An Interview with Leon Sigal on Recent Events and U.S.-D.P.R.K. Relations

Interviewed by Paul Liem* on June 8, 2009 | published June 16, 2009


Leon V. Sigal is the Director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project of the Social Science Research Council in New York. Mr. Sigal is the author of “Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea,” which was named the Book of Distinction in 1998 by the American Academy of Diplomacy. He was a member of the editorial board of The New York Times from 1989 to 1995 and served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, in 1979 as an International Affairs Fellow and in 1980 as Special Assistant to the Director. For a full bio, click here.

[Paul Liem]: Mr. Sigal, several weeks have passed since North Korea conducted its second nuclear test since 2006 and declared that it would consider sanctions by the United Nations to be an act of war. What do you think are the issues being discussed at the Security Council and what do you think we can expect?

[Leon Sigal]: Well, I think there are a number of sanctions that the U.S., Japan and South Korea are seeking and a number of provisions to make lawful, acts that otherwise would not be. A security council resolution creates new international law.

I think the most important bone of contention is whether to legalize stopping ships at sea for the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and aircraft with respect to just North Korea, that is to say, deterring cargo to and from North Korea, that might be weapons-related. As you know, Resolution 1718 partially legitimated PSI but it said — it was a phrase stuck in, I suspect, by the Chinese — that said “consistent with international law”, and since stopping ships at sea is not consistent with international law under most circumstances, that was a significant loophole. I think the Americans and Japanese and others are trying to close that loophole and I’m not sure the Chinese are going to go along with it. So I think that’s the main bone of contention. After all, stopping ships at sea was the reason why the United States once went to war with Great Britain.

The right of free passage, freedom of the seas as we used to call it here in America, is a pretty big issue. If we are going to stop a North Korean flag vessel or even a foreign vessel carrying North Korean things anywhere near North Korea, there’s a risk of a fire fight. And the North in its rhetorical way has called this the equivalent of a declaration of war and legally they’re correct unless the Security Council says otherwise, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to war.

Stopping ships on the high seas is a very sensitive issue and my view is that it probably goes too far. I’m not sure it makes sense to do that. I think a more sensible way of doing things is, if anybody has suspicions about a freighter that is carrying illicit cargo, like drugs, when it pulls into port, the country in which the port is located has a right to inspect the cargo. Now if the Security Council calls North Korean missiles and missile components and things used by North Korea to make missiles or nuclear weapons illicit cargo, and authorizes boarding and seizing it, that would set a new peacetime precedent. I don’t think that’s quite as sensitive as stopping a ship at sea. And so that may be what the Chinese are willing to do, but that still has to be legitimated by Security Council resolution to make it fully lawful. That’s what we’re seeking—and requiring states to report what they’re doing to implement this because the feeling was nobody really implemented the sanctions under resolution 1718.

Now the additional provision that I think we may be seeking — and here, I doubt if we’re going to get it, and I have some real reservations — are the financial sanctions, that is to say, attempts to shut down all North Korean hard currency accounts, as we did in the 2005-06 period. The North Koreans can’t borrow funds; nobody will lend to them so if they have to conduct ordinary trade, they have to do it in hard currency. To do so they need bank accounts, so that anybody selling the North Koreans something needs to access a bank account in order to get their money. It’s not like most normal commercial interactions.

What the US Treasury did under a special provisions of the Anti-Terrorist Act, Section 301, in effect, was to frighten banks out of doing business with North Korea by saying they would not be able to have corresponding relations with U.S. financial institutions. There isn’t a bank in the world that could live without doing business with U.S. financial institutions so a lot of banks began refusing to do transactions for the North Korean accounts and that was a temporary problem for the North Koreans. The North got around it so that it didn’t really impact their trade adversely, but the North Koreans understood this to be an attempt at regime change and refused to go back to six-party talks, until the US negotiated with them bilaterally to remove the “financial measures” as they were euphemistically called. And when we refused to do that, they proceeded to test missiles on July 4th our time, July 5th Korean time, in 2006 and then conducted the nuclear test.

Within three weeks of the nuclear test, Bush sends US negotiator Christopher Hill to negotiate with Kim Gae Gwan and they reach an agreement to bilateral discussions on ending the sanctions and the illicit activities. So this is a very important precedent for doing the same silly and somewhat dangerous thing again because the North is likely to react in pretty much the same way. This is not a way to stop the North Koreans from doing missile or nuclear tests, never mind making more plutonium, which is the next step they’re likely to take. This is a way to make sure that’s exactly what they do as opposed to stop doing, so I have a lot of trouble with a freeze on hard currency accounts that is not carefully tailored and I suspect the Chinese and Russians have trouble with that, too.

[Paul Liem]: The New York Times reported this morning that the administration is implying to China that if China does not go along with these tougher sanctions for searching ships on the high seas and financial sanctions, that it may result in a higher U.S. military presence in the area as well as a nuclear arms race in that region. What do you think the United States is alluding to, and what are the prospects that China will go along with the sanctions the U.S. is recommending?

[Leon Sigal]: Well, I think we need to separate what we’re saying to China from what may or not happen. It’s long been a U.S. message to China—Colin Powell told them the same thing back in 2003—when we want them to do something like sanctions or pressure the North Koreans to make them more pliable. We say, “If you don’t do this, the Japanese and the South Koreans may go nuclear down the road; you don’t want that so you better do this.” The Chinese are well aware of that possibility, which is precisely why I don’t think they were not at all happy with the North Korean nuclear and missile tests. But it’s quite another thing for the Chinese to conclude that the only way to fix this is a little bit more sanctions.

I think the Chinese position is that while they’re prepared to go along with some sanctions, the only way to fix this problem is to negotiate in good faith and this time, carry out our commitments, because the Chinese know, that it wasn’t just the North Koreans that reneged on past agreements. We often did so first. And so I think the Chinese view is, we recognize the danger of an arms race in Asia but sanctions alone won’t work with North Korea. In any case, the Chinese are not about to support stringent enough sanctions to bring down the regime in Pyongyang, which is what some people want.

As far as increased U.S. presence in the region, I’m not sure, I think Sanger got that story somewhat inflated. I think that even if we do negotiate and I surely hope we do, because that is the only way out , negotiations are likely to be quite prolonged before we get to the point of getting rid of the nuclear weapons or nuclear material in North Korea. In that interim period, the United States is going to take steps to reassure its allies, because we don’t want the Japanese and the South Koreans thinking about acquiring their own nuclear weapons. We all understand that South Korea sought nuclear weapons in the past and that it wouldn’t take the Japanese very long to do that if they chose to.

There’s no sign of Japan going nuclear right now, although historically what’s happened is every time the Japanese thought we were not taking care of their security needs by negotiating seriously with the North Koreans, we began to hear talk among center-right politicians in Japan that maybe they ought to reconsider the nuclear issue. It was a way to prod the United States and China to get serious about dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program, nothing more than that. But further out on the right wing in Japan, there are people who actually want to have nuclear weapons and if the right wing grows in strength, there will be a real problem. I think the Chinese are well aware that there is a problem, but I don’t think it’s the way to get the Chinese to do something they don’t think will work, which is to do sanctions. The only way out is to negotiate with the North Koreans.

[Paul Liem]: In terms of future negotiations, President Obama himself stated very strongly in effect that, he will not go down the path of previous Clinton and Bush administrations by giving into what he describes as provocative behavior when North Korea breaks its promises. And so it doesn’t sound like he’s ready to negotiate yet, but I’m just wondering, what lessons do you think we should learn from the collapse of the previous agreements?

