Interview with John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, on US Policy Toward North Korea

Arms Control Association
April 15, 2003

Arms Control Today Editor Miles A. Pomper met with John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, on April 15 to discuss the U.S. approach toward North Korea. Tensions between the two countries increased last October when U.S. officials announced that North Korean officials had acknowledged to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that the country was pursuing a uranium-enrichment program, which would violate its commitments under the 1994 Agreed Framework and other nuclear nonproliferation commitments. Since then, the United States has cut off supplies of fuel oil pledged to North Korea under the Agreed Framework, and North Korea has withdrawn from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), removed seals and monitoring devices from its plutonium-based reactor and nuclear facilities, and expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

Until recently, North Korea insisted that it would only consider bilateral talks with the United States to discuss its nuclear program, but the United States insisted on a multilateral forum. On April 12, North Korea signaled it might drop its demand that any talks involve only the United States and North Korea, although it continued to hold the United States ultimately responsible for reaching a resolution. On April 16, U.S. officials announced that North Korea, the United States, and China would hold talks in Beijing April 23-25.

Bolton was sworn in as undersecretary on May 11, 2001. Before joining the State Department, Bolton was senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington policy organization. A lawyer by training, Bolton was a partner in the law firm of Lerner, Reed, Bolton & McManus from 1983 to 1999. He has held several government positions, including assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from 1989 to 1993 and assistant attorney general from 1985 to 1989.

The following is a transcript of the interview.
ACT:   On Saturday, the North Koreans seemed to hint that they were open to a multilateral format for negotiations, and the president was apparently very pleased about that. Do you think this is a breakthrough, and what is the state of the diplomatic dialogue with North Korea?
Bolton:   I do think that the North Korean statement represents an acknowledgement that the multilateral approach to the question of the nuclear weapons is appropriate. That is something we've been insisting on for some time. The problem posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons program is not a bilateral problem between them and us; it is a problem for the region as a whole because of threat it poses to the nearby countries, and it is also a global problem because it's a direct challenge to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and it's also because of North Korea's well-documented proliferation behavior with missiles and other advanced systems and weapons of mass destruction.

It's a problem because of what they might do in terms of outward proliferation. So, we do see it as global problem; we've approached it that way. It's one reason that we've sought to have the IAEA board of governors refer the question to the [UN] Security Council-which they did some weeks ago, why we thought the Security Council was an appropriate place to discuss this obvious threat to international peace and security, and why we've sought to have a multilateral forum to have the issue considered in. So, from that perspective, I think the statement was a step forward. Now, what exactly it means and how it will play out at this early stage or at this stage, it's too early to tell. Events could move fairly quickly, but sitting here today I just don't know that. We're prepared, as we've said for quite some time, to have discussions in a multilateral context, and we'll see what develops from here.

