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Challenges for the U.S.--Threats and Opportunities on the Korean Peninsula

Apr 1, 2003

Donald Gregg sees North Korea’s recent confessions to kidnapping Japanese citizens and reviving its nuclear program as “evidence that Kim Jong Il is trying to remove some of the obstacles of the past.” Gregg, who favors U.S.-North Korea dialogue, said he fears that a “perfect storm” is brewing on the Korean peninsula.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome members and guests to our Worldview Breakfast program. We are very pleased to have with us Donald Gregg to discuss recent developments on the Korean Peninsula.

While most of the world has been preoccupied with the war in Iraq, trouble has been rapidly brewing on the Korean Peninsula. Although the Bush Administration clearly would prefer to deal with one rogue regime at a time, North Korea is not likely to allow the United States that luxury. Ever since North Korea admitted to resuming its nuclear development program, it has been creating mayhem throughout the region, and reverberations have been felt throughout the world. Consequently, Pyongyang and Washington are engaged in a high-stakes confrontation, one in which there is a very real danger of grave miscalculation on either side.

While in the North the regime has been preoccupied with nuclear defiance, in the southern half of the peninsula electoral change has been the focus of the day. In December a new President was elected. He owes a large measure of his success to a savvy campaign strategy which included both a proposal that relations between South Korea and the United States be based on equality and, more importantly, a strategy of open support for Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy,” a doctrine premised on the belief that being friendly and generous to North Korea could bring about its own reward and thus result in a greater degree of trust and a lessening of tension between these two neighbors.

President Roh’s major challenge will be to maintain a delicate balance which will placate both North Korea and the United States, its traditional ally in the region. Although it may be impossible to know what either Kim Jong-Il or President Roh will be tempted to do next, several ideas have been put forth in an attempt to address this deteriorating situation in Northeast Asia.

Our guest this morning has been following this crisis very closely. Ambassador Gregg’s experience and expertise speaks for itself. As North Korea drifts towards a frightening new danger zone, his clarity of thinking and penetrating insights will help us to understand this new set of challenges.

Ambassador Gregg served as the American Ambassador to Korea from 1989-1993. During his tenure, his efforts were directed towards helping the Korean-American relationship mature from a military alliance into an economic and political partnership, a mission he executed with integrity and determination. Ambassador Gregg began his career at the CIA, where his work focused on Burma, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Later, he was assigned to the National Security Council, where he was in charge of intelligence activities and was subsequently given responsibility for Asian policy affairs.

In 1982 Vice President George Bush asked him to become his National Security Advisor. His responsibilities included support for the Vice President in the areas of foreign policy, defense, and intelligence. When he retired from the CIA, Ambassador Gregg was awarded its highest decoration, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.

Currently, he is President and Chairman of the Board of the Korea Society in New York City.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our very distinguished guest, Ambassador Gregg. Remarks

AMBASSADOR GREGG: Thank you very much.

I have been following American foreign policy for about fifty years, and this is unlike any other time I can remember. I was very much involved in the slide into the abyss in Vietnam, but it was a much more gradual process than whatever is going on at this point.

I will limit myself primarily to talking about the Korean Peninsula, but we have to be ever mindful that the President’s construction of the “Axis of Evil,” which was put out in the State of the Union Speech last year, links North Korea to Iraq and Iran. That was a very unfortunate construction, but it is there, and we have to deal with the continuing ripple effect from that statement, which has more influence than we would think.

I had about twenty hours of discussion with both the military and civilian leadership in North Korea during two fascinating visits to Pyongyang last year. I am in close touch with the North Koreans here. We are brokering an information technology exchange between Syracuse University and Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang, and later this month seven North Korean graduate students will come to Syracuse to spend a month learning IT techniques.

Why are we doing that? We’re doing it because Syracuse, very astutely, came to me, having done similar things in the former Soviet Union and China, and made the point that there is no quicker way to throw the windows of a closed society open and no stronger way of strengthening the private sector than to introduce information technology in its modern form into the society.

