Armitage: U.S. won't relent on North Korean nuke issue

The following interview, originally published in The International Herald Tribune/The Asahi Shimbun on Feb. 7, 2004, is reproduced here with The Asahi Shimbun's permission.

Washington will stand by Tokyo on the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated. He said the issue should receive the same significance as proliferation during six-way talks on North Korea's nuclear development that will resume in Beijing on Feb. 25. Armitage recently visited Japan to coordinate policies on regional security and other issues. In an exclusive interview with Yoichi Kato, a deputy foreign news editor of The Asahi Shimbun, Armitage also discussed the unstable situation in Iraq, Pakistan, and the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance.


Question: North Korea has announced it will attend the six-party talks starting Feb. 25. How do you evaluate North Korea's decision?

Answer: I think it shows in some small way they are getting past their suspicions about the process, and more particularly the United States. We are grateful to the People's Republic of China. They have been very active in facilitating this.

Q: Six months have passed since the first round of six-party talks. Why has it been so difficult?

A: We've had almost 60 years of hostility. That's the answer.

Q: What made it possible this time around?

A: The suspicion is being chipped away little by little. President George W. Bush, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, said he would document security assurances in a multilateral context; that we've had a number of exchanges (with Japan, South Korea and China on this issue). So we've been working to massage things into shape, to have a meeting, and the North Koreans have agreed.

Standing by Japan on abductions

Q: What will the United States try to accomplish this time around?

A: We want to convince the North Koreans that we have no hostile intent, but that in order to take part in the robust life of Asia, and more generally the international community, we need to have a complete, irreversible and verifiable elimination of their nuclear weapons program.

Q: Are you seeking complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the nuclear programs?

A: Yes.

Q: Will you also ask for the dismantlement of highly enriched uranium (HEU)?

A: Well, don't you think it would be reasonable to expect that if they don't have it they'll have to be able to show the international community they don't have it? They say they don't have it. Let them prove that. If they have it, then of course it would have to be dismantled, as we talk about the complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantlement of the nuclear program.

Q: North Korea once said it had HEU and then denied it. Do you believe they have HEU?

A: I'm willing to take them at their word. They told (Assistant Secretary of State James) Kelly they had it.

Q: It has been reported that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist, has admitted he provided Iran, Libya and North Korea with designs and technology to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. Has the U.S. government confirmed this kind of proliferation by Pakistan?

A: Well, be careful. First of all, the comments, or the article, which you referred to, talked about proliferation by an individual. The government of Pakistan? No. We've had significant discussions with them. They've been very forthright in the last several years. We do not have any information that they are involved.

Q: Will the Pakistan factor have any impact on the six-party talks?

A: I don't think it does have any impact, but it may sort of help the international community understand better the network of clandestine provision of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials.

Q: Pyongyang has in the past refused to talk about the issue of abductions of Japanese nationals within the framework of six-party talks. If they did it again, how would the United States react?

A: The president has already told Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that we are going to stand by Japan on the question of abductees. This is a question of basic human rights, and it seems to me that if there can't be a resolution to the abductee question, then how can Japan and other countries have a full belief in the stated intentions of North Korea? It seems to me that we've agreed that we'll have six-party talks without any preconditions, and that all issues are on the table. That's where we are. One of those issues is Japan's issue of the abductees, and the United States will stand firm on that.

Q: Doesn't the United States put priority on proliferation over the abductees?

A: I'm not going to put the fate of proliferation before abductees, or abductees in front of proliferation. I think we need to make progress in all of them.

Q: If North Korea decides to dismantle its nuclear program, as Libya did, would the United States be ready to recognize the Kim Jong Il administration?

A: Our policy is not regime change for North Korea now. So I think the answer to your question would be yes.

Q: It seems to me, what North Korea is really trying to find out is whether the United States will be more hard-line in its approach if Mr. Bush is re-elected.

A: Our president said well before his re-election bid that he thought this issue could be resolved diplomatically and peacefully, and I'm sure unless the situation changes he'll hold (to this position) after his re-election.

Q: Turning to Iraq, is there any way to stop the suicide attacks like the one that occurred in Erbil?

