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2003-08-29

North Korea Threatens To Test Nuclear Weapons Citing U.S. Hostility

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In response to what it perceives as hostility from the Bush administration, North Korea yesterday threatened to begin testing nuclear weapons. The threat came during six-nation talks in Beijing. We talk to Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago and Korean organizer Seung Hye Suh. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript In Beijing yesterday at the end of three days of six nation talks, Kim Yong the second North Korea’s deputy foreign minister said that North Korea planned to declare formally that it had become a nuclear power and may test an atomic bomb in the near future to prove it.

With this, the diplomatic gulf separating North Korea and the United States appears as wide as ever -North Korea says that the US is continuing to undermine dialogue and holding on to its hostile policy towards Pyongyang. The US continued to claim that the North Koreans had threatened to test a nuclear weapon.

An agreement to meet again had been seen as the best that could be achieved from the Beijing talks and the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China’s chief negotiator at the talks said a few hours ago in Beijing that these new talks would happen soon though there was no time frame.

Washington was also claiming that the six nation meeting that included North and South Korea, Russia, the US, China and Japan was positive. But a report by North Korea’s official news agency KCNA said: "As the United States refused to express its willingness to shift away from its hostile policy towards us, the prospect of continuing the talks is in danger." The agency said Pyongyang had put forward a "package of solutions" during the talks.

In a BBC interview, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei, said North Korea had been guilty of nuclear "blackmail".

"I don’t think they can be trusted," he said, "However, we would like to work with them and bring them back to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)."

According to US officials, North Korea confirmed privately to them in April that Pyongyang possessed nuclear weapons. North Korea subsequently expelled UN weapons inspectors and pulled out of the NPT. The three days of talks this week were the first formal discussions on the crisis since April, and the first to include South Korea, Japan, and Russia.

  • Bruce Cumings, author of several books including "The Origins of the Korean War," "Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History" and most recently "Parallax Visions: American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century," Cumings is a professor of history at the University of Chicago.
  • Seung Hye Suh, an organizer with Nodutdol for Korean Community Development.

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZALEZ:In Beijing yesterday at the end of three days of six nation talks North Korea’s deputy foreign minister said that his country plans to declare formally that it has become a nuclear power and may test an atomic bomb in the near future to prove it.
With this, the diplomatic gulf separating North Korea and United States appears as wide as ever. North Korea says that the U.S. was undermining dialogue and holding on to its hostile policy toward the country.
The U.S. continued to claim that the North Koreans had threatened to test a nuclear weapon. An agreement to meet again have been seen as the best that could be achieved from the Beijing talks that’s what the Chinese Vice foreign minister Wang Yi said a few hours ago.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington was also claiming that the six nation meeting that included north and South Korea, Russia, the U.S., China and Japan were positive, but a report by North Korea’s official news agency KCNA said that "as United States refused to express its willingness to shift away from its hostile policy towards us, the prospect of continuing the talks is in danger."
The agency said Pyongyang had put forward a package of solutions during the talks . In a BBC interview, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed el-Baradei said that North Korea had been guilty of "nuclear blackmail." "I don’t think they can be trusted", he said. "However we would like to work with them and bring them back to the nonproliferation treaty According to U.S. officials, North Korea confirmed privately to them in April that Pyongyang possessed nuclear weapons.
North Korea subsequently expelled U.N. weapons inspectors and pulled out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
The three days of talks this week were the first formal discussions in the crisis since April and the first to include South Korea, Japan and Russia.
We turn first to Bruce Cummings, author of a number of books on Korea, among them The Origins of the Korean War and Korea’s Place in The Sun, a Modern History. A Professor at the University of Chicago, welcome to Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: Can you enlighten us on the latest on these talks?

BRUCE CUMINGS: I don’t think anything terribly important happened at these talks in spite of the particular news. Going back to last October the North Koreans have responded to the Bush Administration policies and to Mr. Kelly’s discussions with them by saying if the United States doesn’t stop its hostile policies toward North Korea, North Korea is going to do a variety of things.
Last October they said they had weapons even more powerful than an atomic bomb in April in Beijing when Mr. Kelly, then the Secretary of State was there again. They said they might sell their plutonium on the international market which horrified people more I think than the idea that they may have an atomic bomb.
It is true that since July there have been reports that on September 9, which is the 55th anniversary of the establishment of that regime, they may declare themselves to be a nuclear power.
However, testing is really the acid test of whether a country can make nuclear weapons or not.
And I can’t remember a country that announced in advance it was going to test, because the test may not work.
And in fact an American intelligence official anonymously was quoted just a week or two ago saying that he won’t believe they have an atomic bomb until they have tested one. I consider this to be just more escalation and brinkmanship on the part of the North Koreans. I think it’s actually a rather good sign that the talks are going to be held again, that this is the first round and there will be another round in a couple of months. The Bush administration is down playing this threat by the North Koreans just as they have done in the past.
But I don’t think there’s been any real movement on either part of Washington or Pyongyang at these talks. Really no movement since last October.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Professor Cumings I have a couple of questions.
One is -In terms of the demand for North Korea for a nonaggression treaty which has not gotten too much attention at all in the U.S. press here.
Why is that so important to North Korea and also the issue of the timing of this with North Korea. Is it your sense that right now the United States is too over extended with the situation in Iraq to be able to mount an effective response to them?

