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Did Bush Administration Policy on North Korea Help Provoke Ballistic Missile Tests?

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North Korea launched its first ballistic missile tests in eight years on Wednesday firing seven missiles over the Sea of Japan. Leon Sigal, author of “Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea” says that the Bush administration’s policy on North Korea “provoked Kim Jong-il to accelerate nuclear arming and missile development.” [includes rush transcript]

On Wednesday, North Korea launched its first ballistic missile tests in eight years firing seven missiles over the Sea of Japan. One of the missiles was the long-range Taepodong 2, which American spy satellites have been tracking for over a month. The action by North Korea came after weeks of speculation and warnings by President Bush and the governments of Japan, South Korea and China not to break a moratorium on long-range missile launches established in 1999.

After reports of the launch, the United Nations Security Council met in an emergency session to consider a resolution condemning the tests. Japan, backed by the United States and Britain, called for a resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea. The resolution demands that countries withhold all funds, material and technology that could be used for North Korea’s missile program. Russia and China made clear they would oppose any sanctions.

  • President Bush, speaking from the Oval Office, July 5th, 2006.
  • Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, speaking July 5th, 2006.

For more on the situation in North Korea we are joined by Leon Sigal:

  • Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York. He is author of “Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Bush speak from the Oval Office Wednesday.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I view this as an opportunity to remind the international community that we must work together to continue to work hard to convince the North Korean leader to give up any weapons programs. That’s — they’ve agreed to do that in the past, and we will hold them to account. And I also strongly believe that it is much more effective to have more than one nation dealing with North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also spoke about the missile tests Wednesday.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I can’t really judge the motivations of the North Korean regime. I wouldn’t begin to try. But I will note the effect that their actions are having, and the effect is that they are being throughout the world, of course in the region, but also at NATO, we’ve had expressions from countries all over the world of concern about this provocation that the North Koreans have engaged in.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in our Firehouse studio by Leon Sigal. He is the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council here in New York. And he’s author of the book, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

LEON SIGAL: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Your assessment of the Bush administration’s dealings with North Korea and the tests this week of the missile by North Korea?

LEON SIGAL: Well, basically, the administration has spent six years huffing and puffing, and they didn’t blow Kim Jong-Il’s house down. What’s happened is they’ve provoked him to accelerate nuclear arming and missile development. And the missile —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean they provoked him?

LEON SIGAL: Well, we were on our way in 2000 to a deal that would have eliminated the North’s development, production and testing of ballistic missiles. The Bush administration stopped negotiating and started threatening the North, mostly with words, not many deeds, because our allies weren’t going to go along with the deeds. The ultimate bankruptcy of the policy drove us to the negotiating table, because the allies were about to part company with us. They also led to a very important joint statement out of the six-party talks last September, in which the North agreed that it would abandon all nuclear weapons and all existing weapons programs, which means both the plutonium program that they have and the uranium enrichment program.

And no sooner did that happen than the hardliners in the administration, led by Vice President Cheney, got the U.S. negotiator, Chris Hill, to back away from all the obligations we undertook in that statement. And as a result to that, the North began warning us, and we then saw the start of the ballistic missile test, which had been — you know, it takes about a month to get things set up for a long-range test. The short-range things, they’ve done before. And so, you know, this once again shows that the policy is bankrupt. It’s not working.

The key to this is — and nobody knows the answer — will the North Koreans, in fact, negotiate away their program? One thing for sure, they won’t if you don’t negotiate with them. And until now, this administration has engaged in talks, but very rarely in negotiations. Negotiations mean give and take. You don’t get something from North Korea without giving something in return.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Why do you think, given the enormous problems that the White House has in the Middle East, does it continue not to try to resolve and negotiate this situation out?

LEON SIGAL: Well, I think fundamentally it’s in the grip that the people at the very top are in a grip of a set of ideological beliefs about American power, that you don’t cooperate, even with your allies. You push people around. And it goes back to some notions that somehow after Vietnam, America was weakened. The presidency was weakened. The whole logic of the position is, we’re going to show muscle, and that was there when the administration came in. You could see it in the interregnum, if you looked closely. Some of us actually missed it. But after 9/11, they had much more free rein. The Democrats were afraid to take them on. The public gave them some leeway. And you see that playing out not only in Iraq, but also with respect to North Korea.

