'Kim's Nuclear Gamble'
With Martin Smith
Friday, April 11, 2003; 10 a.m. ET
The world is running out of time to strike a peace-preserving deal with North Korea’s strange and reclusive leader Kim Jong Il. For 10 years, threats, deceptions, and diplomatic ploys have shaped U.S. relations with the Hermit Kingdom. Now, what happens next depends on the outcome of a raging debate within the Bush administration over how best to handle Chairman Kim.
FRONTLINE's "Kim's Nuclear Gamble," airing on Thursday, April 10, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), traces the delicate maneuvers and clumsy turns that have brought the world to the brink of a nuclear showdown in Asia. Filmmaker Martin Smith was online on Friday, April 11, to talk about diplomacy and the threat posed by North Korea.
The transcript follows.
Smith, who served as Frontline's senior producer from 1990 to 1994, produced, directed and co-wrote "In Search of Al Qaeda" and "Hunting bin Laden," which was re-broadcast on PBS on Sept. 13. He also produced "The Saudi Time Bomb" and "Looking for Answers" in 2001. (He discussed those films and last season's "Dot Con" on washingtonpost.com.) For Frontline, he also produced the Emmy Award-winning "Drug Wars," in 2000, a look at 30 years of American drug policy; "The Real Life of Ronald Reagan"; "Who Pays for AIDS?"; and "The Bombing of West Philly." He also investigated private funding for the Nicaraguan contras in "Who’s Running this War?" and produced "Revolution in Nicaragua" for the Peabody Award-winning Frontline series "Crisis in Central America."
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Harrisburg, Pa.: It seems North Korea has been willing to negotiate terms that keep it from developing nuclear weapons -- yet, they realize they can get bought off for doing so. Do you feel negotiations can continue to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, and, if you agree they appear to be looking to bought off, at what point should we agree to stop paying them off for making threats?
Martin Smith: I think that negotiations should go forward, and we should look for any agreement where there can be verification. I believe that's the consensus approach of people who've dealt with North Korea over the years.
As far as payoffs, diplomacy is and always has been a matter of give and take. Demanding that North Korea do something when there are no benefits for them is probably doomed to failure.
Austin, Tex.: Mr. Smith,
Why was the interview with North Korean defector, Kim Duk Hong, not included during the televised broadcast?
Martin Smith: The program was an exploration of diplomacy over the last 10 years. The interview with the defector was done because we had the opportunity, and we are gathering material for a possible future broadcast on the issues and focus of that interview. I decided to put it up on the Web site because I think it's important. But I did not think it had a place in the current project.
Charleston, S.C.: I wonder if your concerned as I am that after 9/11 the current U.S. policy shift has touched upon a dangerous cord in U.S. policy. A neo manifest destiny of sorts. I find it disconcerting that the current policy confuses appeasement and diplomacy. To what extent is our president's about-face in policy a personal reaction to President Clinton, which has been exploited by the hawks in the current administration? I also wonder whether you think that the disconnect between our perception in Washington of North Korea's intentions has deepened from the days of the initial escalation of the crisis in the early 90's given the absence of dialogue and the widening of the polarized views between the countries? What ever happened to Nixon's famous ping pong diplomacy of the '70s? Have we translated the "talk radio" dialogue of intolerance, division and polarization to the international arena? Have we become a country that is driven by a philosophy where differing views from our policy makers be it political, intellectual or diplomatic are viewed as unacceptable? Were we not successful in containing to nuclear powers during the cold war but engaged in dialogue over a period of decades with diplomatic relations?
Martin Smith: I can't get inside President Bush's head. Clearly, he has a deep personal dislike of Kim Jong Il. There are many in the Washington Democratic establishment who are also puzzled by his aversion to anything that the Clinton folks negotiated. They call it the ABC policy -- as in Anything But Clinton. They are mystified by it.
As to whether I think this crisis is deeper than the one in '93-'94, I would refer you to the interview with Secretary of Defense William Perry (on the Frontline Web site). He has the experience to judge this far better than I. And he is distressed and pessimistic about the predilection of the current administration for moral clarity and the failure of the current administration to make progress toward substantive talks with North Korea. I find his pessimism and his conviction that time is running short to be something we all should be paying close attention to.
Anaheim, Calif.: America should liberate North Koreans like we did with Iraqis. We've all witnessed Iraqis' taste of freedom after 25 years of dictatorship. Imagine taste of freedom after 50 years of dictatorship in North Korea. South Koreans truly want reunification at all cost even if it means war. Peace came through war in Iraq, it can also come in North Korea. I hope United States will not show favoritism with Iraq over Korea.
