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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Q&A at U.S.-Korea Relations Forum

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
February 06, 2003

(Q&A at a forum on U.S.-Korea relations sponsored by the Washington Post. Also participating were Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James A. Kelly and Richard M. Smith, chairman and editor-in-chief, Newsweek.)

Smith: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, putting a total of 24 B-52 and B-1 bombers on alert for possible deployment to Guam certainly sounds ominous. How concerned should we be?

Wolfowitz: I wouldn't make it sound ominous. We are dealing with an unpredictable regime and a regime that seems to be moving along a ladder of escalation in terms of its actions. It is a matter of some concern. But what Secretary Rumsfeld has done, in putting those bombers on alert, is simply to reinforce our deterrent posture, to make sure that North Korea doesn't do anything adventurous or dangerous of a military kind.

Our whole focus here has been on trying to achieve peaceful resolution of this very serious problem. And the president, in his State of the Union message, even though he obviously had many other things to address, devoted some attention to this problem and laid out what I think are sort of three basic principles on which we're trying to approach it and to achieve a peaceful solution, which he underscored as our goal, but it has to be one in which there is not a reward for bad behavior, in which blackmail isn't rewarded.

Secondly -- and this is critical -- that it has to be a multilateral effort. And I think the comments that were made earlier about our South Korean colleagues -- it's worth dwelling for just a moment on just how important this relationship is. I think absolutely key as we go forward to solving this nuclear problem, but also to achieving our larger goals in Southeast Asia -- in Northeast Asia is to maintain the solidarity that we have had with South Korea and with Japan over many years.

I think back to my first tour in the Pentagon, which is in the late 1970s, a period when we and the South Koreans were shaken by the reaction of U.S. troop withdrawals, or announcements of U.S. troop withdrawals by a coup in South Korea, by very serious dangerous provocative actions by North Korea, a sense of great weakness on our side. And if you think about how the situation has changed in 20 years, and how much stronger we both are, and a lot of that strength comes from the remarkable political transformation that took place in South Korea in the 1980s and has continued in the 1990s, to be dealing with this problem from a position of strength is an enormous advantage and one that we have got to hang onto. And that means working very hard in the first instance to line up a common policy with South Korea and Japan, but also with Russia and China.

And finally, as the president said, what I think the ultimate principle here is, as Ambassador Lee mentioned, we are dealing with a regime that is desperate to survive. And the key to that survival they have to recognize has got to come from solving the increasingly failed desperate economic situation that they face. And the president said that the North Korean regime will find respect in the world and revival for its people only when it turns away from its nuclear ambitions. I think that is the key formula that has to be put in front of the North Koreans. I think it's the key formula for resolving this conflict without the kind of terrible war we all want to avoid.

Smith: Secretary Wolfowitz, is there a red line that North Korea must not cross in your view on its road to developing a nuclear capability, a line that might prompt or crossing it might prompt, economic sanctions or perhaps even military action?

Wolfowitz: Well, I think they'd already crossed quite a few lines that they are going to have to back down from. And they can keep looking for more dangerous things. What they need to understand is that we are no longer, I believe, in a pattern of rewarding them every time they climb down one rung after having climbed up three or four. The further they go up this ladder, the further they are ultimately going to have to climb down. I think the focus has got to be on the basic point that the course they're on is a course that is simply going to lead to their increasing isolation, their increasingly desperate economic situation. If they want to solve their real problem, which is the failure of that economic system to support the regime and the state, and much less the needs of the people of South Korea, they are going to have to adopt a fundamentally different course of action. And when they come to that realization they can back down over any lines they happen to have crossed.

Smith: I want to turn back briefly to Secretaries Wolfowitz and Kelly. On the one hand, we hear talk of the need for substantial incentives to get North Korea to cooperate on the nuclear issue, at a time when just yesterday the North Korean regime seemed to be asserting the right of -- its right to make a preemptive strike in the face of the threat from the U.S. How do we keep both of those ideas in the air at the same time? And as policymakers, how do you respond to those two sides of the issue?

Kelly: Want to go first? (Laughter.)

