Kerry's Policies and Views on North Korea Questioned

By Patrick Goodenough | October 1, 2004 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - It was all very well for Senator John Kerry to say he would open bilateral talks with North Korea should he win November's election, but the Democratic candidate should indicate whether he was also willing to enter such talks on Pyongyang's conditions, a Korean expert said Friday.

"Kerry is either ignoring or ignorant of the fact that any bilateral dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang - if it should to take place - would have to take place on the conditions laid down by North Korea," said Lee Dong-bok, senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Those conditions would entail a range of measures designed to show, from North Korea's point of view, that the U.S. had "ceased to be hostile," he added.

Lee was commenting on Kerry's assertions during Thursday's televised debate against President Bush that he would want to hold bilateral talks with Pyongyang covering the current nuclear crisis and other issues.

The presidential candidates sparred over how best to deal with North Korea, with Bush expounding the merits of the current six-party dialogue process and calling Kerry's bilateral talks proposal "a big mistake."

"The minute we have bilateral talks the six-party talks will unwind," Bush said. "That's what Kim Jong-il wants."

In 1994 the Clinton administration negotiated a deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear programs and accept U.N. observers and monitoring cameras in the mothballed facilities in exchange for energy aid.

The Agreed Framework unraveled after October 2002, when the State Department said North Korea admitted the existence of a covert uranium-enrichment program, entirely separate from the plutonium-based nuclear program being monitored by the U.N.

Within months the energy aid had stopped, North Korea kicked out the observers, withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and said it had reprocessed spent fuel-rods to obtain plutonium.

During their debate, Bush and Kerry presented two rather different views of how the impasse over North Korea's nuclear programs had come about in the first place.

The president said his administration discovered that North Korea was not honoring the 1994 deal, and had pushed for a multi-party approach to resolving the matter.

This new dialogue had brought in China, which has "a lot of influence over North Korea" as well as South Korea, Japan and Russia - the so-called six-party formula.

"So now there are five voices speaking to Kim Jong-il, not just one," Bush said.

Kerry blames Bush

Presenting what he said was "the real story" about what happened with North Korea, Kerry also cited the 1994 agreement.

"We had inspectors and television cameras in the nuclear reactor in North Korea," he said. "We knew where the fuel rods were. And we knew the limits on their nuclear power."

South Korean president Kim Dae-jung paid a visit to Washington during the early months of the Bush presidency. And during that visit, Kerry charged, Bush had publicly reversed the U.S. policy of "working with the North Koreans."

"And the president of South Korea went back to South Korea bewildered and embarrassed because it went against his policy," Kerry said, adding that the Bush administration had for the following two years not talked at all to the North Koreans.

"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."

In a retort, Bush said the plutonium-based program Kerry was speaking about when he referred to the fuel rods was not the nuclear program at the center of the dispute over Kim Jong-il's violation of the Agreed Framework.

"The breach on the agreement was not through plutonium," he said. "The breach on the agreement is highly-enriched uranium. That's what we caught him doing - that's where he was breaking the agreement."

Concerns about transparency, trust

According to White House transcripts, from the time of Kim Dae-jung's March 2001 visit, Bush told the South Korean leader that part of the problem in dealing with North Korea was the lack of "transparency."

"We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements," Bush said at a joint press conference with Kim.

"When you make an agreement with a country that is secretive, how do you - how are you aware as to whether or not they're keeping the terms of the agreement?"

Those comments seemed prescient 19 months later, when State Department officials presented the North Koreans with evidence that they had been cheating - allegedly for several years already - on the Agreed Framework by enriching uranium.

The State Department said the North Koreans admitted to the existence of the program.

Lee, the CSIS analyst, disputed Kerry's argument that the crisis occurred because of Bush's actions.

"I don't think Kerry was right saying everything changed because of what Bush did," he said.

"Everything changed because North Korea changed from one position to another. North Korea has continuously been shifting positions with respect to the nuclear freeze, and began talking about nuclear deterrents in addition to the [uranium-enrichment program.]"

Lee also differed with Kerry's implication that everything had been going smoothly on the U.S.-North Korea front until Bush came into office.

The analyst pointed out that a proposed visit to Pyongyang by President Clinton at the end of 2000 had not taken place. (Clinton said in late December of that year that the visit would not go ahead as there was "insufficient time to complete the work at hand.")

What was going on at the time, Lee said, was that U.S.-North Korean working-level talks in Kuala Lumpur about a possible agreement over Pyongyang's missile programs had stalled over the question of verification.

"North Korea was not prepared to make concessions," Lee said, tying that stance directly to Clinton's decision not to visit Pyongyang before the end of his term.

Lee is a former South Korean lawmaker and special assistant to the prime minister who has been involved in government North-South dialogue efforts.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.


Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow