Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 9848
December 1, 1998


Donald Gregg, former US Ambassador to South Korea

Leon Sigal, consultant, Social Science Research Council

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

LEON SIGAL: To Washington, North Korea is like Mars.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, a look at U.S. policy toward North Korea.

DONALD GREGG: Well, I was in CIA for 30 years and I used to call it the longest-running intelligence failure in the history of American espionage.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

VOICE OF A NORTH KOREAN FEMALE ANNOUNCER: [speaking in a strident tone]

PORTER: This audio was taken from a North Korean television newscast announcing the launch of a rocket.

VOICE OF A NORTH KOREAN FEMALE ANNOUNCER: [speaking in a strident tone] [with the sound of a rocket in the background] Our scientists and technicians have succeeded in launching into orbit the first artificial satellite aboard a multi-stage rocket. The rocket was launched in the direction of 86 degrees, at a launching station in Musudan-ri Hwadae County, North Hamgyoung Province. The rocket is of three stages. The first stage was separated from the rocket 95 seconds after the launch and fell on the open waters of the East Sea of Korea 253 kilometers off the launching station. The second stage opened the capsule in 144 seconds and separated itself from the rocket.

PORTER: The launch was made on August 31. Western intelligence sources said it was a missile. The North Koreans, as we heard, claim it was a satellite. Last week on Common Ground we heard about the deep humanitarian crisis in North Korea. This week, we look at the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, tensions raised by both this rocket launch and renewed suspicions that North Korea is working on nuclear weapons. Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg outlines the limited degree of contact the West has with North Korea.

GREGG: Well, we have talks on a number of subjects being conducted by Charles Kartman, who’s an ambassador-at-large. He was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. I think he’s sort of the leading negotiator. There are also a number of other unofficial channels going on involving the food delivery. There have been some people in North Korea looking at the possibility of doing business in the minerals sector. And there have been some Congressional delegations. And the North Koreans occasionally sort of meet in a Track II mode here in the United States. So, there’s quite a lot going on, but I think somehow there’s, it’s less than the sum of its parts, because I think there’s a prevailing lack of credibility among the various groups that are in communication with North Korea. And I think each group that’s in communication, sort of like the blind man feeling the elephant, they each have a different sense of what it is they’re dealing with.

SIGAL: I think the question is very important. Because if I understand where we’ve been with North Korea and where we are now, we get leverage only from engagement.

PORTER: This is Leon Sigal. He’s a consultant with the Social Science Research Council.

SIGAL: When we’re delivering food, providing heavy fuel oil and eventually a reactor as part of the 1994 agreements with North Korea, that gives us some leverage to make sure the North Koreans do what they promise to do. We don’t get much leverage, nor is there any evidence that we have in the past gotten much leverage, from threatening them. So I think it is very important that we expand the level of engagement, not for its own sake, but tied to quite specific things that we want the North Koreans to do that are in our interest. And I think that’s the way we can move the relationship forward at this stage when neither side trusts one another.

PORTER: Before we get to that level of asking what it is we want from the North Koreans, I ask Ambassador Gregg, to most Americans North Korea is a mystery. Is it a mystery to you?

GREGG: Well, I was in CIA for 30 years and I used to call it the longest-running intelligence failure in the history of American espionage. Because it’s an extraordinarily difficult target to go after. We have marvelous satellites and aerial photography and so forth, but it still doesn’t get you inside people’s heads. And the current leadership in North Korea, Kim Jung-Il in particular, and the people in the military that he’s close to are just not accessible to us. And so their thought processes and the dynamics of their decision-making is still something that we know dangerously little about.

PORTER: Okay. Mr. Sigal?

SIGAL: I’ve tried to use the comparison that to Washington, North Korea is like Mars. The way we, the only things that we have that we can be at all sure of are what we can see by satellites and other technical means of observing them. And obviously if that’s all you knew about America, if you were sitting in Pyongyang you would feel as if you didn’t know very much. I think that’s actually a good basis to proceed. That you proceed, that you don’t know very much. Don’t assume very much about what they’re about. But be careful to observe exactly what they’re doing and saying. Particularly what they’re saying. Because I think that’s the way you move the relationship forward. You say, “All right, I hear you and if you mean that, are you prepared to do the following things we’d like you to do? And what is it that you want in return?” And see if they’re prepared to do deals. That’s the way you move the relationship forward.