ACT:   Do you have any additional preconditions on any discussions?
Bolton:   Well what we've said, going back months now, is that we expect the complete verifiable dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program before bilateral talks would proceed. That was the position in October, when [Assistant Secretary of State] Jim Kelly went and when the North Koreans admitted they had a nuclear weapons program, and that's the position today, too. But in terms of discussions in a multilateral context, we're fully prepared for that to proceed.
ACT:   And was there any diplomatic response-obviously we saw the president's statement [on multilateral talks]-but was there any contact, message to the North Koreans about setting up a dialogue, or any specifics?
Bolton:   Well, they have been communicating principally with the Chinese, who have been advancing, with them, the idea of various formulations for a multilateral conference. We have proposed a number ourselves, but the president wanted to be clear we weren't focused on one formula or the other, so the actual arrangements, I think, will be handled by the Chinese, who have indicated that they would be willing to host such a conference. Probably in Beijing, which would be fine with us.
ACT:   No dates have been set?
Bolton:   No. No, like I said, that could move quickly, or not -I just don't know at the moment. We're prepared, if it happens in a relatively short period of time, or whatever the circumstances may be.
ACT:   Are you planning, or any other administration officials planning, for instance, to go to China to advance this process?
Bolton:   I think it's too early to answer that. I mean, we'll have to see what the logistics of the conference look like. We've been in consultation with the Chinese at all levels from the president to [Chinese President] Hu Jintao, Secretary [of State Colin] Powell, former foreign minister Tang [Jiaxuan], the new [Chinese] foreign minister, myself, Jim Kelly-at all levels on this.
ACT:   When they announced their willingness to hold multilateral talks, the North Koreans also referenced a "bold switchover in U.S. policy" that seemed to tie into the notion of a bold package, which we had advanced before Assistant Secretary Kelly was there. Is that still on the table as far the U.S. in concerned? Is that something down the road that we could see as an outcome of these talks?
Bolton:   I think it's a possibility, but as I said-as was the case in October-they have to have the dismantlement of the nuclear weapons program before that becomes possible. That is because the uranium-enrichment program in particular was a violation of the Agreed Framework, as well as the nonproliferation treaty. And obviously, since October, they have taken a lot of steps at [the nuclear facility at] Yongbyon that are very troubling, and everybody is familiar with the expulsion of the IAEA inspectors, the unsealing of the reactor in the reprocessing plant, and all the rest of that.
ACT:   Is there anything more specific on what you would be prepared to offer them in terms of that or what you would demand of them in terms of that, beyond the nuclear question?
Bolton:   No, I think that it is, as the president said earlier last summer, what a bold initiative would look like. That didn't go anywhere because of the evidence we had of their ongoing uranium-enrichment program. I think the ball is really in their court at this point in terms of the dismantlement of what they have now, which is two nuclear weapons programs.
ACT:   The Russians and the Chinese appear to have put out more pressure recently on the North Koreans. First of all, is that so, how helpful has it been, and what do you think of the prospects for bridging the gap between the U.S. position and the Russian-Chinese position?
Bolton:   Well, I think there is complete agreement at the declaratory level among China, Russia, and the United Sates, and that is that it is not acceptable to have nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. In that sense, we certainly are all at the same point. I think that the North Korean statement about not sticking to a particular dialogue format was probably caused by a variety of factors. Number one, the realization that the president was serious when he said that he wanted multilateral talks. Number two, the successful conclusion of the conflict in Iraq. Number three, I do think Chinese and Russian persuasion. Now I don't mean to say that the causes were in that particular order. I don't know what the order was; I think that's trying to judge what went on in the mind of the North Korean leadership-which is not something that we can particularly do with accuracy-but I think it was some combination of those three factors.

And I do think that it reflects the Russian and Chinese view that we take this matter seriously but that we're prepared, if there's a true multilateral environment, to see if there's not a way to work it through to a solution. Now I note that there have been statements attributed to North Korea since the Saturday statement [announcing willingness to engage in multilateral talks] to say that they don't want Russia and Japan to participate in these multilateral talks. That requires further analysis; that's certainly not the view we hear from Russia and Japan-they very much want to be involved in such conversations. And that's-we've been prepared to accept that before. So, I think that's one of the things we need to analyze a little bit more closely.

ACT:   Do you think it's important to have Russia and Japan there? Bolto
n:   Again, I think the president has tried to show flexibility on what the formula is. Certainly, there's a strong argument that all five of the legitimate nuclear weapons states in the NPT should be present at some point. And certainly, that includes Russia, as well as Britain and France. Japan has an obvious equity in this matter, given its geographical location and threat that a nuclear-equipped North Korea would pose. So, I don't think ultimately there's a multilateral solution unless these equities are taken into account, but I don't think that necessarily translates into the shape of the table at the first meeting, and I think it's substance that we want to focus on, not process.
ACT:   Is there anything more that you'd like the Russians and Chinese to do in terms of advancing dialogue?
Bolton:   Well, I think there was a very helpful statement by Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov on Friday of last week, where he said-I'm sure you can get the transcript from Reuters or somewhere like that-what he said was, basically that we think the North Koreans have to take steps here, and we don't rule out sanctions at some point down the road if the North Koreans are not cooperative. That reflected a change in the Russian position.

