Interviewed by Paul Liem | Published April 6, 2009


Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the former director of the Century Foundation¹s Project on the United States and the Future of Korea. Specializing in South Asia and East Asia for fifty years as a journalist and scholar, he has visited North Korea over ten times and on two occasions, met with the late Kim Il Sung. He is the author of six books on Asian affairs and U.S. relations with Asia, including Korean Endgame: A Strategy For Reunification and U.S. Disengagement, published by Princeton University Press in May 2002. Dr. Harrison serves as an advisory board member of the Korea Policy Institute (KPI).

With the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) preparing to launch a satellite and the Obama administration preoccupied with reviving the moribund U.S. economy, KPI caught up with Dr. Harrison on March 27 to gather his assessment of current conditions.

[Paul Liem]: Before we talk about current events, I’d like to gather your thoughts on Pyongyang’s outlook on the denuclearization issue when you visited North Korea—last January, was it?

[Selig Harrison]: I visited North Korea from January 13 to 17, 2009.

[Paul Liem]: In your [February 2009] Washington Post op-ed, you wrote that “Pyongyang is ready to rule out the development of additional nuclear weapons in future negotiations, but when, and whether, it will give up its existing arsenal depends on how relations with Washington evolve.” For this to happen, in their view how would they like to see relations with the U.S. evolve?

[Selig Harrison]: Well they would not like the approach that has been defined by the U.S. all along and that has been first denuclearization and then normalized relations. What North Korea is now saying is that normalized relations must come first and then they will consider denuclearization at that time in the light of what the relations are with the U.S.—whether they continue to feel threatened from the U.S. So I think that it’s in the interest of the U.S. and South Korea and Japan to work toward normalized relations with North Korea because that will open up North Korea to more outside influences and strengthen all the pragmatic humane elements in North Korea. Strengthening the pragmatic elements in the leadership will improve the chances that we will get complete denuclearization at some point.

[Paul Liem]: Regarding the issue of taking samples at their nuclear facilities do you think this is something that they’re willing to negotiate if conditions do normalize between the two countries or is this forever going to be off the table?

[Selig Harrison]: Well no. I think they have outlined in the next phase of negotiations a place for verification—for taking samples from the nuclear waste sites. This issue goes back to 1994 when the U.S. was afraid that before the Agreed Framework North Korea had already accumulated some hidden nuclear material, hidden in nuclear waste sites, and we’ve been trying to get at those sites ever since. What North Korea is saying is that they are prepared for verification of inspections at these nuclear waste sites, but of course that was only on certain conditions. And now the conditions have become stricter. They want in return for access to those waste sites inspections in the south, of U.S. bases in South Korea, and if necessary, South Korean facilities to make sure that there are no nuclear weapons in South Korea. The U.S. of course said in 1991 that it had withdrawn all nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula but North Korea is saying how do we know that? We want reciprocity in inspections. So that’s made things much more difficult.

Now, of course, they don’t want to do the inspections themselves in South Korea. What they’re saying is that the six-party denuclearization working group should conduct inspections in accordance with their July 12, 2008 declaration that denuclearization should cover the entire Korean peninsula. So they envisage a six-party working group of some kind coming in and maybe making pro forma investigations in South Korea, in U.S. air bases in South Korea, or maybe they’re more serious about it, we don’t know. But anyway, that is the price they’re now asking, and they also want a declaration, they want the U.S. to make a declaration of all the nuclear weapons it brought into South Korea, what they were and whether they were removed—a detailed declaration just like North Korea has been expected to make of its own nuclear program. So, they imposed these terms for inspections and verification. And it should be noted that the 38 kg of plutonium that they declared in the previous denuclearization negotiations, they told me on my visit to Pyongyang in January, have now been weaponized, already weaponized. So that plutonium, which was originally intended for inspection, can no longer be inspected because it is now military weapons. So all they’re talking about inspecting now is the nuclear waste sites where we fear more plutonium than they have declared may be hidden.

[Paul Liem]: From the points of view of the U.S., China and Russia how do you think these three countries would respond or have responded to this idea of reciprocity on inspections throughout the peninsula?

[Selig Harrison]: Well, all of the six parties have said in the July 12, 2008 statement, as announced by the Chinese chairman of the working group, that they accepted the principle of denuclearization of the entire of Korean peninsula as being the goal. Therefore I think that they would certainly accept the need to do something consistent with the statement. How much they would want to do, how serious the inspections process in South Korea and of U.S. bases in South Korea would be – a lot would have to be negotiated. But it would be difficult in light of that July 12, 2008 statement not to accept the principle of denuclearization in the entire Korean peninsula.

[Paul Liem]: Did you have an opportunity to talk with officials in North Korea about how they see getting beyond this issue of the uranium enrichment program? This has been a real point of contention with the U.S.

