Bill Clinton photo

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official

June 22, 1994

The Briefing Room

6:10 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You may have some very specific questions about what exactly happened. I'll be glad to take those. Let me first say that the President announced to you what the North Koreans have confirmed now as the arrangement during the course of the talks and what it means to -- that they will verifiably freeze the major elements of the nuclear program during those talks.

Let me just speak very briefly about what those talks might cover -- or will cover. The North Koreans have told us previously and again through President Carter that they are particularly interested in the light-water reactor which would then mean that they could abandon their much less proliferation resistant current nuclear technology, and that they are interested in assurances against the use of nuclear weapons against them.

We will be pursuing in these talks, obviously, the nuclear issue. And as somebody mentioned here with the President, that very much includes not only the future of their nuclear program, but what has happened in the past, in 1989 and since, including the issue of special inspections.

In that regard, let me add something to what the President said, and that is that they have informed us that in the context of an overall solution that they will fully implement the nonproliferation treaty and IAEA safeguards. And if we can negotiate that as a part of this -- of an overall solution, that would be a very significant move.


Q: Can you tell us what you think brought about this cave-in? And also, can you give us a little chronology of who --when we got the message, how we got the message, and who will negotiate for us?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As the President has said, I don't think we should characterize what they have done, and I would not characterize it as you did. I think it is very hard for us to say why they have taken this very important step. They don't confide in us their motives -- never have, never will.

What we can say is that there are some facts here. And the facts are that we have persisted over the last year or more in the course that we have undertaken. And let me simply emphasize that that persistence, which has been very steady -- and I have said to a number of you in the past that we shouldn't be optimistic or pessimistic, particularly at any single point. What we need to do is to keep testing the possibilities and persist in pursuing our interests and goals here. And as the President said, that is exactly what we will continue to do. This is an important opening, but there is a lot of work ahead now in the negotiations themselves.

So one fact is that we have pursued that, I think, steady course. A second fact is that after the June 3rd IAEA statement, we began consultations on sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. A third fact is that President Carter went to North Korea and offered them a means of reaching an agreement like this, and conveyed to the North Korean leadership at the very top -- something that is not easy to do -- what the American policy was. And the result of those three facts is that we now have reached this basis for entering into the third round of talks.

What specifically happened -- last Monday night, our time, very late in the night, after consultations with the South Koreans, Ambassador Gallucci sent a written message to his counterpart in these negotiations, Vice Foreign Minister Kang, a message seeking to confirm what President Carter had conveyed to us. This afternoon, I believe around 2:00 p.m. our time, through their mission in New York, the Vice Foreign Minister's written reply was received; and it is as we have stated it.

We are now in the process of going back to the North Koreans at a working level in New York to work out the dates -- or the date for the initiation for this third round of talks, which will take place in Geneva. We would anticipate it would be in early July at some point. And then the talks themselves would be led by Ambassador Gallucci on our side, who has been and remains the head of our delegation.

Q: Two questions. One is, what will the U.S. negotiating position be regarding the question of previous activity in 1989 or since? What will the U.S. demand? And what will you say to allegations, charges that already today in the President's statement, his position on President Carter's mission has changed, that he was much more supportive in his remarks about President Carter's mission and about how much coordination there was between the administration and President Carter?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me take those in order, and let me address the second one first. The fact is that when President Clinton spoke to President Carter on Sunday morning, he thanked him, told him that he thought he had served well in what he had done. President Carter, as I recall, then quoted him -- President Clinton -- over the weekend, and since -- we could go back and look at it -- has been quite positive about what President Carter had done.

What he kept saying and what was accurate was that President Carter had created here an opportunity that we were going to explore. I remember saying that myself. And that opportunity has paid off very nicely. So I just plain think it is wrong to say that suddenly he has changed what he has said. He used the past tense today to say he did a good job, rather than "is doing" because now that's true.

On the question of coordination, we have said many times what happened, which is that President Carter said that he had an invitation to go to North Korea. He got in touch first with Vice President Gore and with the President to ask whether we agreed to his going, emphasizing that he was going as a private citizen, as he said in a press release that he put out at the time, representing the Carter Center. We discussed it within the administration. This was while we were in Europe, as I recall -- or was it -- in Oxford -- and got back to President Carter and said, yes, we agreed to his going -- although he didn't need our permission, he was acting as a private citizen -- and agreed that he should be very fully briefed on our policies so that he could accurately convey them to the North Koreans.

Ambassador Gallucci met with him at great length. I met with him while he was here in Washington before he went out. And the rest is recent history.

