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United States Shifting Policy on North Korea?

Aired September 5, 2003 - 20:21   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: The White House is downplaying reports it is softening its stance on North Korea, this after a senior State Department official disclosed, the U.S. has offered economic aid and security assurances to Pyongyang. In exchange, the U.S. wants the North Koreans to dismantle their nuclear program.
Is this a major shift in policy? I'm joined from Washington by two guests. Balbina Hwang is the Southeast Asia analyst for the Heritage Foundation. And Joel Wit is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ms. Hwang, let's begin with you. Big shift?

BALBINA HWANG, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: No, I don't think so.

I think that one position that the Bush administration has clearly stuck to is -- unequivocal -- that North Korea must first give up its nuclear weapons program. And I don't see a shift on that particular policy at all.

O'BRIEN: All right. Mr. Wit?

JOEL WIT, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, of course, we can't tell for sure what is going on.

But if you read the newspapers, I think there is something significant here. And that is, as Balbina says, the United States has been insisting that North Korea move first and get rid of its nuclear program and then it would take steps later on. But I think what is going on here is a gradual shift toward simultaneity in steps taken on both sides. And I think that is potentially important.

O'BRIEN: Ms. Hwang, simultaneity, that can be a tricky game, can't it?

HWANG: Well, yes it can.

And, frankly, I think that, to do so, would send a very dangerous message, not only to North Korea, but to other potential proliferators out there. I think it is too early to tell. I don't believe that we have any proof that the Bush administration is offering to provide inducements, certainly ahead of time, or even at the same time. We certainly can't trust North Korea to respond in kind.

O'BRIEN: What is dangerous about simultaneity, then?

HWANG: Well, precisely because we cannot trust North Korea to return -- reciprocate in kind. And I think that is very clear from the history of the relationship between our two countries.

O'BRIEN: All right, Mr. Wit, that is a point well taken. The Clinton administration offered up fuel oil, gave the fuel oil in advance, and there were no concessions that were returned by the North Koreans back in 1994. There is no real reason to trust what the north says, is there?

WIT: Well, I hate to correct you, but, in fact, simultaneity can work very well.

And you mentioned the example of offering up heavy fuel oil. Well, there was simultaneity there. We offered up heavy fuel oil and North Korea froze a lot of its operating nuclear facilities. And we verified that. So simultaneity can work. And, indeed, it can be an advantage, because, as you take your step, they take their step and you can see what they're doing. That's fine. But, if you keep taking steps and you see that they aren't doing the right thing, you stop. So, in a way, it is a check on an agreement becoming violated.

O'BRIEN: Ms. Hwang, that sounds very reasonable. And given the alternatives here, which are grim, whether the U.S. has to take some sort of preemptive military strike or the North Koreans test a nuclear device or perhaps launch one, perhaps it is really the only way to go.

HWANG: Well, first of all, I don't think that those are the only two options out there.

But, not to parse on words, perhaps simultaneity may or may not be the best word, but it is really reciprocity. And I think that is a word that has been stated over and over again by this administration, simply the principle where, if North Korea does something, then the United States will respond and so on. And I think that is really the principle that we ought to be following here.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Wit?

WIT: Well, I don't want to get into an exercise here in parsing words.

But I think the general impression of the Bush administration's position is, they wanted North Korea to move first and then they would respond. And the fact is, North Korea is not going to do that. North Korea is interested in simultaneity. And so are all the other countries that are participating in these six-party talks in Beijing. So the United States is going to come under continued pressure to move towards this kind of position. And I think what we're seeing now are the first hints that that is what is happening.

O'BRIEN: Ms. Hwang, the fact that these are multilateral talks, first of all, the fact that they're happening at all is significant. But the fact China is taking a lead, that is significant as well. And what the Chinese want probably should trump a lot of what the U.S. has to say about things, in as much as they're right in that neck of the woods.

HWANG: Well, the United States should certainly not necessarily allow China to take the lead if that doesn't suit the U.S. purposes.

But to go back to Joel's point, I think this is precisely the point. It is not just a matter of what the U.S. wants. I think this is clearly a multilateral issue. North Korea's nuclear programs threaten the entire region, and really the whole globe, by undermining the entire nonproliferation regime. So it goes beyond what just the United States wants.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Wit, is this -- and we'll close on this point -- is this a time for some degree of optimism on this issue, do you think?

WIT: Well, I'm not an optimistic person.

And I like to tell people now that I'm cautiously pessimistic, which is an improvement from where I've been in the past. I wouldn't get too optimistic, but we're seeing an evolution in the U.S. position which I think is in a positive direction. But it is too soon to tell whether that is going to lead to some sort of agreement.

O'BRIEN: All right, Joel Wit and Balbina Hwang, we're going to have to leave it there. Obviously, lots more we could talk about, but we appreciate your time on this Friday evening.

HWANG: Thank you.

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