[Leon Sigal]: I think the lesson is just the opposite of what seems to be his rhetoric. The United States did not live up to the Agreed Framework. We don’t know whether the North Koreans would have lived up to it because we reneged first. In the course of ‘94-97 period, we were very slow to implement our commitments while the North did freeze its plutonium program, which was the only way it had to make nuclear weapons at that time or indeed even today. The North then retaliated in a number of ways for that renege. I wish they hadn’t, but they started to acquire the means to enrich uranium starting in late ‘97 or early 98, they tested a Taepodong-1 missile in August 1998 and they began talking to Syria, not doing things, but talking about helping Syria construct a reactor.

Then Bush comes in and tears up the Agreed Framework after confronting the North over the uranium enrichment issue and refusing the North’s offer to negotiate. The North then restarts its plutonium program, reprocesses the spent fuel removed from the reactor in 1994 and extract 5-6 bombs’ worth of plutonium. And so again, clearly both sides weren’t living up to the agreement, but timing matters and the timing’s a little funny if what you want to do is say the North Koreans were the sole offenders; it is not clear that’s true.

Now, the lesson I draw from this is we’ve got to negotiate seriously to see whether the North Koreans will actually stop making plutonium, stop testing and improving missiles, and be willing to give up their weapons. And you do not do that by reneging on your commitments. If the North does not live up to its commitments, then you are not obliged to, but you shouldn’t be the first to renege. So all this rhetoric about North Korea cheating is based on a fundamentally false history, which is a troubling history. My view is, we don’t know if things have changed in North Korea and how far we can get down the denuclearization road, but we’ve got to find out, and the only way to find out is to negotiate, keep our end of the deal and see if they do. Any other option is not going to work. My hope is that some of the chest-thumping in Washington and Pyongyang is rhetorical excess and that behind the scenes some smart people know that sooner or later, we have to get back to the negotiating table and see how far we can get. But right now there’s not a lot of evidence for this proposition, but we’ll see.

[Paul Liem]: Do you feel that the Obama administration had any alternatives in the manner that it chose to respond to North Korea’s satellite launch?

[Leon Sigal]: When the Obama administration came in, it did not undo Bush’s renege of the October 2007 six-party agreement, under a lot of pressure from Japan and South Korea who were really enthusiastic about reneging on the October 2007 deal. And so in November of last year, the Bush administration tells Pyongyang, “We and the South Koreans and the Japanese are not going to give you any energy aid unless you give us a written verification agreement.” Well, there was no provision for verification in the October 2007 second phase implementation accord. That was the renege. The Obama administration comes in and doesn’t change the policy, in part because they wanted to improve relations with their allies, in part because they did not have time to do a policy review before the North Koreans, in retaliation for the renege, began preparations in February to test Taepodong-2 technology in the guise of putting a satellite into orbit. So the obvious thing to do is to try to send somebody to negotiate with the North Koreans and get them to call off the missile test by saying, “OK, we’re going to adhere to the October agreement and offer to move beyond it.”

[Paul Liem]: I recall reading in the papers that the North was refusing to meet with U.S. officials. Can you elaborate?

[Leon Sigal]: But nobody was allowed to go to Pyongyang. It’s a bit of a myth that the North turned down a visit by Ambassador Stephen Bosworth. The North was told he could not come unless they called over the test launch. I don’t know if we could’ve turned the North around at that point, but it was worth a try.

[Paul Liem]: That is something that we really didn’t hear about.

[Leon Sigal]: In any case I think there’s good reason to think that the North Koreans had already decided they were going to retaliate for the Bush renege, and they didn’t see any fundamental policy change by the Obama administration.

I know many people were hoping, and I surely was hoping, that Obama would immediately turn around and get serious about negotiating, but it takes a new administration time to get confirmed and do a policy review and the new administration had plenty on their plate besides North Korea. Bosworth didn’t come into the job until April and we still don’t even have an Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia confirmed. These things take time. And so they got caught in a line shift. But I also think other people in the administration did not believe in the possibility of negotiating with the North and were not prepared to take the political risk of trying. I don’t know where they get this belief, but I don’t think you do things on faith, I think you find out whether negotiations will work by negotiating. But in any case, that’s where we are. Now we’ve adopted this sort of behavior that was standard in the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Clinton and certainly George W. Bush of saying, “The North has violated some agreement. We’re going to punish them.”

