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Powell IV NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert

Secretary Colin L. Powell Washington, DC December 29, 2002

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, welcome.

SECRETARY POWELL: Good morning, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: The North Koreans transferring fuel rods to make plutonium to make nuclear bombs, kicking out United Nations inspectors. What is President Bush going to do about this?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, it's a very serious situation and we're taking it seriously, but I think it's important to put it in perspective. The Agreed Framework of 1994, entered into by North Korea and the United States, capped the plutonium efforts at this place called Yongbyon that's of such attention now. What we found out, though, is that within a few years of agreeing to cap that program, the North Koreans began another program to enrich uranium. We discovered that over the last six or seven months. Our intelligence sources told us this was happening.

The President immediately engaged on this issue. We've started talking to our friends and allies about it. And then we made an overture to the North Koreans. In Brunei, at the end of July, I asked to see the foreign minister of North Korea. We had a pleasant conversation. I told him that the United States wanted to engage with North Korea, we wanted to help them, we wanted to help their people, but we had to deal with these issues of proliferation and weapons of mass destruction. He understood that.

A few weeks later, we sent in Assistant Secretary Kelly, presented them with the evidence of this new capability. And they initially denied it and then they acknowledged it. So they acknowledged that they had violated the Agreed Framework and were putting in place another way of developing nuclear weapons.

We said this is unacceptable and we immediately began working with our friends and allies in the region, who of course have a greater interest in this than even we should have because they are so near North Korea. And so we are mobilizing the international community to put pressure on North Korea to recognize that this is not the way to go.

Now, not only do they have that program, they, then, as you noted, have restarted the program at Yongbyon. Now, what they say they are doing is restarting that 5-megawatt reactor to generate electricity, electricity they say they need because we've cut off fuel because the Agreed Framework was nullified by them. That reactor does not really produce enough electricity to make it worth starting, but it is a source of spent fuel rods that could be converted to plutonium that could make nuclear weapons, and that is of concern to us.

It is not a crisis, but it is a matter of great concern, and that's why we have spent so much time working with our friends and allies to apply pressure to North Korea and why we are talking to the United Nations. President Bush has been engaged from the very beginning. He's had extensive conversations with President Putin, with President Jiang Zemin, with President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and with Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan.

And so we are keeping all of our options open and we are approaching this in a very deliberate way. We want to make sure that the whole world recognizes what's going on, and it is not just a US-North Korea issue.

MR. RUSSERT: The North Koreans are up to no good?

SECRETARY POWELL: Clearly, they're up to no good. I mean that this was a marvelous act of misdirection. The previous administration was able to cap Yongbyon, and while the whole world's attention was focused on Yongbyon, the plutonium facility, they started something else. And this happened years ago.

MR. RUSSERT: Why not talk directly to the North Koreans?

SECRETARY POWELL: I talked directly to the North Koreans in Brunei at the end of July and Assistant Secretary Kelly talked directly to the North Koreans in early October.

MR. RUSSERT: Are you prepared to do it again?

SECRETARY POWELL: -- in early October. We have channels open. We have ways of communicating with the North Koreans. They know how to contact us. We have our friends who also have contacts with the North Koreans.

But what we can't do, what we cannot do at this point, is, having misbehaved with respect to this new facility and now further violation of their international agreements with what they're doing at Yongbyon, we cannot suddenly say, gee, we're so scared, let's have a negotiation because we want to appease your misbehavior. That is not an acceptable position for us to take, for the international community to take. This kind of action, this kind of behavior, cannot be rewarded.

So we are looking for ways to communicate with the North Koreans so some sense can prevail. This is a country that's in desperate condition. What are they going to do with another two or three nuclear weapons when they're starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that's functioning? We now believe they have a couple of nuclear weapons and have had them for years. This new facility, should they do what they're capable of doing, of producing several more nuclear weapons, it will not feed one more North Korean child, it will not light one more North Korean home. And we hope that through a process of careful diplomacy, pressure, international attention and a willingness to listen to ideas as they come forward, we will find a way through this issue.