[Selig Harrison]: Well of course there’s a big problem here. The U.S. still suspects that they might have a secret uranium enrichment program however they completely deny that they’ve ever attempted to ever do any uranium enrichment. And the military in North Korea, I’ve learned on my visits there, thinks it’s a good idea to keep the U.S. guessing because they see this as a deterrent, part of the deterrent. If we think they might have a uranium program, then we’re more likely to be deterred from any attack. Don’t ever forget that North Korea views the danger of a military attack by the U.S. as real. So they think keeping us guessing about uranium is good for their deterrent. However there’s no evidence that they had imported enough significant equipment to put together an actual enrichment program. So when the CIA in 2002 predicted that by mid decade North Korea would have a weapons grade uranium enrichment facility it was really making a wild exaggerated projection and that of course has caused a lot of trouble. And of course the U.S. has backed off from accusing them from having weapons grade facility.

The U.S. still demanded an accounting for what the North Koreans had done with the equipment they were known to have imported. We confronted the North Koreans with evidence that they had imported aluminum tubes just like the famous aluminum tubes in Iraq. The North Koreans were forced to answer because there was specific evidence. So they took American inspectors to factories and showed them that the aluminum tubes had been used for non-military, not for nuclear reasons, not for nuclear purposes. But for the other equipment that the U.S. is accusing North Korea of having imported for uranium enrichment, there’s no concrete proof with which to confront them. For example Pakistan has said, President Mushariff said in his memoirs that Pakistan transferred nearly two dozen prototype centrifuges to North Korea. Well, there’s no evidence provided, just a bald assertion, and the North Koreans deny this. So that’s one of the reasons why this issue is still alive. And the U.S. is afraid that if it gets evidence to put in front of North Korea proving that these centrifuges were transferred, then they would have to take sanctions against Pakistan as a nuclear proliferator. But we’re in bed with Pakistan against Al Qaeda.

On the denuclearization issue, to be clear what North Korea is offering, they’re now saying that they have weaponized the 38 kg of plutonium that they declared. That’s enough for 4 or 5 weapons. And they said that’s off the table now. They’ve weaponized it already. But they are now offering to draw the line there, and to cap their program at the 4 or 5 nuclear weapons which that plutonium could be used for. So the next stage of the denuclearization negotiations should focus on capping their nuclear arsenal at 4 or 5 weapons, by negotiating the terms of the Yongbyon reactor dismantlement as was envisaged in the previous negotiations. But of course the whole future of the six-party talks are up in the air because we’re threatening sanctions for this satellite launch that’s expected. The North Koreans are saying if you do that, the whole thing is off, we’re no longer bound by the 2005 denuclearization agreement.

[Paul Liem]: Do you feel that if the U.S. and North Korea actually concluded a peace and normalized relations and actually denuclearization was proceeding across the entire peninsula as envisioned in the six-party talks, that there is still a possibility North Korea would disarm its nuclear weapons, the 4 or 5 it has produced?

[Selig Harrison]: Yes, I believe so. I believe that the development of nuclear weapons was a response to what they considered a threat from the U.S. If we really have normalized relations, they trust us and no longer fear us, and we’re working very close together, I think the more moderate leaders would grow stronger and as part of the process of tradeoffs, in which they get things for being good boys, that they would gradually give them up.

[Paul Liem]: Before we talk more about missiles or satellites or whatever it is, I want to ask you about how the new administration’s North Korea policy is evolving. President Obama alluded in his campaign a new willingness to engage bilaterally with adversaries. Now it doesn’t appear on the surface that this approach has really been developing in terms of U.S. – North relations. I was wondering if you have any knowledge on how U.S. policy is developing in this area.

[Selig Harrison]: The Obama administration is preoccupied with other things, the financial crisis, Middle East, Iran. And so they really haven’t given much attention yet, in high levels, as to what to do with North Korea, and would just as soon not have this missile, this satellite launch, confronting them making it necessary to adopt policy responses. They haven’t even gotten their team together. They have appointed Stephen Bosworth as the negotiator but they haven’t appointed a new Assistant Secretary for East Asia even though there’s talk of Kurt Campbell in that job. So they don’t really have a full policy process in play. They haven’t given real attention to this. They’re improvising in the face of developments and it’s going to be many months before there’s a real Obama administration North Korea policy. We just have to hope that events don’t close the door on many options – that the satellite issue does not lead to a break in the six-party process.

[Paul Liem]: In terms of laying the groundwork for future U.S.-North Korea relations, as you say, the administration appears to be developing its policy as it goes. But the Secretary of State did make some statements last month during her trip to Asia, one which appeared to indicate that the U.S. wanted North Korea to dismantle its programs as a precondition to normalization, and also some comments she made indicating concern for how the health of the North Korean leader might effect prospects for negotiating with the North Koreans. How do you see the effect of these statements on shaping U.S.-North Korea relations at this point?

[Selig Harrison]: Well, they certainly reaffirmed that they haven’t acceded to the North Korean idea that normalization should come first. They reaffirmed the standing existing policy that denuclearization should come first. However, I don’t think they’ve closed the door to anything. When I learned last January that they had weaponized their declared plutonium, I raised the question of the missile negotiations reopening. As you know missile negotiations had been taking place in the last days of the Clinton administration. In reply the North Koreans said okay we can have missile negotiations, and there have been some indications from the new administration that it’s interested in such a dialog.