We’ve had twenty years of the crime and punishment approach and it’s never succeeded. The way to deal with North Korea is to address their security concerns in a serious way and it’s only when we do that that we have a chance of rolling back its nuclear and missile programs. It may not work but it’s time we tried it in a sustained way.

[Paul Liem]: There’s one theory I just wanted you to comment on which is the idea that the North Koreans are restarting their missile testing, and particularly the testing of the nuclear device, in order to shore up support for a possible leadership succession.

[Leon Sigal]: I think it’s a preposterous thing. Nobody can even tell you a coherent story along those lines that makes sense, never mind provide evidence for that proposition. We know nothing to suggest that Kim Jong Il isn’t fully in charge. He will choose his successor if he hasn’t already done so. He is not beholden to the military; he tells them what to do. He had a nuclear weapon to test—the first test didn’t quite work. He had missiles to test. The “why” they did it, is probably because he never really believed that the Bush administration had turned around and was prepared to live with North Korea and drop what they call the hostile policy. By the summer of 2008 we began to back away from the October 2007 six-party agreement and gave him the pretext to test. After eight years they weren’t going to sit around and wait. They had a strategy which said on the one hand if you turn around and no longer treat us like the enemy, we won’t feel threatened, we can get rid of our nukes. On the other hand, if you don’t do that, we need deterrents and we’re going to go make nukes and missiles. Maybe they have now decided to embrace the position that they’re going to make nukes and missiles no matter what we say or do, but I don’t think we know that yet.

All the talk about North Korean internal politics, about which we know almost nothing, driving decisions in Pyongyang sounded to me like a lot of people were saying, “Well, God, we don’t want to say we here in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul prompted the crisis, that we had anything to do with this. Let’s just blame it on something that nobody knows anything about, which is the internal politics in Pyongyang.” Some people were even alleging he’s really insecure on his throne and his successor is even less secure and he has to appease the army or he’s no longer in charge. There’s no evidence I’ve heard to support that. It could be true, but there’s no evidence for it. You’ve got to know more about what’s going on inside North Korea than anybody outside the inner circle in Pyongyang really knows.

[Paul Liem]: Caught up in the midst of this posturing by all sides has been the fate of the two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling. They have been sentenced, just today, to twelve years of hard labor for illegally entering North Korea and allegedly engaging in hostile acts and according to Reuters, the sentence follows Secretary of State Clinton’s warning yesterday that the U.S. was considering putting North Korea back on its list of states that sponsor terrorism. What do you make of the sentencing, and what do you think are the prospects of securing the release of these individuals and what does it mean to put North Korea back on the terrorist list?

[Leon Sigal]: Let’s just separate out the state sponsors of terrorism list issue. That doesn’t have anything to do with the women. That was not a terrorist act; I know of no evidence of recent terrorist acts by North Korea nor have I heard of anybody making such an allegation credibly. Under U.S. law, they have to commit some new acts of terrorism to go back on the list. Actually, Hillary Clinton said something more careful – that we are just looking to see whether they did. Of course, the Aso government has been pushing us. They hated that Bush de-listed them and they know relisting them would impede negotiations. It is not the case, however, that the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea is covered under U.S. law and there are no new acts of terrorism that I know of or that anybody’s suggested so I see no basis for putting them back on the list of terrorist states. That would be tampering with U.S. law. I would hope this administration doesn’t do that, we already had an administration that did enough of that.