BRUCE CUMINGS: I think to answer your second question that’s exactly right. The U.S. is grossly over extended, very few combat brigades in the United States that could be sent to Korea, very few left.
It is now Presiding over our own private West Bank, the size of California in Iraq.
And there for the North Koreans know it would be extremely difficult for the United States to threaten them or mount preemptive attack in the next several months. Furthermore, we’re going to have an election in 14 months and I believe the North Koreans are not going to do anything until that election result is over unless the Bush administration responds to their demands.
Their demands for a non-aggression pact I think are valid. They are not going to get a treaty, we couldn’t possibly get a treaty of nonaggression through the Senate, but some kind of agreement is essential.
If you were country X had been targeted for preemptive attack last September by the National Security Council of the United and then that preemptive doctrine turned out to be a preventive war doctrine against Iraq, then I think any country or any set of generals running an Army would take notice of this. And want somehow to assure themselves that the United States is not going to attack them. What the North Koreans have been proposing last October again in April and now again today is a package deal to settle all major outstanding problems with the United States. And that package deal includes their stated willingness to give up whatever nuclear weapons or nuclear program they have, to give up their missiles exporting and selling medium and long range missiles- in return for recognition- diplomatic recognition by the U.S. and nonaggression pact, formal end to the Korean war and aid for their economy or at least they want U.S. not to stand in the way of other countries like south Korea and Japan aiding North Korea. So that actually gets us right back to where we were when Bush was elected.
Because Madeleine Albright had gone to Pyongyang in October 2000 to prepare the way for Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang to basically indirectly buy out their medium and long range missiles.
Their nuclear facility was entirely frozen at the time. They apparently had a secret enriched uranium program but it was just barely off the ground and Clinton people were well aware of it felt it also could be negotiated away in the context of a general settlement.
But I think that’s what the North Koreans still want. Even if they test the bomb it can still be done. You can walk it back, they can agree to give up the bomb as South Africa did and in return for what they want. But failing any movement on the Bush administration toward including or even negotiating that package deal, they may well think they have to have a nuclear deterrent to protect themselves just as Iran seems to think.
This is the sad end result of that doctrine which has created an enormous mess in Iraq that we will not recover from for years. And has goaded North Korea and Iran into rapid development into the nuclear deterrent.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we would also like to bring Seung Hye Suh, an organizer with Nodutdol for Korean community development, Welcome to Democracy Now!.

SEUNG HYE SUH: Hi, Thank You.

JUAN GONZALEZ:Could you tell us your response to the latest developments and where you think the negotiations between the U.S. and Korea will go from here.

SEUNG HYE SUH: Well, I think the talks in Beijing are a good sign because at least they are talking.
CNN put a sort of negative spin on the talks saying it was a stalemate. Really we couldn’t have expected major policy shifts either from James Kelly or Kim Yong II, the Vice foreign minister of North Korea.
North Korea has stated though at those talks that it is not our goal to have nuclear weapons. That’s a quote from them. And elsewhere, they repeatedly stated that they’re willing to dismantle their nuclear program if the U.S. will guarantee it will not attack.
It seems to me that if the United States does not want North Korea to have a nuclear weapons program and North Korea has said, if you guarantee you will not attack us in a first strike, then we will dismantle our nuclear programs. So it seems to me that the solution is clear and simple. There needs to be a non-aggression pact between the United States and North Korea.
And a move towards a peace treaty to finally bring an end to the Korean war. Many Americans don’t know that the Korean War is still going on. But everyone in North Korea knows that, they’re very aware that during the Korean war one in five North Koreans was killed.
That the entire country was leveled. And this is a memory that is very, very alive for people in North Korea. And what’s happening right now is a serious, serious crisis even if we resolve it there’s a potential for future crises unless we can conclude a peace treaty between the United States and North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: Seing what about South Korea, how does this affect it?

SEUNG HYE SUH: South Korea is extremely concerned about this, I think everyone both in North and South Korea really wants to unify the country. In South Korea there’s a huge concern, I don’t know if Americans are aware that, there’s only a few hours drive between Seoul and Pyongyang-the capitals of North and South Korea.
Any kind of war that breaks out on the Korean Peninsula will be devastating for people not only in North Korea but also South Korea. Furthermore, when nuclear facilities are in question, we have no idea what the fall out could be. It will certainly reach beyond just those processing plants and could be devastating for the entire region. North Korea shares borders with South Korea, China and Russia. Japan is very nearby. And no one wants there to be a war there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now the talks and relations between North and South Korea have been growing increasingly closer. Is the Bush administration worried about that and worried about the two Koreas being able to negotiate an accommodation or understanding between them without the U.S.?

SEUNG HYE SUH: I don’t think that I mean North and South Korea have since decades ago committed towards re-unifying the country peacefully.
And there’s been no shift in that position officially from either North or South Korea.
The United States is of course involved in this to the extent that North Korea and the U.S. are still technically at war.
So in terms of the United States perception, United States is interested in maintaining regional stability, maintaining economic and political might in the region. I think of course they might be a little concerned if North and South Korea got together -who knows what would happen. I think the point is, though, that if North Korea agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and to inspections that are verifiable, et cetera, that the United States has nothing to lose. In fact it has a lot to lose by contemplating an attack, by putting out this kind of rhetoric because none of the countries in the region would support that kind of move by the United States.
China, Russia have officially stated that the United States must provide security assurances to North Korea and also that North Korea should and must dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
That happens to be exactly the position of both North Korea and actually the United States. They’re saying that North Korea has to dismantle.
It’s just a question of which is going to come first. Given the fact that North Korea is threatened with a nuclear first strike attack from the United States, it makes sense that the United States can say We won’t attack you. North Korea can say, we will dismantle our nuclear program and you can inspect to make sure that happens.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Seung Hye Suh is an organizer with Nodutdol for Korean Development. Bruce Cumings is a University of Chicago Professor. Among his books, The Origins of the Korean War and Korea’s Place in The Sun, a Modern History. You are listening to Democracy Now!


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