The administration has made statements that have basically kept U.S. policy right where it has been. But they haven’t made statements talking about regime change as the Bush administration did. So I would say they’ve kept the door open and we’ll see what happens. And we just have to hope that the satellite launch doesn’t lead to military action by Japan or sanctions in the United Nations and that the North Koreans declare that the six-party process is over.

[Paul Liem]: Regarding this satellite or missile launch, why do you think the North Koreas are making this launch at this time and what do you think would be the best way for the administration to respond to this impending launch?

[Selig Harrison]: Well the way this is being presented in Japan and in the U.S. in particular is that it is a sort of a military move on the part of North Korea, a very provocative threatening military move. In fact I think the reasons for the launch have very little to do with the potential of a military missile program. I think North Korea is in bad economic shape. One of the main ways for it to get cash is to sell missiles and missile technology. So I think this launch, I think there are 5 reasons they’re doing it.

First the launch is kind of an advertisement. There probably will be Syrians and Iranians there watching and they’re hoping to drum up some business. Secondly I think that this is timed in a very interesting way. It’s right on the eve of the Supreme People’s Assembly which is going to be the first time that the Supreme People’s Assembly, the highest body in North Korea, will have been convened in 6 years. And so the launch of the satellite is a big prestigious show for the Kim Jong Il regime. And we say all politics is local. It’s true in North Korea too. The regime will try to bask in the glory of this launch if it comes off. Of course they failed in 2006 and 1998 wasn’t much of a launch.

The third reason is that it is an attempt to redeem failures of the unimpressive launches of the past and the people who are running the satellite launch program really have to deliver this time, or I think there are going to be some generals in difficulty in Pyongyang.

I think it is true, the 4th reason, that they do want to get the attention of the U.S. This is a way of trying to counter the preoccupation of the U.S. with other foreign policy issues – to remind it that North Korea is there. So there is that element of it.

Lastly, something that is generally not noticed is that South Korea has been planning a launch of its own satellite in July, the so-called KSLV Korean Space Launch Vehicle 1 – they spent a billion dollars on it. A satellite launch by North Korea, this month, would be a way to neutralize the prestige impact of South Korea coming up with a very successful launch of its own. Previous South Korean launches have been in connection with European space agency and I guess the U.S. but this time South Korea is trying to do it on its own. And Japan of course has had 25 satellite launches that are very similar to what North Korea is doing.

So North Korea’s launch is not really a threatening move at all. And they’ve observed all the rules this time. They’ve notified all the relevant agencies, and have done this by the rules, the same rules that South Korea and Japan observe when they have satellite launches. So I think this picture of the satellite launch as a threatening military move is very misleading. Of course it will demonstrate North Korea’s capabilities to develop a missile program, but considering the military threats that they face, it’s not surprising that they want to have a missile program.

[Paul Liem]: I was going back through my records and I noticed that the first time there was some kind of report of the North Koreans entering the space frontier was back in November 2008. They made an announcement to the effect that they were going to launch a satellite. I was wondering was there any response from the administration, the Bush administration, or anything, at that time? Was this viewed as a threat back then or is this something that just became a problem this year?

[Selig Harrison]: I don’t think it was taken too seriously. I think however of course the U.S. has from the beginning warned this would be a mistake, a provocative thing to do, and it’s the wrong way to go, and they always warned that there would be sanctions. And that is the great danger. If we go to the United Nations for sanctions and are able to get them enacted, in spite of Chinese efforts to block them, then North Korea has said it will consider the 2005 six-party denuclearization agreement ended. We’d really be back to square one. But I think the Bush administration didn’t get into this in a very serious way.

[Paul Liem]: If sanctions were to be on the table at the United Nations in the near future would it come before the Security Council? Or…

[Selig Harrison]: Yes, I think so. Well, it depends on the way it’s introduced.

[Paul Liem]: At this point if a resolution was put before the Security Council then Russia and China would also have to go along with this?

[Selig Harrison]: That is right.

[Paul Liem]: The last question I have for you is do you feel that at this point it would be appropriate for the President to get personally involved in this issue either by means of making a public statement or perhaps privately sending a message to the North Koreans? If so what do you think that message should be?

[Selig Harrison]: I think the most important thing for President Obama now is to not say anything provocative to North Korea. If he’s not in a position to take a personal initiative by offering to meet the leaders of North Korea or get into these issues in a serious way, I think the best thing to do is not to stir up the waters. At a certain point I would hope that Obama himself would get into the North Korea issue and make overtures to North Korea. But first I think it has to be at the level of the Secretary of State and then at the Presidential level. But we’re way ahead of ourselves because the administration still has to get past this satellite launch, and see how things go. I hope that the U.S. will not push sanctions at the United Nations and not make more than what have so far been rather pro forma statements of alarm about the launch. Then we have to see what’s possible as the year progresses. But I think that the important thing is not to overheat this satellite launch issue and so far it’s been Japan that’s been most provocative I think, in that it has threatened to take military action, hitting the satellite on the launching pad and so forth.

[Paul Liem]: Well we’ll be watching the news with great anticipation and hoping that we get past this without any military incidents. I look forward to talking with you about this issue in the near future.

[Selig Harrison]: Very good to hear from you.

Paul Liem is the President of the Korea Policy Institute.