MR. RUSSERT: If the North Koreans reach out, would you consider sending a special envoy there?

SECRETARY POWELL: If the North Koreans reached out and started to make sensible statements and stopped taking actions which are, frankly, provocative and seen as provocative by the international community, we would see what might be appropriate at that point. But I'm not making a commitment this morning as to what we might do.

MR. RUSSERT: Including a special envoy?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I don't know. A special envoy. We have lots of ways of talking to them, communicating with them. And it is not just the United States. It's China, which provides 80 percent of their energy and 40 percent of their goods. And remember the very strong statement of President Jiang Zemin made when he was at Crawford with President Bush. The Chinese policy is for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. So right now, North Korea is flying in the face of the desires and the expectations of their strongest friend in the region, China.

MR. RUSSERT: Will President Bush allow North Korea to build any more nuclear bombs?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, we'll see. I don't want to prejudge what the President might or might not do. Right now, we have a serious situation. We're monitoring it carefully. We are using all of the diplomatic options that are available to us and we have a full range of options and we will see how this starts to unfold. Right now, the North Koreans say that their efforts are not for the purpose of making bombs, their efforts are for the purpose of making electricity. That's a strained argument and we'll just see what happens. We have months to watch this unfold to see what happens. We are also going to be interested in what the International Atomic Energy Agency says when it meets in Board of Governors forum on the 6th of January to consider this situation. But it is a dangerous situation and we're not underplaying it and we're not preoccupied with Iraq, as some claim. If we were preoccupied with Iraq, we wouldn't have put the case out in front of the world and to the North Koreans earlier this year.

MR. RUSSERT: This, in fact, is probably more dangerous than Iraq, more of an imminent risk, and the nuclear -- the North Koreans have a larger army and a larger military capability with more advanced weapons.

SECRETARY POWELL: They have a larger army but they are also pretty much a broken society and a broken country, a broken economy. And so they are, I think, in rather desperate straits. Yes, they have a large army and yes, they have had these couple of nuclear weapons for many years, and if they have a few more, they have a few more, and they could have them for many years. But Iraq is a regime that has stood in defiance of 16 UN resolutions and we're waiting to see whether they're going to be in defiance of this new one. And they have used this kind of capability against their own people, against their neighbors, and they have stood in this kind of defiance for 12 years. This is an emerging situation with respect to North Korea that's just unfolded over the last several months.

I would also make the point that we are really approaching both, in some ways, in the same fashion, and that is trying to use diplomatic efforts and trying to use the international community to apply pressure on both these regimes. But it is dangerous and I think this is also time to make a point that it seems that, you know, the President's commitment to missile defense seems to be a very wise commitment and I'm pleased that we're starting to move forward with this program with some at least tentative deployments in 2004.

MR. RUSSERT: In 1993, nine years ago, on this program, I talked to President Clinton about North Korea. Let's watch that exchange:

MR. RUSSERT: Will you allow North Korea to build a nuclear bomb?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb. We have to be very firm about it.

MR. RUSSERT: In fact, they did develop the nuclear bomb, as you just said.

SECRETARY POWELL: In fact, they probably had it at the time President Clinton was saying that. And President Clinton -- and I give President Clinton and his administration credit for having developed the Agreed Framework with the help of a number of people -- and that Agreed Framework kept any more bombs from being developed as a result of what was at Yongbyon. But the fact of the matter is that while everybody was keeping their eyes on the Agreed Framework and Yongbyon, the North Koreans were going after nuclear weapons through another means, and that is through developing an enriched uranium capability at a site we haven't determined yet.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, on March 6th, 2001, you said, "We do plan to engage North Korea to pick up where President Clinton left off." The next day, the President of the United States said, "We will not be negotiating with North Korea."