Martin Smith: Liberation is great if you can get it. The question I would ask is where do we start and where do we stop? There is a long list of countries, indeed nationalities, some which don't even have nationhood, that crave liberation and self-rule. Is it really your contention that liberating all these people everywhere is a practical and immediate objective? North Korea presents especially difficult problems. One has to ask, at what cost to human life in both North and South Korea does the fall of the regime come? It might be worth considering the alternatives of engagement and gradual change. That's not my decision, but up to the people you vote for.
Fort Worth, Tex.: Big fan of your work. As a journalist, are you constantly trying to avoid being "accused" of being a liberal or a right winger with your work? It seems people are put in one category or the other these days.
Martin Smith: I have views like anybody else. But I have a profession which dictates that I attempt to ask the right questions of the right people. I think what I'm trying to do is simply engage a debate, and carry the challenging questions and put them before partisans on both sides.
Bath, N.Y.: Mr. Smith:
Do you believe that the Bush administration hawks see Kim Jong Il as just a minor irritant? It seems the hawks want to concentrate on the Middle East, (for obvious economic benefit for their friends) but see North Korea as something minor that they would not benefit from either politically or financially. Therefore, it is not part of the immediate war agenda.
Martin Smith: I don't think there's one view of Kim Jong Il within the current administration. There's lots of debate. In fact, there are many within the current administration that see the benefits of continuing the Clinton policy of engagement with North Korea. They're engaged in a struggle with others who would like to confront Kim Jong Il more forcefully, even militarily. I don't think anybody sees him as just a minor irritant. A dictator with nuclear weapons and an active sales force in the Middle East cannot be considered a minor irritant.
Alexandria, Va.: Why is North Korea developing nuclear weapons? Is it in order to sell the nuclear weapons?
Martin Smith: They don't clearly state what their intentions are. They say they have the right to develop nuclear weapons. You can assume that both their own national security, and possible financial gain from selling weapons, are on their agenda.
San Francisco, Calif.: It seems like verification is the sticky issue preventing negotiations from succeeding. Twice, the U.S. and North Korea have come to agreements that traded U.S. aid for a halt in North Korea's nuclear programs and a future schedule involving inspections, and twice the U.S. has been burned when North Korea balked at inspections and continued to build nuclear weapons secretly. I feel that the real reason Kim refuses to allow inspections is that he is afraid "all access" that must be allowed to inspectors would uncover incredible human rights violations in his closed country.
So, perhaps, in order to make verification possible, we must aggressively reveal the human rights violations we do know in order to remove the incentive to hide them. Do you think that this approach has the chance of working? Kim Jong Il has killed millions of people and he has a LOT to hide..
He makes Saddam Hussein look like Santa Claus, basically.
Read this testimony from a former N. Korean prison guard (NOTE: This is a PDF file), for example.
Martin Smith: The North Koreans actually did make an agreement with the United States, which they held to -- the agreed framework of 1994. Inspectors remained in place, and assured the world that the program at Yong Byon remained present. Those inspections were specific to the nuclear facility. I don't think that inspectors from the IAEA are going to necessarily uncover human rights violations. So I don't agree that that is Kim Jong Il's fear. I do agree that anything that can help open up the country and make it more transparent would be progress. But nuclear inspectors, per se, are not going to do that. The new South Korean government continues a policy of trying to engage the North. Openness and engagement continues to be their policy.
Vienna, Va.: I watched your Frontline report last night. It was very enlightening. In researching, did the team discover why Bush made the axis of evil declaration? Was it because they wanted the American public to have tangible enemies (Iran, Iraq and North Korea) to point to regarding 9/11? Was it a notice to the world that our pre-emptive strike policy would start with Iraq, then move to the others?
Martin Smith: Direct your inquiries to the White House. Richard Perle says in the documentary that it was done to make a clear break with previous policy. He compares it to Ronald Reagan's statement about the Soviet Union being an "Evil Empire."
There's a piece a couple of months ago in the New Yorker in which David Frum, the speech writer, discussed how the "Axis of Evil" phrase came to be.
Martin Smith: As I remember it, David Frum said North Korea was almost an afterthought. Perhaps because the Bush administration did not want it to appear as if all evil resided in Muslim countries.