You know, our view has been, one of the reasons we wanted to get this into the Security Council is because we thought that was the appropriate international institution to consider it, but that we were not pressing, right now, for sanctions. We thought if the North Koreans took the more responsible approach, we wouldn't need to get to the sanctions point. At some stage, there were some who were saying the Russians and the Chinese would never agree with sanctions. Obviously the Russian position on that has changed, and we think that's helpful, too. Not because that means sanctions are our first preference; our first preference is to get the North Koreans, on their own, to dismantle their nuclear weapons programs. But I think you can see from the vigorous efforts that China made to try to put this international multilateral conference together and from the statements of the Russians that they have been moving more vigorously to try and get the North Koreans to see reason on this.

ACT:   Earlier this year you characterized as "very serious" steps North Korea had already taken in terms of its plutonium and uranium program. Maybe you can illustrate a little bit more what you mean. What does it mean if North Korea continues with nuclearization; how will it affect the region; how will it affect the global proliferation regime, and so on?
Bolton:   Well, I think the course that the North took through this clandestine effort to gain an enrichment-uranium-enrichment capability-posed a very serious threat, because it was a rejection of all of their public commitments: the nonproliferation treaty, the safeguards agreement, the North-South joint denuclearization agreement, and the Agreed Framework. And it cast great doubt on the credibility on finding a successor agreement that we would have any confidence that they would follow. And likewise, the steps that they took to unfreeze Yongbyon-moving towards a nuclear weapons capability through plutonium reprocessing-was also very troubling. Now we know what we know about Yongbyon; we don't know everything about the uranium-enrichment side of things, although we do know that their international procurement efforts on that continue. So the real issue here is when North Korea is going to stop further progress on its nuclear weapons program. Basically the ball remains in North Korea's court because of the actions they have taken and whether it gets more serious or not is also in their hands. If they begin reprocessing, if they launch another ballistic missile, as people have said, that would make it even more serious, but we're hoping-that's why we're pressing for a diplomatic solution, to avoid that potential.
ACT:   I guess my question is more specifically, what is the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea? What would that mean to the region, and what it would mean to the United States?
Bolton:   Well, I think it poses a threat to everybody in the region and would be very destabilizing and cause enormous concern to South Korea and Japan and enormous concern to us and others with an interest in the area. And, once they achieve a nuclear weapons capability, because of the risk that they are selling technology, fissile material, and complete weapons, the global proliferation risk would also be considerable.
ACT:   Given that, are there any kind of red lines that we've laid down, either directly or indirectly, in terms of steps that they would cross that would bring punitive action, military action? For instance, reprocessing?
Bolton:   No, we haven't declared anything to be a red line, in part because the idea here is to get the North Koreans into a multilateral negotiations framework, and not to speculate about how bad things would get if they continued visibly to move towards an additional nuclear capability. What we've said in totality is that all options are on the table, and we're not going to go beyond that. The president has directed, and our efforts have been aimed at, a diplomatic resolution, and that's really what our concentration is on.
ACT:   Do you think we could live with a nuclear-armed North Korea?
Bolton:   Well, our objective is the peaceful elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The stress is on peaceful, but it is also on elimination of the nuclear weapons program.