With respect to the women, we don’t know all the details of what they did, but clearly, there’s some suggestion that they wanted to cross the border and that was a rather foolhardy thing to do. I would hope that the North Koreans would understand that these are not people you would want to hold onto, and I would hope we get negotiations going to secure their release soon, as we’ve done in past instances over the last ten, fifteen years. The really interesting thing is whether we can seize this as an opportunity to begin negotiations with the North Koreans, sending somebody who can reach officials at a higher level, ideally Kim Jong Il himself, and start to work our way out of the current jam over the nuclear and missile issues. But in any case, I would hope that we are quietly working the issue to get these two women out. You don’t want them to spend any time in any labor camp in North Korea. So far there’s no sign that they’ve been mistreated. Labor camp’s just not a place for anyone to be.

[Paul Liem]: The Obama administration has stated on a number of occasions that it will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea, or North Korea as a nuclear state. Can you comment on what it means to be a nuclear state? Is this what North Korea is driving at and how might this affect negotiations between the two countries down the road?

[Leon Sigal]: The practical fact is, if the second test worked, and we do not know that for sure yet, then North Korea is a country with nuclear weapons. It is quite another thing to say we accept the nuclear weapons status of North Korea or we refer legally to North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. “Nuclear weapons state” has a specific meaning under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are only five lawful nuclear weapons states. They are the “Permanent-5,” the U.S., Russia, China, UK and France. That’s what the treaty says. We have not called India a nuclear weapons state nor have we called Israel a nuclear weapons state even though they have long had nuclear weapons. We will not call nor should we call North Korea a nuclear weapons state or recognize it as such.

The issue here is can we get a negotiation going that will at the end, negotiate away North Korea’s nuclear weapons? I do not know whether that will work. Nobody does. Many people seem to know the answer to that question, I don’t know how they know. Has Kim Jong Il told them that? I think it should be the objective of the United States to negotiate with North Korea to eliminate any nuclear weapons and fissile material it has. We should not give up on that objective. It’s going to be a long process. We should get started doing it now and we should keep our commitments. That’s the way I look at this problem.

[Paul Liem]: In negotiations with the United States, should they occur, what do you think it is that North Korea is looking for down the road, or immediately, or in any case?

[Leon Sigal]: Well, we know what they’ve been looking for in the past, which is they want concrete evidence, not just words on paper, that we are moving away from enmity — what they call hostile policy. And that can take many many forms. They have specified some of those forms over time. They’ve talked about establishing full diplomatic relations, they’ve talked about…the Agreed Framework talks about moving toward “full political and economic normalization,” meaning we end all sanctions and have normal diplomatic relations. Other times they’ve talked about having a strategic relationship with us—wanting us to be their ally. They want a peace treaty with us and South Korea to end the Korean War. So these are all pieces of how you reassure North Korea that you’re no longer treating them as an enemy and it seems to me that you do that in a set of reciprocal steps depending on which they want first in return for their taking steps to get rid of their nuclear and missile programs and weapons. That’s the basic structure of the negotiation.

Have they (North Korea) changed their view on this? Some people say they have. The answer is, we’ve got no conclusive evidence of that, and I’ve got little hint of that in conversations with their diplomats but maybe they have. I think we have to find out. It’s no good that I or some other American talked to them; it’s got to be U.S. officials who negotiate with them. It’s got to be government to government. Let’s see what it is they want and whether we can give it to them and what it is they’re prepared to give up in return; that’s the way to negotiate. We seem to have a problem negotiating. We negotiate with some of the most awful people in the world, but we have trouble doing it with North Korea. They’re not nice. OK, granted. But if that’s what they want, we could possibly get somewhere on denuclearization, let’s see.

[Paul Liem]: Well, let’s hope all the parties get back to the table soon.

[Leon Sigal]: The sooner, the better.

[Paul Liem]: Mr. Sigal, I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts on these issues and I hope we have the opportunity to continue this dialog as the situation develops. Many thanks, again.

[Leon Sigal]: Yes, let’s hope we have made some headway turning things around by then.

*Paul Liem is the President of the Korea Policy Institute. Sarah Park transcribed the interview.