have met him in serious discussions have described him as a person of substance who is the most flexible person, diplomatically speaking, in his country. In a sense this is unsurprising since in that system only he is free to say whatever he thinks and others follow.

If there is any chance for the resolution of this problem through diplomacy, it will have to involve Kim Jong Il, in my opinion.

When former US ambassador to SK Donald Gregg and I were in Pyongyang in November 2002, we were given a personal message from Kim Jong Il to President Bush in writing, and we took it to the White House when we returned. Unfortunately in my view the administration did not take up the chance to have a direct contact and dialogue in writing or otherwise, and then NK reopened its nuclear weapons program full-bore. Which is where we are today, with NK having the materials for 6 to 8 nuclear weapons or perhaps the weapons themselves, according to US intelligence, and making more all the time.

Kim Jong Il is the key to a solution, if any is to be found.

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Maryland : A report yesterday says North Koreans are so hungry they're scooping up acorns and seaweed to feed themselves. At what point does Kim Jong Il turn his attention from nukes to food?

Don Oberdorfer: The economy and food situation in NK has been and continues to be a disaster. It is very difficult to imagine a government which allows large numbers of its people starve or succumb to starvation-induced diseases. The US, SK and others have contributed humanitarian aid to the NK people, but this is unfortunately short of the needs which should be met domestically in NK.

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Washington, D.C.: IF N and S KOREA were to reunite like Germany did, how would the economic and other impact affect them. Would it would be even worse than Germany, where the east is still a mess? Also, do you think S Korea really wants this?

Don Oberdorfer: Unification would bring tremendous economic problems to SK, probably of much greater dimension than even the Germanies. SK is now a democratic country which according to latest data is the 10th largest economy in the world. NK is impoverished and very undemocratic. How they could peacefully integrate is a big, big problem, especially for the government and people of SK.. They know it but Korea was a unified country for 13 centuries before being divided in 1945 - ironically by the USA in an expedient to prevent its absorption into the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. There is a big urge to be united again.

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Maryland: Doesn't Kim Jong IL really just want us to bail out his poor, repressed country with cash and food aid?

Don Oberdorfer: Yes he wants that but I don't think he "just wants" that. Basically his top priority appears to be regime survival.

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Don Oberdorfer: There are more good questions but the time is up. I have enjoyed trying to answer your questions and hope I have helped a little to throw some light on a very difficult and very important situation.

For more info on my take on the situation, please take a look at the op-ed piece by former US Ambassador to SK Donald Gregg and myself in the Post June 22.

A Moment to Seize With North Korea

Good bye to all...Don Oberdorfer

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