Even more, that’s the way you learn about what they’re about. If they do what they say they’re going to do, that’s one thing. If they don’t, then you make sure you don’t live up to your end of the deals that you strike. But only if they don’t do what the say they’re going to do. And part of the problem we’ve had is we haven’t always been living up to our end of the bargain. Which is a quite surprising position for the United States to be taking.

PORTER: What is in your opinion, Ambassador Gregg, the level in relative terms, of tension along the DMZ and between North Korea and the rest of the world? Where are we sort of in relative terms in that security relationship?

GREGG: Well, I think that North Korea is a very unhappy, largely unreconstructed relic from the worst days of the Cold War. They have managed to maintain a degree of isolation for their people which has been able to, has enabled them to control the agenda, control their people’s perceptions of what’s going on in the outside world. So that the tension along the DMZ is still high. I think we haven’t really made much progress on that. And I always remember what Willie Brandt of Germany said when he went to the DMZ and looked at it and he said, “This is a time warp.” And he said, “This is much worse than the Berlin Wall, because the Berlin Wall allowed people to move through it and ideas flowed over it.” But he said, “When you’re dealing with a time warp, the psychological dislocations that exist on either side of it are going to be much harder to deal with when the time warp is penetrated.” And I think that’s true.

PORTER: One more question for you on this. The missile test, the talk about the underground testing, or the underground nuclear facility. It obviously only makes matters worse. Is that a correct reading?

GREGG: Yes. I think that’s right. I think the North Koreans must have had some reason for doing it. Perhaps to glorify Kim Jung-Il on the 50th anniversary of the independence of their country, or his accession to his high level positions in the North. But they just seemed to be terribly ignorant of the impact of firing off this missile just at the time they were talking with us. And then having their negotiators say “I know nothing about it.” So that either meant that the negotiators were lying or that they had sort of been dangled out to us and left uninformed of this very, very important development.

The underground facility, the North Koreans are great diggers. They’ve been digging, all their artillery is dug in, they have dug countless tunnels under the DMZ. So they have dug away for years. And God knows what is going on in these holes. And it’s easiest for us to assume that they have some malign purpose, probably nuclear or mass weapons-related, but we don’t know. Because we still don’t have satellites that can look into holes.

PORTER: Should we feel more physically threatened today than we felt say, 12 months ago or 24 months ago?

GREGG: I don’t think so. I mean, I just had a look at the launch of the North Korean rocket. And I don’t know what the payload of that would be, but it looked to be something like, I don’t know, a basketball. At the largest, at most. And in the crisis of 1994 I felt we overreacted to the possibility of the North Koreans developing one or two nuclear weapons when we had deterred and successfully dealt with the Soviet Union that had had thousands of nuclear warheads on accurate missiles. And the North Koreans, if they have built nuclear devices, the only way they could deliver them would be by pushing them off the back end of a truck. So I think that is something that we still can deal with. And I agree with Mr. Sigal that there’s some point in continuing to talk with these people. To try to convince them that there’s a better way of dealing with the outside world than going down these ridiculous dead-end streets toward a primitive capability which will never be of any particular use to them.

PORTER: Do we have intelligence on North Korean truck technology?

GREGG: [laughing] Yes.

PORTER: Mr. Sigal, any comments on security?

SIGAL: Yeah. I think it’s important to have a little bit longer context for talking about security. The fundamental thing that’s happened over time is that the North Korean Army has become less and less capable of attacking, attacking South Korea and winning a war. And therefore our security is in fact much greater than it’s ever been. But, the problem is that we have not yet succeeded in eliminating the chance that the North Koreans might be fearful in a circumstance in which their economy disintegrates further or whatever, that they might not be threatened and that we get into a war which in fact neither side wants. So that one problem is that.

A second problem, as Ambassador Gregg has rightly said, is we’ve got a missile program going on. And we don’t want that program. That program is not good for Japan’s security and for others in the neighborhood. And third, we have a nuclear program that now is stopped, but we want to make sure it is really stopped and doesn’t resume down the road.

Now I know no other way of achieving those three goals, avoiding conventional war on the peninsula; second, stopping the missile program; and third, stopping the nuclear program; other than to try to cooperate with North Korea and see if it is willing to cooperate with us to achieve those three goals of ours. And that’s going to mean giving them something in return that they want.