Springfield, Ill.: Why does the U.S. refuse to declare that it will never attack North Korea? Why would they expect North Korea to disarm with thousands of troops in the South, and belligerent words from the Bush administration, and Clinton's near attack in 1994? After Iraq, don't you think its in North Korea's best interest to arm as much as possible?
Martin Smith: The Bush administration is standing tough on North Korea. to be fair, the president has said repeatedly that he has no intention of invading North Korea, while at the same time he has stated that the military option remains on the table. I think the administration wants to see more positive steps taken by North Korea, and hopes this toughness will help those steps.
While I understand Kim Jong Il's logic in arming himself, in a better world, it would be better for his country to spend its resources elsewhere. Unfortunately, they don't feel secure.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Smith,
Did President Carter visit North Korea as a private citizen or as an emissary of the Clinton Administration? Was he making foreign policy decisions independent from actual U.S. government? I presume this is not the case as it violates the Constitution, no?
Thank you for your excellent documentaries.
Martin Smith: President Carter was there, as he told me, on a private trip. He had been invited by Kim Il Sung, and concerned over the nuclear impasse in '94, he decided it was time to go. On the other hand, he did receive a briefing from Robert Gallucci in Plains, Ga., before he left. So perhaps it's fair to say that he had the reluctant blessing of the Clinton White House. The story is well told in Don Oberdorfer's book, "Two Koreas."
Fort Myers, Fla.: We provide so much foreign aid, whats the difference if we provide foreign aid to North Korea especially if it is to preserve peace and not to mention allowing this isolated regime to start becoming apart of the national community. Seems to me that the Bush administration just wants nothing to do with any Clinton or Democratic policies even if it is good for the country and world peace.
Martin Smith: The reason not to give aid to North Korea is to hope that the country, without aid, will implode and that the regime will fall. There are some in the current administration who believe that is the most prudent policy. This policy was advocated strongly after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. The question you have to ask is whether a country that has endured as many as 2 million people, 10 percent of its population, starving to death, is going to crawl of aid cutoffs or aid sanctions or blockades. As Ashton Carter says in his interview, they have amazing staying power. And there is no sign of a democratic popular uprising against the regime.
Lubbock, Tex.: Do you have any indications of what outcome the Bush administration expects or desires from their current stance? It seems it must be either allowing North Korea to collapse under its own weight, or an all-out confrontation -- unless there are clandestine operations in the works to topple Kim Jong-Il.
Martin Smith: Well, if there are clandestine operations, I don't know about them. What I will say is that I believe there are active back-channel negotiations going on to determine when and how and under what conditions the U.S. and North Korea might begin another set of talks.
Huntsville, Ala.: It appears that the current U.S. policy vis-a-vis North Korea is that Kim Jong Il's regime must not (or will not) be allowed to build a large stockpile of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it appears that North Korea believes their "national security" (indeed their very survival) depends upon obtaining these weapons. Given these positions, there appears to be an impasse.
In October of 1962, both the United States and the USSR huffed and puffed, beat their [military] chests, and threatened war. However, when both sides looked into the nuclear abyss, they didn't like what they saw and the crisis was ultimately averted.
Do you think it's more likely that both sides will [ultimately] come to their senses, or is it inevitable that there will be a second war on the Korean peninsula?
Martin Smith: The possibility of war, I think, is less likely. I think the concern is more that they will proliferate nuclear technology or sales of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to other countries or individual actors. You're right about the abyss; no one benefits from a nuclear conflagration. But North Korea does benefit if it can make money selling nuclear weapons.
Arlington, Va.: Today's Washington Post reports that Kim is petrified by the Iraqi war. Doesn't this war of pre-emption justify his contention that he needs nuclear weapons to protect his country? After all, would we be thundering across Iraq if they had nukes?
washingtonpost.com: South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, said today he believes North Korea is "petrified" by the American success in overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but he disputed the contention of some U.S. officials that North Korea already has a nuclear weapon.
S. Korean Stresses Alliance, Dismisses Differences With U.S., (Post, April 11)
Martin Smith: The fact is, we don't know whether or not North Korea has a nuclear weapon or not. The CIA, in a worst-case analysis, has said that it is probable that they have one or two.
There's no question that the war in Iraq has made North Korea, as well as a host of other countries, take notice. And as I said before, there is a certain logic to accelerating an arms program to forestall an invasion.