We also are encouraging the North Koreans to travel more. Ambassador Han is a very engaging person, and he will be going up to a conference at Harvard, which we are co-sponsoring, later on this month.

Why did I go to North Korea and how did I get there? I had been encouraged by Kim Dae Jung, the recently retired President of South Korea, to plant the Korea Society flag in North Korea, which I had been trying to do.

In late 2001, the North Koreans approached me as somebody who they felt was at least moderately friendly, saying, “We’re getting nowhere with the Bush Administration. What can we do to get things started?”

And so it was conjured up that four of us previous ambassadors would go to North Korea, under the leadership of Bob Scalapino, the renowned Asian scholar from Berkeley. We were supposed to have gone last year in late February, but the trip was canceled after the State of the Union speech.

I then went to a conference in the U.K. organized in part by the British Commonwealth Office on “The Future of Japan and Asia.” A couple of North Koreans there were very friendly to me. But what appalled me at the conference was the attitude of the continental Europeans toward the United States in the wake of 9/11. The Brits, as they are today, were absolutely solid in understanding the psychological impact of 9/11, but the continental Europeans just didn’t get it at all—“We’ve been dealing with terrorism for years. What’s so special about you? Why overreact? What’s the big deal?” I couldn’t believe it.

It made me think, “If these people don’t understand where we are, there is no way that the North Koreans can have the slightest idea of how we feel after 9/11.”

I thought, “What can I do?” I found myself writing a letter to Kim Jong-Il to stress that it was imperative that our countries talk; that his interest in nuclear weapons, that President Bush had included him in the Axis of Evil, were very bad harbingers of a future relationship, which we should try to deal with through conversation; and that a lack of conversation would cause us to drift farther apart.

I carried this to Lee Guan [phonetic], who was then the number two man at the North Korean Embassy. He read it and, in a very good Korean way, cocked his head and asked, “Who do you think you are to write to my Chairman that way? How dare you write this way!”

I said, “I’m writing it because I understand how your Chairman’s mind works.”

He said, “How can you understand how my Chairman’s mind works?”

I said, “I’ve talked to Chinese who saw him when he visited a Buick plant in Shanghai and they heard him excoriate the members of his traveling party, saying, ‘Why aren’t we doing this in North Korea? We need to attract American investment to North Korea.’

“I’ve talked with a Russian diplomat, Georgi Toloraya, who sat with him on his long train trip as he went to see Putin. Toloraya, who is a Korean speaker, found him very alert. He said, ‘I don’t like to fly, everybody knows I don’t like to fly, but I’ll fly if have to. I’m taking the train because I want to see what’s happening in Russia, and you don’t see that from the air.’ And so they had a very interesting series of discussions as they went along the Trans-Siberian.

“Another Russian, Alexander Ilyichev [phonetic], who is tied in with Kofi Annan at the UN, told me that when Kim Jong-Il returned to Pyongyang he wrote a thank-you note to Putin saying, ‘Thank you for receiving me. You have made wise choices for your country. Communism will never return to Russia.’

“I have had hours of conversation with the South Koreans who have met Kim Jong-Il. They feel that he is very alert and that his main desire is to have his regime survive by becoming a more normal country. He and a coterie around him are aware that they cannot survive by continuing to rely on “Juche,” the self-reliance; they cannot survive on the largesse of the Chinese. They’ve got to become a more modern state or they will wither away.

“Finally,” I said, “I have talked with Americans who went to North Korea, including Madeline Albright.”

Just as an aside on the Clinton Administration, I appeared at the University of Michigan with Madeline about ten days ago, and she was very amusing on the subject of Kim Jong-Il: “Kim Jong-Il and I are about the same height, we both wear high heels, and we both put pomade on our hair, but his stands up a little higher than mine.”

She went on to say that she had had twelve hours of discussion with him and had worked out “the start of a road to a new relationship.” She said, “We left a very good hand of cards on the table, which the Bush Administration did not pick up.”