ACT:   What do you perceive as North Korea's intentions? Why are they doing this-building up these nuclear weapons and pulling out of the NPT?
Bolton:   I think, given their record of proliferation of ballistic missiles and other weapons technology, I think they see a nuclear capability as a potential source of hard currency. I think they see it as a bargaining chip vis-a-vis us, and I think they see it as leverage that they can apply to their neighbors to get additional tangible support for the regime.
ACT:   You said last week you hoped a number of regimes would draw a lesson from our actions in Iraq, particularly North Korea. Some critics have said, on the other hand, North Korea itself has said that there is another lesson to be drawn, which is to move quickly toward a nuclear weapons program and not cooperate with international inspectors and so on. How would you respond to that?
Bolton:   Well they sure, they could draw that lesson-it would be the wrong lesson to draw. The Iraqis did fail to cooperate with international inspectors, they did maintain an aggressive denial and deception posture, and they did frustrate UNMOVIC [inspectors in Iraq] and the IAEA. The appropriate lesson to draw is that ultimately weapons of mass destruction or efforts to get them are inappropriate for these countries-that they should give them up. I don't think you can say that having eliminated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein that that gives any encouragement to any other regime to continue to seek such weapons, and I think the general view in the international community is that people who have adhered to international treaties ought to comply with them. And so, in that situation, the lesson for countries that are in noncompliance with treaties they've entered into is pretty strong, and that's something that throughout this administration we've stressed. Whether it's the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention], the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention], or the NPT, if you adhere to a treaty, you ought to live up to your obligations under it.
ACT:   So you don't think that lack of military action against North Korea, versus the military action in Iraq, lends credence to this criticism at all?
Bolton:   No, not at all. I think the actions are completely different. Iraq comes after 12 years of defiance of Security Council resolutions and after a UN-granted cease-fire that they repeatedly violated. That's why, in fact, Iraq is not an example of preventive warfare. This is not quite like the 30-years war in Europe, but it's the conclusion of a war that's gone on for 12 years-12 years of Iraqi resistance to the very cease-fire agreement that they signed up to back in 1991.
ACT:   In terms of what North Korea actually has, there have been conflicting reports from the CIA about whether they have the plutonium to make a nuclear weapon or whether actually have nuclear weapons themselves. Can you shed any light on what is a more accurate analysis of that? Do they actually have nuclear weapons at this point?
Bolton:   Well, I think [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld has said publicly that we think they probably have one or two. You know, I think that's a pretty authoritative statement.
ACT:   South Korean President Roh, as you probably saw last week in the Washington Post, said that he was certain that they did not have nuclear weapons.
Bolton:   I'll go with Secretary Rumsfeld.
ACT:   Talking about the uranium program, when did the North Koreans start procuring parts for the uranium program?
Bolton:   I don't know that they necessarily have. the technology that the Iranians and North Koreans are both using is something that was stolen from the Urenco technology; in other words, this is a uranium-enrichment approach through a centrifuge cascade approach that has been followed by a number of rogue states. The fact that various rogue states are using the same technology doesn't necessarily tell you that one got it from the other. It's possible, but it doesn't tell you that definitively; they could have purchased it out there on the black market.