GREGG: And the problem with that is, is that that looks to Congress as though we’re rewarding bad behavior. And the North Korean military has an unparalleled record of committing dastardly acts against the outside world and never having to pay for it. Going back to the Rangoon bombing of 1983, or the seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968, or the blowing up of the Korean Air liner in 1987. And I was involved in attempts to devise some way of retaliation and there wasn’t any way we could figure out to retaliate that wouldn’t have started a second Korean War and gotten the crew of the Pueblo killed. So the North Korean military, I’m afraid, thinks they have figured out quite a good way of dealing with the outside world. And that is do something awful and then pull your horns in and know that nobody is going to dare smack you in return. And I’m not sure that they have really abandoned that pattern and that this missile firing and the sending of commando-laden submarines into the southern waters are part of that manifestation. So they are very unpleasant people to deal with. And the, I agree that the negotiation and engagement technique is the way to go. But with Congress as rabid as it is on the subject, you’re seen as rewarding people for their bad behavior, and that’s really not sustainable unless there’s real eloquence on the subject from the top of the Administration.

SIGAL: One further thing to add about this. I agree absolutely with Ambassador Gregg’s point that the way the North Korean military in the past has behaved is, has aroused everybody’s fears and concerns, understandably. I also think something is happening now in North Korean behavior that is in important ways self-defeating. But you have to understand it by understanding that we too are engaged in behaving toward North Korea that in some ways is self-defeating. By this I mean the North Koreans have this nasty habit of doing things like testing missiles, doing work on holes in the ground, and doing other things, because I think they’ve discovered that this is the only way they get our attention. And I think the really, that’s self-defeating for them because every time they do these things it makes it a lot harder for us to deal with them. I mean, who wants to deal with somebody who keeps on doing these outrageous things.

On the other hand, we’ve fallen into a pattern in which the only time we do pay attention to them is when they do these outrageous things. And I think both of us have to break this nasty habit if we’re going to get out of where we are now.

PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with two experts on U.S. relations with North and South Korea: Leon Sigal is a consultant with the Social Science Research Council; and former Ambassador Donald Gregg is President of the Korea Society. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

SIGAL: I think we should want to make sure—let me put it very precisely—that whatever happens inside North Korea, if it goes on existing the way it is, if it reforms, if it doesn’t reform, if it collapses, that the artillery within range of downtown Seoul never goes off. So that’s one problem we’ve got to try to fix.

PORTER: This again is Leon Sigal, from the Social Science Research Council.

SIGAL: And the second problem we’ve got to try to fix is, that North Korea stops selling and testing and deploying new missiles. And I think the third problem we’ve got to fix, and we’re on our way to fixing it is, there is no nuclear weapons program in North Korea. Now, I think other things that we do are things that North Korea may want us to do. Like, providing assistance, like providing development aid, like other things that they are likely to be asking for; investment, diplomatic relations, etc. I think we want to structure deals so that we get what we want and they get what they want. And that’s the purpose of engagement. But the focal point should be on the three critical areas of concern to us in the security area. And we should be prepared to do a host of other things, economic and political, to engage them in return for their doing what we want them to do.

GREGG: I think it’s terribly important that we use the words “South Korea.” Because South Korea exists. We must not begin to talk as though the problem is between Korea and the United States.

PORTER: Again, former Ambassador Donald Gregg.

GREGG: The Koreans share the peninsula. And at some point they have to relate more amicably to each other. And President Kim Dae-Jung has a policy of engagement with the North, which he calls the Sunshine Policy. And it’s an unfortunate name. Nobody really likes it. But it’s an effort on his part to open up North Korea and to try to demonstrate to them that there is another way of relating to the outside world apart from mass artillery, missile tests, and a nuclear program. And if you look at Northeast Asia, North Korea is the missing piece of the mosaic. And if that were put back in place, if its infrastructure were rebuilt, everything would flow better in Northeast Asia. And I think that is Kim Dae-Jung’s vision. That over time there can be increased mutual toleration between North and South Korea, increased investment, increased commerce, increased communication, divided families able to see each other, tourism, and that’s the goal of his Sunshine Policy. And if that succeeds the three things that Mr. Sigal is talking about will wither on the vine. So I think you get at those three things by dialogue and by convincing the North Koreans that the military options toward the outside world are no longer viable and lead down a dead-end, dangerous street.