I cited all of those conversations as my reasons for writing the letter.

Lee Guan responded, “That’s a good answer. I’ll send your letter in.”

Two weeks later, I was invited to go. There is an irony to that. Having spent thirty-one years in CIA, I frequently refer to North Korea as “the longest-running failure in the history of American espionage.” We were remarkably unsuccessful in getting information on North Korea. And so a superannuated retiree, who, after years of trying various schemes to get people in, wrote the Chairman a letter and was invited anyway.

I had kept both the South Korean Embassy and the Department of State fully aware of my letter. There had been an enthusiastic response from the South Korean Embassy, silence from the Department of State.

When I told them that I had been invited, they offered to send a Korean-speaking foreign service officer with me. I was delighted to have that happen. As they said, “This would be a dotted line between you and the Administration,” because I had acted totally on my own initiative.

So about the 7th of April 2002, I went to North Korea with the foreign service officer. We had about ten hours of conversation with Kim Kye Gwan, a Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ri Cha Bok, a very hard-line three-star general who has been posted near Panmunjom, along the DMZ for years.

The conversations were interesting because they were so different. Kim Kye Gwan is clearly one of those who would like to see North Korea become something other than it is. Ri Chan Bok is a very hard-line general who is threatened by that. The idea of opening up, the idea of possibly demobilizing troops to work in light industry in special economic zones, is something of which they are very fearful.

Ri Chan Bok’s greeting me with, “Why are you here?” You speak first.” That is very un-Korean.

I said, “General Ri, I am here because it is important for you to understand our frame of mind after 9/11. Yesterday, I was taken up your Chuchai Tower, which is a 500-foot monument to self-reliance. What if you were to look out your window and see one of your own commercial aircraft fly into that tower, reducing it to a pile of rubble and killing everybody on the plane? We saw that twice in New York and once in Washington, and it made us very angry.How would that make you feel?”

We stared at each other, and he said, “We’re ready to fight and die against you Americans in Korea if you drive us into a corner.”

I said, “I have no doubt about that. That’s why I’m here, because that’s the last thing that ought to happen.”

He said, “We think that you have lost track of what is required to fight modern warfare. You’ve become too enamored of high-tech techniques.” This was long before we went into Iraq.

I said, “I don’t think so. Look at what we’re accomplishing in Afghanistan, with no heavy artillery and no heavy tanks.”

So we had a very bristling conversation, which left me with the very clear feeling that Kim Jong-Il, if he wants to bring his military along—and he’s dependent upon them to keep him in power—has to convince them that they will not meet the same fate as the East German Army after reunification.

Both the civilian and military leaders spent a great deal of time documenting for me their belief that the Bush Administration and the Republican Party had always been hostile to them, had always been hostile to the Agreed Framework, which had been negotiated in 1994, and that had created in them a very clear sense of threat and dread. And they traced it back to the congressional elections of 1994, when the Republicans swept both houses and Newt Gingrich led a very hard-edged Republican takeover.

There was a great deal of skepticism voiced about the Agreed Framework, which had put their graphite plutonium-producing reactor under control, and many of the peripheral parts of the agreement which called for getting North Korea off the terrorism list, for diplomatic relations to be established, and aid to be developed. None of these things were done and the oil shipments to North Korea, which were part of our agreement, often were delayed.

They then cited the “Missile Threat to the United States Report,” authored by Don Rumsfeld in the summer of 1998. Shortly thereafter, they fired their multi-stage Taepodong rocket, which surprised the Japanese by its sophistication, rattled a number of cages in Asia, and North Korea immediately became the poster child for national missile defense.

They then cited President Bush’s very bristling encounter with President Kim Dae Jung in March of 2001, where he said of their Chairman, “I don’t trust that guy” and, “We’re going to have a policy review.” Everything was put on hold, and the rhetoric that followed from the President was even less complimentary, all of which had registered with them.

The policy review by the Bush Administration was completed in June. It reiterated the value of the “Sunshine Policy,” but the agenda had been changed and the priority of the issues to be dealt with had been radically modified.