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, let's also review what happened since that time. The President undertook a full review of our policy with respect to North Korea. His concern at that time was that do we have ways of verifying what the North Koreans are saying to us? Do we have a good understanding of what they're actually doing? Do we have any concerns about that large army that you made reference to, which was not part of President Clinton's dialogue with the North Koreans?

And after a full review this past summer, President Bush authorized me to engage with North Korea, having completed our review. We made it clear to North Korea we had no hostile intent toward it, we had no intention of attacking it. The President said that when he was in South Korea in February of this year.

So we took our time. We had a complete review. The President indicated no hostility toward North Korea, no intention to attack, and then he authorized me to begin engagement with North Korea, which I did at the end of July of this year. Unfortunately, just before that engagement began in Brunei with the foreign minister of North Korea, the intelligence came to our attention that suggested that they had been deceiving the previous administration and deceiving us for the first year of our administration.

MR. RUSSERT: But on January 29th of this year, the President said they were -- North Korea is part of the "axis of evil." The North Koreans responded by saying that we were, the United States, the empire of the devil, moral lepers, and the President was crazy. Do you believe by labeling them the "axis of evil" may have motivated them to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons?

SECRETARY POWELL: They were motivated some four or five years ago, if not earlier, to make the political decision to move down the road of finding a second way of developing a nuclear weapon. And so the "axis of evil" speech which is only some eleven months old has nothing to do with the program that began four years ago. And in fact, if anything, the President's statement and characterization of the North Korean regime, as he did, seems to be vindicated by the facts that have subsequently come out.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you something else that President Clinton said just two weeks ago, and I'll put it on the board for you and our viewers:

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We were in a very intense situation with North Korea. They were planning to produce six to eight nuclear weapons per year with plutonium extracted from power plants. We actually drew up plans to attack North Korea and to destroy their reactors and we told them we would attack unless they ended their nuclear program.

MR. RUSSERT: Do we currently have plans to attack North Korea on the boards in order to have a preemptive strike against their nuclear reactor if they refuse?

SECRETARY POWELL: We are not planning a preemptive strike. The United States has a full range of capabilities -- political, economic, diplomatic, and yes, military. But we are not trying to create a crisis atmosphere at this point by threatening North Korea. We believe this is the time to work closely with our South Korean allies who have more than a passing equity in this matter. We have a new president coming in in South Korea, President-elect Roh. He has made a positive statement with respect to our strategy toward dealing with North Korea, as has the outgoing president, Kim Dae-jung. We are going to work with our allies, increase the pressure in North Korea, and try to solve this in a diplomatic way.

MR. RUSSERT: But if North Korea says, "I'm sorry, we are going to make nuclear bombs and we're going to export them"?

SECRETARY POWELL: This would change the situation. It's not what North Korea has said. What North Korea has said -- now, we'll measure them by what they do, but what they have said is that they believe they need the extra electricity from this small reactor which doesn't produce much electricity. So we'll see whether this is brinksmanship or if it is a real commitment to develop additional nuclear weapons to add to a small stockpile.

It is so tragic, Tim, that this country with such needs, such tremendous needs, would waste their time and energy and resources in this kind of brinksmanship. It is a tragedy for the people of North Korea when the entire world stands ready to help them. I mean, look at what they have lost by this action, by this series of provocative actions. The Japanese were prepared to engage with them, moving toward normalization and providing economic assistance. The South Koreans were doing the same thing. The United States -- the reason the President authorized me to begin talking to North Korea is we wanted to -- he even called it "throw a deep pass" to see if we can get them on a more stable footing.

And all of that has been put in abeyance right now. It's not the United States telling our friends and allies in the region what to do. They've come to their own conclusion. The Japanese, the South Koreans, others come to their own conclusion that until North Korea does something about this problem, it is hard to make the case that they should assist North Korea with the kind of assistance North Korea really needs.