The problem in the case of North Korea is, they don’t really have a military option. And the sanctions option is really quite worthless, because the key players are not going to play. If you look at who borders with North Korea, it’s China, Russia and South Korea, and none of them intend to impose the kinds of sanctions that would strangle North Korea to death. So, given that they don’t have good options, the logical option would be negotiate, but that’s precisely what they don’t want to do.

And so, the irony is, when the North Koreans did something quite profound, which is during the Bush administration, they’ve made about seven to nine bombs worth of plutonium — they have reprocessed it, exracted it from spent fuel — that’s here now, that’s a real danger to the United States and its allies — the administration said, “Crisis? What crisis?” Now, with the missile test, they are actually downplaying the significance of the missile test. Why? Because if they said we’re in a crisis, they’d have to negotiate, and that’s precisely what the Vice President and apparently the President do not want to do.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s the impact of this, for instance, on South Korea and its efforts to try to finally bring reunification or reconciliation between North and South, and also the U.S. image in South Korea?

LEON SIGAL: Well, it’s been profound and very deleterious. Four out of the last five South Korean governments, including conservative ones, have pursued a strategy designed to bring about change inside North Korea, initially economic change, but ultimately, they believe, social and political change will come about this way. And that is through a process of engagement, sometimes conditional, sometimes fairly unconditional, in which there is a lot of economic cooperation. There’s some cultural cooperation. There are exchanges among families.

When the Bush administration came in, the North Koreans successfully, you know, in its propaganda, showed that the Bush administration was impeding North-South cooperation. In fact, they did, to some extent, although some of it had to do with North Korean behavior. And the image got hold in the center-left and the center-right in South Korea. It had always been a view on the far left and the far right that the Americans were not to be trusted, they were impeding reconciliation between North and South, which was the key to not only South Korean security, but South Korean economic security. You know, every time you have one of these crises, you have capital flight, stock market dips in South Korea.

So even among conservatives, there’s a view that the Americans were getting in the way of what made sense for South Korea and, I think, actually makes sense for the United States, which is, the only way we’re going to fix the North Korea problem is to see whether we can, in fact, through a phased set of negotiations, gradually eliminate the North’s missile and nuclear programs, while the South and others are fully engaging North Korea to change it from within.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Leon Sigal, director of Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York. So what do you think is going to happen right now?

LEON SIGAL: Not much of anything. The North will probably continue testing some missiles. The important question is whether they’ll continue to test the Taepodong-2, which is the longer range missile. As you test, you learn more from the tests.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask something? Didn’t the U.S. test a missile just a few months ago?

LEON SIGAL: No, no. We — I mean, yes. Missile testing is not illegal, and the North, of course, keeps on emphasizing that. They’re not in violation of anything, except with respect to, you want to give maritime warning in case there’s debris, that sort of thing, but that’s a trivial issue. The heart of this is, the missiles are designed to pose a security threat, in the North’s view, because they need a deterrent, insofar as the Americans — they see the Americans as threatening them, and the Japanese as threatening them.

AMY GOODMAN: In a sense, learning a lesson from Iraq, that if the U.S. knew that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, they attacked them. So if there’s a feeling that North Korea’s acting from strength, they won’t be attacked.

LEON SIGAL: Yeah, but I think the North Koreans had already understood that lesson. I mean, the North Korean logic is very simple. If the United States remains our enemy, it is a threat to us, and we have to deter it, so we have to build deterrents, as they say, both on the nuclear side, where they’re much further along than on the missile side, and developing new ballistic missiles capable of threatening now Japan, but eventually the U.S.

On the other hand, they say — and they keep saying this — the United States is no longer our enemy, they’re no longer a threat to us, and we don’t need nukes and missiles. And they have, in the six-party talks, as they had before, committed themselves to eliminating their nuclear programs. And in 2000, they, in effect — Kim Jong-Il, himself, in negotiations with the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, put the missile program entirely — I mean, development, testing of long-range and medium-range missiles — on the negotiating table. Do they mean it? The only way I know — I mean, nobody knows for sure, with the possible exception of Kim Jong-Il, but there’s only one way to find out, and that is to start negotiating in earnest, and that is precisely what this administration has refused to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, thank you for being with us.

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