Kerry Blasts Bush on North Korea, Pledges Direct Negotiations if Elected

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While most of the presidential debate focused on Iraq, Bush and Kerry clashed on an issue the Kerry campaign has increasingly been raising: the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and U.S. strategy in negotiations with Pyunyang. We speak with independent journalist Tim Shorrock. [includes rush transcript]

While the first 70 minutes of last night’s debate focused almost entirely on Iraq, the two candidates clashed on an issue the Kerry campaign has increasingly been raising: the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and US strategy in negotiations with Pyunyang. Both President Bush and Senator Kerry said last night that the greatest threat facing the United States was nuclear proliferation. On North Korea, Kerry said the U.S. should open bilateral talks with North Korea in addition to talks with the current coalition of nations — the U.S. and five of North Korea’s neighbors. Bush rebuked Kerry, saying that was exactly what North Korean leader Kim Jong Il wanted. Republican Senator John McCain said he thought that no U.S. president has ever proposed bilateral talks with North Korea on nuclear weapons. Here is last night’s moderator, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer.

  • Presidential debate, candidates discussing Iraq.
  • Tim Shorrock, independent journalist who has covered U.S.-Korean relations for over 20 years. His reports have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones and Harpers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Here is last night’s moderator, PBS anchor, Jim Lehrer.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, do you believe that diplomacy and sanctions can resolve the nuclear problems with North Korea and Iran? Take them in any order you would like.

GEORGE W. BUSH: North Korea, first, I do. Let me say, I certainly hope so. Before I was sworn in, the policy of this government was to have bilateral negotiations with North Korea. And we signed an agreement with North Korea that my administration found out that was not being honored by the North Koreans. And so I decided that a better way to approach the issue was to get other nations involved, just besides us. And in Crawford, Texas, Jiang Zemin and I agreed that the nuclear-weapons-free peninsula, Korean Peninsula, was in his interest and our interest and the world’s interest. And so we began a new dialogue with North Korea, one that included not only the United States, but now China. And China’s got a lot of influence over North Korea, some ways more than we do. As well, we included South Korea, Japan and Russia. So now there are five voices speaking to Kim Jong Il, not just one. And so if Kim Jong Il decides again to not honor an agreement, he’s not only doing injustice to America, he’d be doing injustice to China, as well. And I think this will work. It’s not going to work if we open up a dialogue with Kim Jong Il. That’s what he wants. He wants to unravel the six-party talks, or the five-nation coalition that’s sending him a clear message. On Iran, I hope we can do the same thing, continue to work with the world to convince the Iranian mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions. We worked very closely with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Great Britain, who have been the folks delivering the message to the mullahs that if you expect to be part of the world of nations, get rid of your nuclear programs. The IAEA is involved. There’s a special protocol recently been passed that allows for inspections. I hope we can do it. And we’ve got a good strategy.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Kerry, 90 seconds.

JOHN KERRY: With respect to Iran, the British, French, and Germans were the ones who initiated an effort without the United States, regrettably, to begin to try to move to curb the nuclear possibilities in Iran. I believe we could have done better. I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes. If they weren’t willing to work a deal, then we could have put sanctions together. The president did nothing. With respect to North Korea, the real story: We had inspectors and television cameras in the nuclear reactor in North Korea. Secretary Bill Perry negotiated that under President Clinton. And we knew where the fuel rods were. And we knew the limits on their nuclear power. Colin Powell, our Secretary of State, announced one day that we were going to continue the dialogue of working with the North Koreans. The president reversed it publicly while the president of South Korea was here. And the president of South Korea went back to South Korea bewildered and embarrassed because it went against his policy. And for two years, this administration didn’t talk at all to North Korea. While they didn’t talk at all, the fuel rods came out, the inspectors were kicked out, the television cameras were kicked out. And today, there are four to seven nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea. That happened on this president’s watch. Now, that, I think, is one of the most serious, sort of reversals or mixed messages that you could possibly send.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We are joined by Tim Shorrock, an independent journalist who has covered Korea more than 20 years. Welcome to Democracy Now!

TIM SHORROCK: Thank you. I’m very glad to be here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tim, your response to the exchanges between John Kerry and President Bush on Korea.

TIM SHORROCK: I thought it was very interesting that Korea got so much attention. I must say that John Kerry put out a very solid proposal for dealing with the crisis on the Korean peninsula, which is direct negotiations with North Korea over every issue, he named the armistice, all kinds of issues that could be brought up that North Koreans have been desperately asking to talk to, with the U.S. on a bilateral basis. What was very striking about Bush was his focus on the six-way talks as if the whole purpose of diplomacy was to have talks rather than have peace. These talks were last — were kind of a compromise after Russia, Japan, China, and South Korea, you know, virtually begged the United States to open direct negotiations with North Korea. So, when it became very clear that the Bush administration had no intention of doing that, and would not do that, they agreed to the six-way talks which have made some progress, but you’re never going to get a resolution without direct discussions between the government in Pyongyang and the government in Washington.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It almost seemed on a couple of occasions in President Bush’s responses as if he was basically depending on China to help solve the situation of the conflict between the United States and Korea. Your sense of the president’s view of China’s role?

TIM SHORROCK: Yeah, right. He thinks that China is going to pressure North Korea to reach some kind of agreement, but in fact, the Chinese are playing a very key role in getting discussions going, but it seems to me — I mean, he’s just avoiding the whole issue, which is North Korea’s request to have bilateral talks. At the heart of it, Bush just does not recognize North Korea as a legitimate country. His policy is, I see it as sort of a regime change by strangulation. They’re hoping some kind of economic, some kind of political collapse in North Korea, which nobody who looks at Korea thinks is going to happen ever, particularly any time soon. He hates Kim Jong Il, he despises the leader of North Korea. He has said it again and again. He has called him names like pigmy. He has the backing of rightwing republicans in the senate who just passed a law saying that human rights should be at the core of U.S.-Korea policy, which sounds good, but what they’re doing, they want the U.S. to open its embassies to North Korean refugees. They basically want to precipitate a collapse in North Korea. That’s not going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock, we want to thank you for being with us.

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