Under Kim Dae Jung and the Clinton Administration, they had tried to work at easy things first, leading up to the toughest issues, such as conventional troop deployments along the DMZ. That had been raised to one of the uppermost positions and was very difficult for the North Koreans to accept right off the bat.

Then came 9/11. Our President’s world view came from a very hard-line group of people who used to call themselves “The Falcons.” 9/11 validated for them and for him the Manichean view of the world which they had been putting forward: “Good is good, evil is evil.” And our strong preference for unilateralism, regime change and preemption if necessary, was solidified by that.

Then came the “Axis of Evil” rhetoric in the State of the Union speech. The North Koreans cited these examples as evidence that when we finish with our agenda in the Middle East, we will come after them.

This was also backed up by Kim Kye Gwan, with whom I had a more civilized and nuanced discussion. But he was full of questions: “Why is George Bush so different from his father?” “He’s a Texan, whereas his father was a New Englander,” was the answer I gave. “Why does George Bush hate Bill Clinton so much? Why does George Bush use such rhetoric in describing us? Why are you so suspicious of everything we do? Why do you threaten us?” I gave the best answers that I could.

And then, in a humorous aside, after he asked, “Why don’t you understand us better?,” I went back to my line about the great intelligence failure, saying, “If we had done a better job when I was with CIA, maybe we wouldn’t find these talks necessary. We could recruit the Soviets and the Chinese, but we couldn’t recruit you guys.” They swelled with pride.

So to my amazement he asked, “Are you wearing your Op-Center hat when you say that?”

I said, “Are you referring to a lousy book by Tom Clancy?”

He said, “Of course I am.”

Op-Center, which my wife refers to as an “airport-only paperback,” is co-authored by Clancy and Steve Pieczenik. The central character is a man named Gregory Donald. He served as Chief of Station in South Korea and later as Ambassador. I plead guilty to both of those charges, so it was clearly based on me.

So I said, “I haven’t read the book. He’s a lousy author. My wife read it, and she didn’t mind that I died an honorable death at the end of the book, but she hated that I’d had a Korean mistress.” That got a real laugh from them all.

I tell you that because it is colorful, but it also shows that the Koreans have a sense of humor and are very observant. And I didn’t feel uncomfortable in dealing with them, because when I was Ambassador to South Korea, I made four trips to Kwangju, which had been the site of a very tragic incident in 1980 where 200 South Koreans had been killed by Special Forces troops from Seoul. The people of Kwangju felt that the United States had been complicit in that tragedy. I talked to the people, who were firebombing our cultural center. We were about to get driven out of the city, and I didn’t want that to happen.

I finally got to meet the ringleaders by saying, “Yes, we do have something to apologize for. We’ve been silent much too long.” The ringleaders had the same torrent of questions: “Who gave the order to shoot in the streets of Kwangju? Why didn’t you come to save us? Why did you invite Chun Doo Hwan to be the first visitor to Ronald Reagan’s White House?” The answer to that was that the price of that visit was Kim Dae Jung’s life, which had never been said in Kwangju before.

“Do you think we’re a nation of lemmings?” All of these things that they asked me in front of television had a hugely healing effect on these people.

At the end, they said, “We don’t have any more questions to ask you, but we thank you for coming. Some of your answers have been helpful.” I walked out with them and made sure that my police escort didn’t beat the hell out of them, which they had intended to do, and it was a very positive meeting.

I discussed this with a Korean psychologist, and he said, “Your insight is very correct, that there is something in Korean psychology called 'han,' which Koreans feel is a buildup of the accumulation of injustices that life inflicts on people, and they need to somehow talk about that and have it reconciled or better understood. The North Koreans clearly have that same feeling.”

He added, “The worst thing that you can say to a Korean is, “’You’re behaving badly, so I won’t talk to you.’ That is an absolute guarantee of worse behavior. You must talk if you have a problem.” That is very difficult for the Bush Administration to accept in dealing with North Korea.