PORTER: Mr. Sigal?

SIGAL: I think Kim Dae-Jung’s policy is one of the most positive developments that’s happened in Korean affairs for many years. Because it marks the first time where both the South Korean government and the American government are on exactly the same track in dealing with North Korea. Which is that everybody wants a period of peaceful coexistence with North Korea. And that makes it possible to do a lot of things if the North Koreans are willing. And we don’t know for sure that that’s true. But that makes this very positive. And the problem is that there are two places that sort of aren’t on this message. One is Congress and the second is Japan. And I think it’s very important that the Japanese and members of Congress understand their stakes here in getting solutions to the problems of concern. That it is hard to see how confrontation will get us what we want from North Korea.

We can’t be sure cooperation, conditional cooperation, conditioned on North Korea doing what we ask them to, will get us there. But I know confrontation won’t work. You can’t get another country to reduce its military forces and its threatening posture by confronting it. You can’t get it to stop testing missiles and deploying them by confronting them. You can’t get them to stop a nuclear program by confronting them. You will only get them to do the opposite of what you want. So the question is, is everybody going to get on message here? If they are, then I think there’s a possibility of moving forward, but we can’t be sure until we try.

PORTER: Ambassador, we’re going to have to touch on two more subjects very quickly in the time we have remaining. The humanitarian situation in North Korea. I don’t think we can have the discussion without talking about it at least. What do you know about the situation in North Korea and what can we do?

GREGG: Well, I only know what people like Catherine Bertini??, who’s head of the World Food Program at the UN, has told me. And that is that the situation looks better this year than it was a year ago. I think it’s absolutely true that the people who are delivering food to North Korea are unable to monitor it, are unable to say with clarity that none of it is going to the military. But it is also clear from what they have observed that the number of starving children has been reduced. And I’m very comfortable with that. I’m with the Reagan policy that a starving child has no politics.

PORTER: Mr. Sigal.

SIGAL: I think we don’t know the magnitude of the trouble. We do know that North Korea did not have a particularly good growing—the weather was fine this year, but their production wasn’t particularly good. And I think this raises the larger opportunity here. Because I think we need to find ways to work with North Korea so that it can begin to grow enough food for itself. And I think that kind of, that kind of policy, if we get in return what we want from North Korea, is a very good way to move forward. That we provide the kind of technical assistance and other kinds of things—grains of rice, fuel, and other things that they need to have a better growing season in the years to come. That’s the way out of this. But for the moment we’re, I think we’re, you know, if we don’t want to see people starve again we’re probably going to be having to supply some food.

PORTER: Ambassador Gregg, last question for you. On the American side, is American foreign policy being articulated clearly enough? Are we on the right track to having a clear American foreign policy toward North Korea?

GREGG: Oh, I’m afraid not. I think that it has not received sufficient high-level attention or articulation from the Administration. I think that the key people in the Administration seem to be focused on other things. So I was one of the people on the Council of Foreign Relations that very strongly recommended that a high level person be appointed to look at our overall Korean policy. I hear that may be former Secretary of Defense William Perry. If that is the case I think he’s a very accomplished man who essentially carried the Clinton Administration in its foreign policy, what there was of it, in the first term. And I think he would be a very, very good person to appoint. And I think that having a focal point and a senior person involved is something we desperately need.

PORTER: Mr. Sigal, I’ll give you the last word.

SIGAL: Yeah, I think the biggest failure of this Administration has been a fear, I believe, of saying exactly what it’s about with North Korea and defending it’s policy. Cooperation works. It needs to be defended. In the climate that we have in Washington, which is highly partisan, I think the Administration has shrunk from telling the American people, “This is a defensible policy. It looks like it’s working.” There are enormous uncertainties. You can’t be sure the North Koreans are going to live up to it. But I still think you have to defend the policy. And articulate it. And I think senior officials have been extremely reluctant to do so. This can’t be left to Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State.

PORTER: On November 12th, President Clinton announced that former Secretary of Defense William Perry will become his policy coordinator on North Korea. Our guests today have been Leon Sigal, a consultant with the Social Science Research Council, and former Ambassador Donald Gregg, President of the Korea Society. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security