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Veteran Diplomat Weighs In Ahead Of U.S.-North Korea Summit


For the long view on North Korea-U.S. negotiations, let's bring in veteran diplomat Richard Boucher. In October 2000, he traveled with secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang. North Korea had agreed to freeze its nuclear program, and there was some hope that it would go even further. That did not happen. And a couple years later, Boucher was still at the State Department when the U.S. withdrew from the agreement after accusing the North Koreans of violating it. Richard Boucher, welcome to the program.

RICHARD BOUCHER: Thank you, Audie. Pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: When you look back at that moment in 2000 with Secretary Albright, was it a hopeful one?

BOUCHER: It was indeed. And everything seemed to be going right. Everything was clicking in the meetings and the discussions. There was that famous moment in the stadium with thousands - tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands people and the pictorial cards showing this missile launch. And Kim Jong Il turns to Secretary Albright and said, let's hope that's the last one. And in our discussions, he was sort of swatting away problems like flies and saying, yeah, we can do that. We can do this. We'll take care of that. We'll take care of this.

CORNISH: That was the experience with Kim Jong Il, right? The father.

BOUCHER: Yeah. The father of the current president.

CORNISH: When you look back, what went wrong, in hindsight? What were some of the pitfalls there?

BOUCHER: Well, the bottom line was Secretary Albright needed not just the commitments, she needed the verification. And...

CORNISH: Verification, meaning, when you say you're going to get rid of weapons, we want to send inspectors.

BOUCHER: Exactly. And Kim Jong Il said, yes, yes. I'll do that. I'll do that. But I will do that when the - when I meet with President Clinton. And Albright said, no, you've got to do that - you've got to - we got to have these commitments before I can recommend to the president that he meet with you. And it was the end of the Clinton administration. There just wasn't time to put in place all those pieces to make sure that any commitments would really stick.

CORNISH: And that brings us to the Bush administration, when U.S. intelligence reported that, essentially, North Korea was in violation of the deal - right? - that they were enriching uranium. What happened there that we can draw lessons from?

BOUCHER: The first thing is that we had capped one kind of enrichment, plutonium enrichment, the reactor programs. But we hadn't dealt with the uranium centrifuge programs because we didn't know about it. When we find out about it, they're cheating. They have a parallel stream. And the Bush administration said, on that basis, we can't continue to proceed. So the lesson is that verification has to be built in right from the start. And we have to be very careful about making sure that as they dismantle, as they denuclearize, we take steps towards peace. So our steps are based on their results, not just on some artificial timetable.

CORNISH: Given that, how wary should we be about what we know about the weapons that they have - right? How do we know we won't be in another situation where there is some parallel stream or some alternate path to a nuclear weapon?

BOUCHER: Well, I think the first thing - out of this meeting, we ought to get an indefinite freeze on testing missiles and nukes. That's pretty obvious when they do it. So get the indefinite freeze. The second thing is, very early in the process, there needs to be a very complete list of all their missiles facilities, all their nuclear facilities, all their enrichment facilities, all their weapons. One would hope that in the preliminary discussions, we made clear that it would be best if Kim Jong Un brings that to the meetings in Singapore. Probably won't. But that's got to be a very early part of the process. And then once we have that, it's on that basis that we all proceed.

CORNISH: Given what you've seen and heard so far, do you think North Korea is sincere in its coming to the table?

BOUCHER: I think they are, whether they have the same understanding as we do on denuclearization, whether they have the same expectations as we do on our ability to maintain the alliance with South Korea. We'll have to see. But the fundamentals of the deal have always been the same - peaceful peninsula, denuclearized peninsula in exchange for a final peace treaty and acceptance of the regime by the United States. Both parties are getting some of that up front. They're getting acceptance by having a meeting with our president, and we're getting a freeze on testing. So let's take that and move forward on that basis. So there is a basis, and there is a reason for both parties to stay involved.

CORNISH: Richard Boucher was at the State Department. He went to North Korea with then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000. Thank you for speaking with us.

BOUCHER: Thank you very much, Audie. It's a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.