The Conditions of Commitment – Interview with Senior Researcher Bruce Klingner

[imText1]Washington D.C. — “There is such a wide gap between the perception in the U.S. of what North Korea has to do and what it is willing to do,”

Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow on Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, explained in a January 25th interview with Daily NK regarding North Korea’s failure to report it’s nuclear weapons according to the February 13th Agreement.

In line with his earlier position that a deadline for nuclear reporting must be set, Klingner emphasized, “When you negotiate, you have to set perimeters and expect that the other nation will live up to its previous commitments,” he stated. “One of the flaws of the joint statements of last February and October was that the text was so vague. It did not clearly delineate the linkages, the timetables, or define the requirements. In the interest of getting North Korea to agree on something, U.S. negotiators have watered down the agreements.”

“But even more importantly,” he added, “the reason for them missing the deadline is there is such a wide gap between the perception in the U.S. of what North Korea has to do and what it is willing to do. Because of the gap, right now, it is unlikely that North Korea will fully comply with the declaration.”

When asked about President Bush’s inaction in setting a new deadline for nuclear reporting, Mr. Klingner responded, “There is a fear that if we press North Korea to do what it is supposed to do, it will react strongly. I’m in favor of engaging North Korea, but we cannot acquiesce to all of their demands. It may be useful to [set a deadline] to show North Korea that we are not willing to allow them to become a nuclear state and allow these talks to drag for years and years.”

He goes on to stress that negotiations with the North do not have to be hostile or insulting to be firm, stating, “simply, we won’t give them anything more until they do what they are supposed to do.”

Citing Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill’s perception that the rate of progress in the Six Party Talks has not been satisfactory, Daily NK inquired into an alternative to the Six Party Talks should the agreement with North Korea be abandoned. To this, Mr. Klingner pointed out that “the Six-Party talks are designed to be multi-lateral and with conditionality. So when President Roh had objectives of giving aid without any conditionality, it really went against the Six-Party talks.

“With President Lee Myung Bak imposing conditionality, then that will restrict an alternative source of income for North Korea,” he continued. “The remaining loophole is China, trying to get them to also impose conditionality. Then, North Korea will be faced with the decision to continue its belligerent behavior or act responsibly as it is supposed to do, after which it will get economic and diplomatic benefits.”

When asked if continuing “sincere” talks with North Korea will lead it to abandon its nuclear weapons, Mr. Klingner expressed his skepticism on the issue. “Virtually every analyst I’ve talked to in the U.S., Korea, and Japan, has said they really doubt that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons. And you can lay out all the reasons why nuclear weapons benefit North Korea from their point of view. If they’re negotiating in good faith, they should have decided to give up their weapons. We may all be very skeptical, but we should still try.”

With regards to a connection between North Korea and Syria in light of the recent Israeli attack, Mr. Klingner noted that the uninformed public is torn between whether the attack was nuclear or missile related. However, as the silence from Washington becomes more deafening, more and more people are prone to believe the attack was of a nuclear nature, which could, in effect, undermine the reliability of the Six Party Talks. In the interview Mr. Klingner urged Washington to break the silence and dispel skepticism surrounding the talks.

“The [U.S.] administration should be as forthcoming as possible with information,” he advocated. “In an open session before Congressional committees, it should provide as much information to the Congress and the American public,” and, “Afterwards, the intelligence committees should come out to the American public and say they either are concerned or not concerned about this and whether they think it is or is not nuclear-related and whether or not they think it should have an influence on negotiations with North Korea.”

In the final phase of the interview with Daily NK, Mr. Klingner addressed the future of the Kim Jong Il regime in light of rumors surfacing regarding Kim’s deteriorating health and also in regards to reform vs. regime collapse.

“Having followed Korea since 1993, I’m a bit skeptical about yet another health rumor,” he stated. “[Kim] has a strong grip on power; he is the one who runs the country. It’s not the military controlling Kim, as some would advocate. He’s firmly in charge. I focus less on his health than on the current policies.”

As to an operation for regime change, he maintained, “I don’t think it’s worthwhile to have a program to try to bring about a sudden collapse of the regime. I think we should try to bring about reform through firm-principled diplomacy rather than one-sided appeasement. The Bush administration is seen to have advocated regime change. Michael Green has said that was never the objective. I think that issue has been overplayed–any indication of standing up for principles or for enforcing international law has been misinterpreted as bringing about regime change; I think that is a mischaracterization.”

Finally, in regards to reform and opening, Mr. Klingner simply stated, “The fact that we’re still debating whether or not they are implementing reform is pretty telling that they are not. They are very hesitant to implement even a Chinese-style reform, despite Kim’s trips to Shanghai and the southern regions. We have seen no signs of change, economically, certainly no change in the political system and periodic change in North Korea’s behavior.

“After 10 years of engagement policy and billions worth in economic dollars, South Korea has not moderated North Korea’s behavior,” he said in a final word. “We have the hope of change, if we make benefits conditional.”

Mr. Klingner has worked at the Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm, as a Korea analyst and has worked 20 years in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where he served as Deputy Chief of the Korea Issue Group in the CIA’s directorate of intelligence from 1996 to 2001 and at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Questions or comments about this article? Contact us at