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The Art of Negotiating With Pyongyang


Ashton Carter oversaw negotiations with North Korea during President Clinton's first term. He is now co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at the Kennedy School at Harvard University and he joins us from Boston.

Welcome to the program.


Mr. ASHTON CARTER (Kennedy School at Harvard University): Good to be here, Robert.

SIEGEL: Once again, Ashton Carter, we've heard a couple of different characterizations of what has happened in these talks in Anthony Kuhn's report. Condoleezza Rice called it a breakthrough step and then we also heard it characterized as well an acknowledgment that it's back to 1994, only with North Korea having some of what the United States has hoped it wouldn't achieve.

Where on that spectrum of judgments would you place it?

Mr. CARTER: Well, it is a small step. It's a step in the right direction. It's the only step forward we've had in five years, during which time we've had many, many steps backwards. The biggest one being North Korea's building of a nuclear arsenal, testing of that nuclear arsenal, and also testing of missiles. So it is an initial step as Secretary Rice says, but it's a step as your reporter indicated of one step of many steps on a very long road.

These agreements with North Korea are always written in many steps because neither side trusts the other. So we say all right we'll take this little step if you take this little step. Then when we've done that, if that works, we'll go onto the next step. And so forth. What the history shows, is that we never get out of step one.


And in this case, step one, of course, doesn't require North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons, it just requires them to stop building more. So if that's all we get we won't have disarmed North Korea.

SIEGEL: How significant, do you think, is the role played by China and the -well as Anthony Kuhn has just reported - the implicit development that China no longer sees itself as North Korea's backer and ally here?

Mr. CARTER: Well, I think it's important that when China chooses to put pressure on North Korea that pressure can be very significant. But over the last five years when we have been having this six-party process the fact of the matter is the Chinese have not really been willing to squeeze North Korea to the extent they could.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the Chinese know that the -

SIEGEL: Ashton Carter? Seem to have lost our connection with -

Mr. CARTER: I'm sorry. Can you hear me?

SIEGEL: There you are. Yes. I can hear you again. You were saying?

Mr. CARTER: I was just saying that the North Koreans could be squeezed by China. The Chinese could put them out of business in a day. They don't do that, because first of all they know that the Chinese arsenals designed for us. That's what that North Korean - I mean the North Korean arsenal. That's what the North Korean's say.

Second, the Chinese don't want to have North Korea collapse because that's billions and billions of poor people potentially streaming across their border. So the Chinese have not been really willing to squeeze. They're suggesting that they might in the future.

The danger here, Robert, is that after this teeny little step is taken, everybody relaxes. The Chinese relax, the South Korean's relax, maybe even we relax our pressure, and the North Korean's get away with having an arsenal and not having to dismantle that arsenal.

SIEGEL: One last question - we don't have that much time - but as you experienced negotiating with North Korea and as you follow the subsequent negotiations, do they stand out as being simply unlike diplomacy with any other country or are there patterns that are familiar from other negotiations that we've been in?

Mr. CARTER: It's an interesting question. People always say aren't the North Koreans mysterious? They're actually not mysterious at all. They're weird, but they're not mysterious. They're entirely predictable. They will get away with everything they can get away with if you don't nail down every detail. They will haggle for everything they will get - that they can get.

And at the end of the day, we really have to wonder to ourselves are they prepared to get rid of this arsenal that we've let them build over the last three years. I have my doubts that they'll do that.

SIEGEL: Thank you very much for talking to us once again.

Mr. CARTER: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Ashton Carter, now of the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.