Wolfowitz: Okay. I think first of all it is very important to make it clear that we have a very strong deterrent posture. I don't think they're under any doubt about that. The purpose of the alerting of bombers that you referred to at the very opening is precisely to do that. And it's a key reason for maintaining very, very close agreement between ourselves and South Korea and Japan, what Lee Hongkoo just referred to about the importance of North Korea not seeing daylight. It's crucial, both from a point of view of discouraging them from any kind of wildly dangerous military action, but also, as he said, it's the key to trying to find our way through what is going to be a very, very difficult negotiation. We have to ask some very large things of North Korea, some very fundamental change. They obviously did not undertake fundamental change eight years ago. And what we're looking for is change of that level.

As Jim Kelly said, we were quite prepared to talk about that kind of change and the bold approach that had been prepared prior to our discovery of the HEU. That is something that we need to get back to. But at the same time, the North Koreans clearly have to understand that the course they're going down, if they think nuclear weapons are attractive, if they think nuclear weapons somehow are key to their survival, even more important for their survival is to develop some kind of normal relationship with the rest of the world. And they're not going to have it, at least I think that needs to be the position and it needs to be one that we come to in a common way with the key countries of the region and of the world, if they continue on the course they're on. Smith: Secretary Wolfowitz, I know you have to leave, but we've moved the rhetoric from "we're not going to talk" to "we're going to talk" to "we're going to negotiate." That seems like progress, but where is that heading? Is it -- are we in a position to negotiate with North Korea now?

Wolfowitz: I am going to have to leave, so may I abuse the time you've given me first to answer your question.

I think the first negotiation that has to take place is the one that Jim Kelly and our whole government, but Jim in the lead, and Secretary Powell actively are engaged in, which is working out with our partners on our side what our position's going to be. The last thing we can expect to do, if we want to succeed in negotiation with North Korea, is to go in with five different positions, or to go into a position where the North Koreans are convinced that our allies don't support us.

And I guess it seems to me also that while I agree we have to be careful, I wouldn't say about caricaturing Kim Jong Il, we do have to be careful about what we're going to say about him, if we're going to negotiate with him. I think some realism about the nature of that regime -- the fact that it doesn't represent its people, we shouldn't talk about it as "the North Korean people". We need to understand it as a very, very narrowly based regime that is desperate for survival. I think that is where the problem lies.

And I understand it's absolutely American to question where we may have gone wrong or where we may have caused something or where our allies may have caused something. But I think, frankly, if we want to succeed with North Korea, it's actually quite important to demonstrate confidence and solidarity and to put the blame where it lies, which is with a program that started long before this administration, that clearly was intended to proceed secretly. The North Korean ballistic missile test didn't happen because of the Rumsfeld Commission, which I was on; they were predicted and happened almost in the same time frame.

But I'd like to close on a completely different note, which is that there is another problem, which Senator Lugar raised in a hearing, I guess it was earlier this week or last week, which is a purely humanitarian problem. And it seems to me that it's worth trying to address it, and that we might be able to address it, at the very least to alleviate the suffering of some people, and perhaps in the process, create a better climate for dealing with the more dangerous issues that we've been discussing this afternoon, and that's the condition of North Korean refugees, primarily in China. I think there are some small numbers in Russia.

Twenty years ago, roughly, the world committed one of the few humanitarian acts of the 20th century in a remarkable effort that rescued some 2 million refugees from Indochina through the combined efforts of what were called first asylum countries that didn't want these people, but were persuaded to at least give them temporary shelter, and countries of permanent settlement, primarily the United States, but also France and Australia and quite a few others. And two million desperate people were saved in the process. When I last checked, the Vietnamese regime had not collapsed as a result of it. It was not a political act. It was a humanitarian act.

I think there's the potential for something similar with the suffering North Koreans in China and elsewhere. And I think it's something we ought to find a way to approach not as a polemical exercise, not as something that's going to aim at inducing the collapse of North Korea or embarrass China, but to deal with a true humanitarian catastrophe in the way that I think we might all, perhaps even the North Koreans, ultimately, be able to hold our heads up and say we did something useful.

Now, I commend the senator for bringing it up in the hearing. He happened to bring it up with my friend Rich Armitage, who personally assisted in the rescue to several tens of those Vietnamese 20 years ago and who pointed out this is not something to do on a whim, I think that was the quote, it's something to do seriously. But I think it's something that we might put some attention as -- the same time that we talk about these very electrifying, dangerous subjects like nuclear weapons.

Thank you.

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