One of the things that I'm hoping for to come out in the post-conflict stages in Iraq is that we might learn about the "netherworld" of WMD procurement. Obviously, we'll learn a lot about Iraq's WMD programs, but I'm hoping that if the files haven't been destroyed or the scientists haven't disappeared, that we'll learn, not because the Iraqis were participating in these programs, but learning about front companies, financial channels, all kinds of ways in which these programs were put together. That would tell us a lot about how to pursue nonproliferation in a variety of other contexts as well, as one of the benefits of the Iraq operation.

ACT:   What I was trying to get at was a sort of a timeline in terms of when you thought the North Koreans, whether they procured them from a particular country or not, when they started getting the parts for these centrifuges?
Bolton:   We can…what we've concluded, I think, is that this goes back-the North Korean uranium-enrichment effort is a serious attempt to get production scale capabilities-goes back to about 1998. That we know of. It may go back earlier than that; we don't necessarily know, but it's a program that has been out there for quite some time.
ACT:   Why, then, did you wait until 2002 to confront them-for Secretary Kelly to confront them?
Bolton:   We didn't really wait. What happened was, in a fashion, certainly unprecedented in my experience, is that a lot of information came together in roughly the summer of 2002 that pointed unmistakably to North Korean production scope enrichment efforts, and Secretary Powell and others were very clear to us that they wanted us to think about this, to evaluate the evidence, and to be very sure of it and to make sure we didn't do anything that anyone could accuse us of acting precipitously. So you know, the information came in; we evaluated it, we studied it, we thought about it, and there was uniform interagency agreement that that is what the North Koreans are up to. It was at that point that the decision was made to send Jim Kelly, so it was a process. Actually, in terms of governmental decision-making, it was very quick.
ACT:   How long would you say?
Bolton:   From three or four months from the beginning, when we began to appreciate what this information was revealing to us and the decision to send [Jim]-and Jim's actual trip was about three or four months later.
ACT:   Let me ask you a couple of questions on Syria. First of all, how serious a threat do you think their WMD capability represents?
Bolton:   Well, they have a very serious chemical weapons capability. We've been saying that for some time-goes back to the speech I made at the BWC review conference, or on CWC that I talked about that and talked about their chemical weapons capability. So these are real programs; there's no doubt about it. We've also been concerned about what might be happening in the nuclear area as well, in addition to missile and cruise missile capabilities.
ACT:   What about the nuclear issue?
Bolton:   Well we don't-well they've got, they're getting outside assistance in the civil nuclear area. There are a variety of things that they've got that we're concerned about from a weapons point of view. I'm not saying they're doing anything specific; I'm just saying it's a worrisome pattern that we've seen, and I think that has been our view, well, before the onset of the second gulf war.
ACT:   Has that changed-the chemical weapons part? I know Secretary Rumsfeld mentioned they've been doing some testing recently. As you said, this is kind of a long-standing concern in terms of the chemical weapons.
Bolton:   Well, I think what has aroused the extent of the comments in the past couple of weeks has been not their existing weapons programs, although we've been concerned about them, we've spoken publicly about it. But about concern that there might be shielding of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, that there might be assistance in the form of facilitating trans-shipment of military supplies to the Iraqis and providing refuge for top Iraqi leaders. So in other words, these are all things-and support of terrorism, of course-things that have been prominent in the past couple of weeks.
ACT:   My last question on Syria is what are you looking at as of the options in dealing with this situation? I know general comments have been made by Secretary Powell and others. For instance, I know that in terms of sanctions, the Syria Accountability Act-past congresses or administrations have said "we don't want this to move forward"-has there been any talk of you changing your position on that issue?
Bolton:   Well, I think what we're-we're on a fast moving situation now, at least we have been in the past couple of weeks with active military hostilities underway, and I think the level of seriousness is reflected in the kind of comments the president, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Secretary Powell have made. And you're asking me today a question that will appear in a periodical a month from now. I think we're looking at it in a day-by-day basis, but I don't think you can blink at the seriousness of the problem.
ACT:   Can I ask you one more question? Ambassador [U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John] Negroponte recently said that U.S. policy is not just a matter of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions; it also must have a verification regime that will work. What would constitute such a regime?
Bolton:   We-we're discussing internally what a complete and verifiable dismantlement would mean in practice, and we've got some excellent ideas that we're considering; we've gotten some consultation on that internationally, as well. We don't have a final package at the moment, but I would say our thinking is well advanced on that, and it's provided an opportunity-not that I'd go looking for reasons to do this-but it's provided an opportunity to do some very good and detailed thinking on what that kind of verification would require.
ACT:   Is there any model that you're using, something that you've viewed as successful?
Bolton:   No, actually what we did in this case was to start from the ground up and say, "What kind of effective verification system would you devise?" As I said, I wouldn't go out looking for reasons to do this, but it has provided an opportunity to do some new and creative thinking. And as I said, we're in consultation within the administration and internationally.
ACT:   With the IAEA?
Bolton:   Well, with British and French and others, to discuss what this might look like.
ACT:   And is there any administration plan to turn the unilateral freeze on the North Koreans' unilateral moratorium on their flight-testing of their missiles into a permanent freeze?
Bolton:   Well, I think that would be something to see if we get into a multilateral context whether that is something worth discussing. We have had concerns that, although there is not actually launch testing on the Korean Peninsula, that the North Koreans might be benefiting from data from launch testing elsewhere, like in Iran. That's something that we're concerned about.