Q: What about the question of what your position will be in talks regarding a full accounting of when North Korea might have done in the past?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as I said, the issue of what happened in the past will be very high on the agenda in those talks. It has always -- this is not a shift in our position. For the last year and more, it has always been contemplated that the issue of their past nuclear activities would be high on the agenda in a third round of talks. My colleague -- correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't remember any variation on that at any stage in the past, and that remains our position. And now, apparently, we will be getting into an opportunity to do so.

Let me simply note here that when they say that they will, in the context of an overall resolution, fully implement the NPT and IAEA safeguards that, in our view, that includes then the kinds of inspections that would allow us to get a handle on what happened in the past.

Let me also emphasize one other point that I think is very important. This is not simply a negotiation between the United States and North Korea. The United States, in these negotiations, is acting on behalf of the international community as a whole. Secondly, when we think about this, talk about this, write about this, we ought to be always recalling the other important track here, which is the North-South dialogue in which there has been significant progress in the last few days; and which is aimed, among other things, at reaffirming the North-South denuclearization agreement.

Q: The U.S. has always taken the position that there were three major issues that had to be discussed with North Korea in addition to the nuclear one; those being human rights, support for international terrorism and missile exports. Do you envision that those issues will be part of the agenda for this third round of talks, or is that something that would be put off for some future round after the nuclear questions were resolved?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President said that we'll be discussing with them all of our relationships -- political, security and economics. I'm not going to rule out any issues for those talks. But the focus here, the main focus, from our point of view, will be on the nuclear issue. But there are a lot of other issues as well. For example, when you're talking about security issues, there are also questions of conventional armorments, how you can build more confidence between the two sides and deal with those issues as well.

Q: Just to clarify -- did you say that they have agreed to fully implement the IAEA and NPT safeguards, or that's an issue they will be discussing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In the context of an overall agreement. In other words, that is something to be negotiated.

Q: Let's say the agreement in the context of an overall resolution. Does that include if they allow the IAEA inspectors to discover with special inspections what happened in 1989, are we willing to negotiate a situation to allow them to have one weapon? Are we satisfied with that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Our purpose here is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

Q: Is that a bottom line?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That is our purpose here, certainly.

Q: Given their unpredictability and their irrational behavior, even in recent times, what makes you think that they can be trusted at this point to abide by anything they agree to?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we can do is to take this step by step, very carefully, as we are. We now have their explicit commitment with regard to the basis for the talks. And the point of our having said throughout this that the IAEA inspectors should be there was to, as the President said, verify that they are abiding by their agreement on the basis for these talks. So this is verifiable throughout; and that is the way we will continue to negotiate.

Q: What precisely is the language -- the duration of the freeze? Is it through the third round, or is it indefinite?


Q: What are the talks that you refer to?


Q: So freeze is only through, at this point, through the talks in early July and the fuel rods themselves, which are now too radioactive to process, will be available to be reprocessed --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are now in a discussion with them at the working level about when those talks begin. Those talks -- there is no set duration for those talks. We would expect to continue in those talks so long as they are productive, but there is no end date to them.

Q: So the freeze, as you understand it from them, is an open-ended freeze, but ongoing diplomatic dialogue that is essentially beginning now, but certainly formally beginning in --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, it is not beginning now. It will begin, and during the duration of those third round talks, they have committed to freeze the major elements of their nuclear program.

Q: Beyond that, you're not talking about two days in Geneva, you're talking about an ongoing process.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, this is an ongoing process, yes, absolutely.

Q: What insight does this development give you into North Korea's behavior given their high voltage rhetoric and bluster in the days leading up to Carter's visit, and now it seems they're being very conciliatory? What do we make of this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we make of it is something that I think I have been saying for a long time now, which is that it would be a mistake on this issue or on most issues to allow ourselves to become wildly optimistic or wildly pessimistic at any stage, based on our assumptions about what is motivating them. What matters here is what they say and what they do. And what matters is that we be very steady and persistent in testing the possibilities in a very realistic way as we go along. And I think that approach has paid off in this step, and it is the approach we intend to follow in the coming weeks. And that is why I have never found it useful, and will not find it useful to speculate on exactly what is motivating them at any particular point. What matters is what we can accomplish.

