[SPECIAL INTERVIEW]Armitage: If Pyongyang Behaves, 'We're Keen to Leave Them Alone'Visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met Thursday with Kim Young-hee, senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo, to discuss American policy on North Korea and the controversial missile defense plans of the Bush Administration. Mr. Kim was accompanied by JoongAng Ilbo English Edition reporters Kim Ji-soo and Park Sung-woo.
Mr. Armitage, who first visited Korea in 1967, has held a variety of positions in the U.S. government, including senior positions at the State and Defense departments. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
JAI: During the Kim-Bush summit in March, there seemed to be a gap in perceptions concerning North Korea. You seem to have narrowed this gap in your talks here. What were some of the major issues that you had to iron out with Korea?
Armitage: Well, there weren't issues to iron out in Korea. There were issues to iron out in the United States. We were a new administration. Because of our electoral situation, which is well known, we were slower than other administrations in getting organized. We did not have many of our personnel in place. Because we wanted to show great respect for our excellent ally, Korea, we invited President Kim Dae-jung to come, the first Asian leader to meet with President Bush. We have, in Washington, some serious questions about the previous administration's approach to North Korea, and missiles and weapons of mass destruction, particularly in verification and monitoring. We had to restudy the situation, look over the history of the discussions and agreements. We are just about at the place to move forward. That is why I came to get President Kim's latest views, not to try to narrow differences.
JAI: Many in Korea think the hard-line stance of your government vis-a-vis North Korea has scared away Kim Jong-il from talks with South Korea, causing the inter-Korean peace process to stall.
Armitage: The correct answer is probably only known in Pyongyang. I think it is better to get the policy right than to get the policy in hurry. We want to do this right; we don't want to make mistakes. If we can get in a situation ultimately where we have some agreement with North Korea, we want it to be the type of agreement which can be supported by our Congress. So if that is called a hard-line stance, then so be it. But I think it is common sense. I will note that even though we were restudying and reviewing the policy, our president made the decision to go ahead and send 100,000 tons of food in humanitarian assistance. If North Korea wants to look for excuses, perhaps they've found one. But they could have easily found some good intentions in the 100,000 tons of food.
JAI: Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, told a European Community delegation that North Korea had put its missile tests on hold until the year 2003. Is this an inducement for the United States to resume missile talks with Pyongyang?
Armitage: We thought it was a message to us and to others and we took positive note of it. Whether it is an inducement or not, I think it was good common sense by Chairman Kim Jong-il.
JAI: You said yesterday that you would be completing the policy review in a few weeks, and you would resume talks with the North in the near future. How different or similar will your North Korea policy to the engagement policy of the Clinton administration, and what are the priority issues in a revived dialogue with Pyongyang?
Armitage: We are going to have new personnel involved, That is a big difference. They are people who have been in Asia for a long time. Assistant Secretary James Kelly, who is traveling with me on this trip; Jack Pritchard will be our chief North Korean negotiator; he is fairly well-known and fairly experienced in dealing with matters on the peninsula. Our attitude toward verification and monitoring: We want to get an agreement that is supportable. Having in mind the type of verification we need will, I think, make the talks easier.
JAI: What is the basic premise of your approach to North Korea?
Armitage: We want a North Korea that acts in a benign fashion on the peninsula. We are not trying to change the regime. We are not trying to overturn the leadership. This is a problem for the Korean people. As long as North Korea is not exporting terrorism and is not threatening our ally, the Republic of Korea, we are keen to leave North Korea alone. We do not want her proliferating weapons of mass destruction to anyone, most particularly to states we consider to be in the so-called rogue category.
JAI: On the missile defense plan, President Kim is said to have offered only pro forma understanding, avoiding any commitment. Does Korea's position fall short of your expectations?