San Francisco, Calif.: You mention gradual change, but bluntly, the one man government of Kim Jong Il will not allow contact with the outside by even a small amount as long as he has so much to hide, both from outsiders (his concentration camps, in which millions have died, for example) and from his own people (that they are the poorest people in Asia, not living in paradise, for example.)
The only way to force change in North Korea is by breaking the information blockade. This does not involve war. Why didn't you mention that option in your program? Kim Duk Hong mentioned it very eloquently in his interview.
Martin Smith: I think if there were an easy path to appealing directly to the North Korean people, as our defector calls for, then the administration would pursue it. As you yourself say, Kim Jong Il does not allow outside influences. While it's a good objective, I'm not exactly sure what concrete steps you're advocating.
Already the South Korean government has erected huge electronic billboards along the demilitarized zone, and sends messages daily. They also play radio stations on huge loudspeakers in the middle of the night into North Korea.
Dallas, Tex.: Do you believe there's a substantial danger of Japan coming to the conclusion that it too must develop a nuclear deterrent of its own? For understandable reasons, modern Japanese culture is averse to the idea of a strategic arsenal, but will North Korea's erratic behavior negate that in the near-term? Also (I apologize for the length of the question), what would the reaction of the rest of Asia (particularly China) be to a nuclear Japan?
Martin Smith: Well this is a very hot topic of discussion right now in policy circles. I've heard that some policymakers have even encouraged the Japanese to consider building a nuclear arsenal as a way of getting China to pay attention, since China does not want to see that happen. This is seen as a means of getting China to apply more pressure on North Korea. If Japan goes nuclear, China then has to build its arsenal up. It's not in anybody's interest, except perhaps the arms manufacturers.
Phoenix, Ariz.: How much clout does China have in any U.S. dealings with North Korea? Is our administration willing to deal with both North Korea and China decisively? Couldn't our economic ties with China be severed as a result of any impasse?
Martin Smith: China has tremendous clout vis-a-vis North Korea. And in March, Colin Powell flew to Beijing to try to get the Chinese to apply more pressure. Those talks did not bear any fruit, or at least any fruit that could be publicly revealed at the time. China has not been cooperating with the United States on the Korean issue. Like France, they've stated clearly that any attempt to impose sanctions through the UN would be blocked by China's veto.
Oakland, Calif.: Thank you for "Kim's Nuclear Gamble."
More chilling even than Kim Jong Il was George W. Bush, Richard Perle, and Hubbard. After watching last night, my question is how will we, and the rest of the world, survive the next two years of George W. Bush and the men in his administration?
Every time I see and hear them, I am more convinced that they are unreasonable, stupid and dangerous men.
Judging from Bush's willful bad faith with the UN over Iraq, and his blatant, goading, provocative trumpeting to the whole world, it seems clear that he and his administration are not men who can create peace, or even want peace. Peace is not in their interest. War will keep them in power, distract us from their deficiencies, and justify their stranglehold on the country, so I believe they will continue to create war, regardless of the cost to us or the rest of the world. When the stakes are so high, it's crazy, but they appear not to care.
I felt that Perry is the one who should handle the crisis with North Korea.
Martin Smith: I will only say this. When Congress mandated that President Clinton review his North Korea policy, he called upon William Perry. Perry's review was seen by nearly everyone on both sides of the aisle as prudent and cogent. In all my conversations, he is the one man who receives high marks for his analysis and refusal to fall prey to partisan bickering.
Martin Smith: However, when I asked Richard Perle his opinion of Perry's review, which advocated diplomacy, he said he had the utmost respect for Mr. Perry. He added, however, that he believed he was a romantic when it came to negotiating.
Lanham, Md.: Mr. Smith, you have done a great service to the world by covering in-depth issues such as the war on terrorism through your work "In Search of al Qaeda" and now the North Korea nuclear crisis with "Kim's Nuclear Gamble."
Given the tremendous amount of time these documentary endeavors take, how do you feel, and how do you strive for balance, when you have several former Clinton Administration officials going on record about policy to North Korea, but only two (Perle and Hubbard) from the Bush Administration?
Martin Smith: This is a very good question. I was extremely frustrated by the refusal of the Bush administration to put forward someone of equal caliber to William Perry, Madeleine Albright and Robert Gallucci. I made repeated attempts to persuade the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon to participate. They declined.
Hubbard is an able career diplomat. However, he is not a man who makes policy. All I can do is continue to knock on doors. But it is disheartening when attempting to enjoin a serious debate on an important issue that people like Richard Armitage and Paul Wolfowitz refuse to step forward.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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