A: No, probably not. Can we stop a good bit? Yes, and we have. We have to be more alert, but mostly the people of Iraq have to be prepared to not allow foreign extremists to work violence in their midst.

Q: Does the early transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis really solve the problem?

A: No, that doesn't solve the problem. But here's the problem that it does resolve. We want to make sure that the people of Iraq realize that we came as liberators, we don't desire to occupy. And in that regard, the turnover of sovereignty to a transitional government is important for all Iraqis, whether they are Sunni, Shiite or Kurd. The more important element, I would maintain, is the basic law, or the constitution as substitute until there's a real constitution in place.

After the turnover of sovereignty, there will most probably be a need for a continuation of the U.S. and coalition troop presence to continue to try to prosecute primarily foreign terrorists elements, who, I think, will continue to try to undermine Iraq.

Q: I understand that you highly evaluate our prime minister's decision to dispatch Self-Defense Forces to Iraq. My question is, if they suffer any casualties it could prove detrimental to future efforts by Japan to participate in the international arena. How do you view this risk?

Risks of inaction

A: I see the risk of inaction, not doing anything, not participating, to be greater in the longer run for Japan. If a terrible event happens and Japan suffers some casualties, I think it's incumbent upon all of us to make sure that the sacrifices are not in vain and that ultimately, when we leave Iraq, we've left it a much better place.

Q: President Bush recently announced he will appoint an independent commission to investigate WMD. Do you think this will really resolve the questions about whether WMD existed before the war?

A: The intelligence is not an exact science. It's an art. The intelligence, much of the intelligence, is only as good as the source material that's given to it. If the source material turns out to be bad, then the analysis could be flawed. These are the things that will be shown by this commission.

Q: With Japan's role in Iraq, do you see Japan joining you in shaping the world order?

A: I don't know if we are going to shape a new world order. The Japan that I deal with almost daily is one that doesn't follow the United States anywhere. They make their own decisions after discussing with us what they think, what course of action they think is in the best interest of their nation. So if Japan is going to join the United States in any particular endeavor, it will do it not because we ask, but because they've decided that endeavor is in their interest.

Q: Would you like Japan to join you in shaping a regional strategic environment?

A: I'd like Japan to join with us even further and deeper into discussions that help us determine the best course of action for us in the future, and likewise, will help Japan determine the best course of action for them.

Q: As an instrument of policy Japan renounces war. This is prohibited by our Constitution. Can Japan be a full-fledged partner, a strategic partner, of the United States, with this kind of restriction?

A: Mr. Koizumi has said that the Constitution allows Japan, I'll paraphrase, to be a force for peace in the world. So I think she can be a partner. I stated in my speech (in Japan) that collective defense was common sense, and that collective defense, or the lack of an ability to participate in collective defense, was an impediment to alliance cooperation. But I went on to say that our agreement and our treaty and our responsibilities under that treaty are in existence, whether Japan is alongside us, or not, in some of these other endeavors. It stands on it's own two legs.

Q: How do you think the upcoming realignment of U.S. forces in Asia-Pacific can best serve regional interests?

A: (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld is trying to transform the military to make it much more agile, mobile, hostile and lethal. So that would mean smaller force packages more easily able to be transported to trouble spots. That will, globally, require us to sort of redistribute some of our forces, obviously with the permission of different countries.

Q: There have been reports that U.S. Marines in Okinawa Prefecture who are dispatched to Iraq won't be coming back to Okinawa, but to continental America instead. Is that true?

A: There will be some reductions over time, but these are matters that we discuss with the Japanese authorities to make sure we both see things the same way.

Q: In your previous CNN interview, you said after 9/11 that the United States started exporting something that is not typically American and that pendulum had swung way too far one way, and it was working rigorously to get it to swing back. What did you mean by this?

A: We're trying very hard to go back to what are typical American exports, that is hope and optimism, rather than the fear and anger that we were portraying to the international community after 9/11. We want to get back to a much more cooperative relationship with the international community, a much more open armed approach to the world.

Richard Armitage was appointed deputy secretary of state in March 2001. He served in the Reagan administration as assistant secretary of defense in charge of U.S. relations with Japan and China.