I returned home in April, wrote a letter to the White House saying, “The North Koreans feel very threatened by us, they have no stake in their relationship with your Administration, but the things that almost happened at the end of the Clinton Administration are still on the table. A high-level letter from the White House, carried by someone whom you, the President, trust would get things started.”

That may have been considered, but it was knocked off-track by a sea clash in the Western Sea.

Jim Kelly finally went to North Korea, but his visit, instead of being the start of a dialogue, was used to reveal that we were aware that the North Koreans had started a highly-enriched uranium program involving technical tradeoffs with Pakistan.

I was invited back by the North Koreans and returned in November. It was interesting, seven months later, to return. In some ways, Pyongyang was better—there were more cars in the streets, there were food stalls up and running—but the impact of the Kelly visit had been very sobering.

I had suggested to the North Koreans in April that they might consider returning the PUEBLO, the American ship that they had seized in 1968. They had been fascinated with the idea, and when they invited me back, they said, “We’re ready to return the PUEBLO. Let’s discuss the modalities.” When I got there, they said, “We’re sorry, the PUEBLO is off the table for now.”

We met with Kang Sok-Ju, who is probably Kim Jong-Il’s closest foreign policy advisor. He’s the man who negotiated the 1994 agreement. We discussed with him what had happened when Kelly visited. He said, “I was surprised. I didn’t know about this thing with Pakistan, and so we have to pull everybody together.”

I asked one of the people in Kelly’s entourage, “How did you feel when the North Koreans admitted what they were doing?”

He said, “It was a combination of shock and of relief.” I was very happy to hear the relief, because I take that as an effort on the part of the North Koreans to say, “You have the evidence of what we’ve done. Here’s why we’ve been doing it. Let’s talk about it and get it off the table.”

The North Koreans told Don Oberdorfer and me in November “We will answer all of your nuclear concerns if you will give us a non-aggression treaty of some sort.”

We stopped off in Seoul on the way back, checked that out with the South Koreans. They were interested in it, feeling that a non-aggression treaty is much easier to deal with than a peace treaty, which involves the status of American forces.

We bullied our way into the White House, saying, “The North Koreans want to talk, and if we’ll talk, they will stop their nuclear programs.” The answer was, “No, we won’t do that. That would be rewarding bad behavior.” And that is still, more or less, where it stands at this point.

I testified before the Senate in early February. I am impressed by the bipartisan feeling between Senators Lugar and Biden. The Senate feels that we need to figure out how to start talking to the North Koreans, so I am hopeful.

But the time remaining before the North Koreans commit overtly to becoming a nuclear power is limited, and they will do so, as I have warned the White House. Only direct American talks will head that off. They are threatened by us; they want to talk to us directly about it.

We are trying to get a multilateral approach to this issue. The North Koreans are resisting that. Perhaps there will be a compromise to allow talks to get started. I take great comfort from a statement by Colin Powell, quoted in the New York Times. As North Korea watches the war and wonders what’s next, Kim Jong-Il may have gone into a more reclusive lifestyle, having seen what we tried to do to Saddam Hussein.

At the end of the article, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a congressional committee: “We have tried to make it clear to them that we have no invasion plans for North Korea.” This is the key point: “We recognize that the authorities in Pyongyang are uneasy. They believe that we mean them no good.”

This is a huge step forward, because up to this time there has been a brushing aside—“They’ve got no reason to fear us”—which totally ignored that the Bush Administration has done a very poor job in calibrating how our legitimate concerns globally about proliferation impact in a local scene.

Tip O’Neill said all politics is local. That we see North Korea primarily as a proliferator does not mean that South Korea or China or Russia sees North Korea as such.

In written testimony to the Senate I warned that there is a “perfect storm” brewing on the Korean Peninsula which is turning the South Korean-American alliance on its head, and which can also create a nuclear power in North Korea. What we will do to put that alliance back on its feet and avoid the creation of a new nuclear power remains to be seen.

Thank you very much.

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