Q: You gave us basically three reasons or explanations for why this came about at this point --


Q: Well, three facts. U.S. pursuing a steady course, the sanctions push, and then the Carter visit. Mr. Carter, just a few minutes ago, said that he basically thought that those first two and the second one definitely were the wrong course and that the U.S. and Korea were actually headed for a nuclear annihilation basically. How do you answer that? Because it seems that you are putting his visit in the context of what -- number three, one of three. It seems that in his context, it would be number one.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I put them in chronological order, and I will not try to weight them among the importance of the three. I don't think it's really useful to argue about that. The fact is that all three of those things happened. We cannot know exactly what motivated the North Koreans, and I don't see the point in speculating about it or arguing about it. We should simply welcome where we are now and pursue the opportunity that is before us.

Q: You're giving a lot of credit, obviously, to the international policy of the Carter administration, which you were basically saying worked. And what Mr. Carter is saying is it wasn't working, and only by his jumping in at the last minute did --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I cannot -- one, I don't want to -- I don't think it is useful to get into an argument about why. And I very carefully simply stated what the facts are, and people can draw their own conclusions from those facts. I'm not trying to claim particular credit or to run away from any particular credit. Those are the facts and here's where we are, period.

Q: If your basic objective is met in the third round, mainly a verifiably demilitarized Peninsula, would that, in turn, mean for the North Koreans diplomatic recognition, economic ties -- the basic things that they want?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said, there are a lot of issues on each side, but certainly, as we have said before, we are prepared to discuss our political relationships with them, including the issue of normalization; to discuss economic relationships -- and again, this is not just us, but with the international community generally. These are, as we say, broad and thorough discussions, and we're prepared to discuss all of those issues.

Q: Do you see a quid pro quo? I mean, you're emphasizing what you want, naturally. But at the end of the game, if you get what you want, would they get what they want?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's in the nature of agreements. There are a lot of issues on each side. As I said, there's a lot of negotiating ahead of us now, and this is, as the President was trying to emphasize, not the end of a problem but an opportunity to resolve it. What exactly all the tradeoffs here is to further negotiations, and I don't propose to do that in this room.

Q: You were on the verge before President Carter's visit of pressing sanctions through the Security Council; and had he not come forward and come up with this idea, presumably that's where you would be. In light of that, do you think the administration should have made more efforts to open some form of dialogue with the North Koreans that could have achieved this breakthrough and perhaps achieved it earlier? And the President had a brief reference to efforts that have been made on that behalf. Can you elaborate on those?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I missed the last part. First of all, when we have just had a positive step forward, I find it strange to speculate on how we messed it up. So I'll try to get my mind around that. In any case, the --

Q: I wasn't suggesting you messed it up, but just asking whether in retrospect basically you should have come up with this idea as opposed to President Carter coming up with it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that -- I'm trying to remember Kennedy's phrase, if failure is an orphan and success has a thousand -- and there's plenty of room for credit here, as I said. Again, just look at the timing of events here. I have no idea whether before those consultations at the Security Council if there had been a similar approach it would have worked or not.

The fact is that we were consulting at the Security Council. President Carter went, did a good job of conveying our policy, while stating his own views. And the result has been that we have agreed on the basis for the third round. And I see no point in speculating whether if the timing had been different it would have worked, because it worked with this timing.

Q: What about the reference the President made to other contacts, or other efforts to contact the North Koreans?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as you know --and this is not news -- a few months ago, Billy Graham was in Yongbyon and described to Kim Il Sung, after we had talked to him, what our policies were. There is a problem in conveying messages directly to the top leadership of North Korea it has been our experience, or the experience of others. And therefore, it was very useful that President Carter did go and conveyed his description of our policies directly to Kim Il Sung, evidently.

Q: Can I ask you to clarify what you said a moment ago about the issue of normalization? You said, we're prepared to discuss our political relationship, including the issue of normalization. Does that mean that resolution of the nuclear issue would be sufficient basis for normalization, or just that it's a necessary --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said, there are a lot of issues here, and I'm not going to say what fits -- what the quid pro quos are.

Q: But in the past, the U.S. has laid out a number of preconditions for normalization.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would prefer to negotiate with the North Koreans directly.

Q: Yongbyon reactor has been the focus of the inspection efforts, but there have been other suspected nuclear sites in North Korea. What's being done to assure that this freeze will not just be where the inspectors are?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as I said, that's what the special inspections are about.

Q: They're going to allow special inspections, as well --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They haven't said that. That is high on the agenda of items to be negotiated now.

Q: But we'll be talking about that. There is no assurance now that there won't be any continuing activity at suspected other sites in the meantime?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Those sites are places where plutonium may have been stored previously. So that is part of an effort to discover what had happened in the past.

END 6:35 P.M. EDT

William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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