Armitage: I don't understand "pro forma." He certainly didn't say, "I'm offering pro forma understanding." He offered understanding. I was here not looking for his agreement, as I made clear to you, and I didn't have a specific program to put in front of him. I was simply trying to make the point that we believe there is a new situation in the world. We have a new strategic approach which, as I indicated, covers four different elements: non-proliferation, counter-proliferation, a limited missile defense, and something that I'm really surprised doesn't have more resonance here in the Republic of Korea, the willingness to unilaterally reduce our strategic nuclear arms － unilaterally, below the levels of START II. That's our new approach and I simply wanted to explain this to the president. This afternoon I'll explain it in more depth to his colleagues, making it very clear that this is a beginning of a consultation only.
JAI: What specifically do you expect of Korea for your missile defense plan?
Armitage: We don't have a specific cooperative role. We are not asking Korea to do anything in this regard. We do think that especially in the non-proliferation and counter proliferation areas there is something of interest to the Republic of Korea. As I said, I didn't come here to ask for anything. This is a U.S. plan, but if we are successful, it could be made available to our allies.
We think if we are successful and have sufficient technology to stop a limited number of missiles, then we can offer countries who might be faced by rogue states who purchase or manufacture missiles an alternative to making their own missiles. They could have a limited defensive shield. It ensures stability and doesn't cause an arms race.
JAI: From Korea's point of view, your missile defense plan has two major problems. South Korea is so close to North Korea that missile defense would be of limited relevance in case of an attack from the North; and because North Korea is a main target of a missile defense system, it and the peace process now under way are contradictory. How do you expect Korea to reconcile the two?
Armitage: I don't think it's contradictory at all. It's very reasonable and rational to proceed on two tracks. We are going to proceed ourselves eventually on developing some technology that protects us and our allies, and we are about to start talks again with North Korea to reduce missiles and weapons of mass destruction. They are perfectly rational and fit together very well. They don't compete in any way.
JAI: There are concerns that the offensive nature of counter-proliferation in your strategic framework runs counter to the desirability of resolving the threat of weapons of mass production through negotiations.
Armitage: It depends on how you define counter-proliferation. We are talking about sharing intelligence and using that intelligence to dissuade receiving countries. There's nothing offensive or harmful about that. You could use information about impending sales to discourage the seller; there's nothing offensive about that. Work together to exchange information and shape the best and most appropriate response. Those who would criticize, I think, in their mind see a military response. How many military responses have you seen in the counter-proliferation area? Not many.
JAI: Thinking about China in the year 2025 or 2030, what are the mid- and long-term ramifications of the strategic framework on your military strategy in East Asia?
Armitage: Well, you ask about China and then our military strategy. Let's take them separately. First, our view is that China is not an enemy. China will have an opportunity as she move forward and make several choices that will determine the direction China wants to go as a nation. We hope that by the year 2025 or 2030, China will play a very helpful and positive role in the area and maybe even globally. Right now, they are a great country, not a great power. But they are a great country with great problems.
We have no desire to keep China down. Our strategic framework in no way eliminates her strategic deterrent arsenal. We believe that if we have a limited － limited － defense against a handful of missiles, that in no way eliminates China's strategic deterrent, so it is not a threat to China. It is certainly not a threat to a China with benign intentions toward the world like the Republic of Korea or the United States has.
JAI: Does the United States want to replace the light water nuclear plants now under construction in the North with thermal-powered plants? Have you begun consultations with Korea or others?
Armitage: I saw a news report out of Washington to this effect, I believe written by a Korean journalist. It was completely inaccurate, as far as I know. None of the sources were identified. There have been many reports and discussions about light water reactors being replaced by coal-fired plants. You know the arguments as well as I do: there are no power grids in North Korea, and so forth. We have now an agreed framework with North Korea; our president's view is that a deal is a deal. We'll live up to our end as long as North Korea lives up to its end.
There is nothing in that agreement that prevents us from approaching South Korea, Japan or for that matter, Pyongyang, with suggestions on how we might think of improving it. Suggestions are different from actual decisions.
JAI: If you strictly apply reciprocity and verification to future talks with North Korea, agreements with Pyongyang may not be easy to make. How flexible are you?
Armitage: I'm under this strong impression that diplomats are paid to resolve these differences. You are right; strict reciprocity might be very difficult because the situations are very different － relative power and relative strength and many things to which we have to apply logic and common sense. This is what we pay diplomats for.