MR. RUSSERT: Two weeks ago, we intercepted a North Korean ship carrying 15 scud missiles to Yemen. We let it go. If, in fact, the North Koreans began to ship nuclear materials, would we intercept them and stop such shipments?

SECRETARY POWELL: We would intercept anything we think deserved to be intercepted. We have the right to intercept and take whatever action we believe appropriate in the circumstances. That's a bit of a fuzzy answer but I don't want to be precise in the absence of a precise situation. We detected this movement, the shipment. We, with our friends, the Spanish, stopped the ship, went aboard it, determined that scud missiles were aboard. But we also determined that they were going to a legitimate purchaser, Yemen. And Yemen had said to us -- a good friend of ours, the Government of Yemen, said that this was the last of such shipments, there were no more shipments coming.

And under those circumstances, we allowed the ship to continue. But we could have not allowed the ship to continue if we determined that it was in our interest for that ship not to continue.

MR. RUSSERT: But we cannot let North Korea begin to sell or ship nuclear bombs.

SECRETARY POWELL: This, I think, would be a red line that would definitely be crossed.

MR. RUSSERT: In North Korea, the inspectors are out. In Iraq, inspectors in. In Korea, they are months from having more nuclear weapons. Iraq, perhaps years. Why isn't North Korea a more imminent threat? Why wouldn't we go after North Korea rather than go after Iraq?

SECRETARY POWELL: It's amazing. Everybody seems to say, you know, why don't we go start a war right away. A war is not necessary to deal with this situation right now. It fascinates me as the Secretary of State, constantly being accused of being in an administration that wishes to act unilaterally and reach for your gun at the drop of a hat. In this instance and in the instance of Iraq, we are using the international community, and we have friends and allies who think as we do, we have friends and allies who have equities in the region. And before we start charging into and creating a crisis atmosphere in the region, we have to think about how this affects our South Korean friends, how it affects our Japanese friends, the role that the Russians can play and the Chinese can play. I mean, the European Union yesterday, Mr. Solana, the High Representative of the European Union, made it clear, speaking for the European Union, that this is a problem between North Korea and the world, not North Korea and the United States.

MR. RUSSERT: You have said that Saddam Hussein is in material breach in Iraq.

SECRETARY POWELL: The declaration was.

MR. RUSSERT: His declaration of what he possessed in terms of weapons of mass destruction. How long will we allow him to be in material breach before taking action?

SECRETARY POWELL: He has been in material breach from the very beginning, from back in 1991. The false declaration, or the inadequate declaration, if I can put it that way, is another material breach, in our judgment, and therefore it just adds to the case against him that he is not yet cooperating fully when you look at that declaration. And so we will wait to get additional reports from Dr. Blix and Dr. El Baradei, the head of UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency in January and wait to see what report we get from them in a more definitive way at the end of January.

MR. RUSSERT: Is time running out for Saddam Hussein?

SECRETARY POWELL: I think that this can't go on indefinitely. We are anxious to see the results of the inspectors' work and the President has not made a decision yet with respect to the use of military force or with respect to going back to the United Nations, but it's a situation, of course, we're monitoring closely, and, of course, we're positioning ourselves and positioning our military forces for whatever might be required.

MR. RUSSERT: But if he disarms completely, he could stay in power?

SECRETARY POWELL: We will wait and see what happens. If he disarms completely to the satisfaction, complete satisfaction, of the international community, that would suggest that the nature of that regime is changing. We just have to wait and see.

MR. RUSSERT: A final question. If we do go into Iraq, what happens to the oil fields?

SECRETARY POWELL: The oil fields are the property of the Iraqi people and if a coalition of forces goes into those oil fields, we would want to protect those fields and make sure that they are used to benefit the people of Iraq and are not destroyed or damaged by a failing regime on the way out the door. And you can be sure that they would be protected and the revenue generated from any such oil fields would be used in accordance with international law and to benefit the people of Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. We thank you for sharing your views, and Happy New Year.

SECRETARY POWELL: Thank you, Tim. Same to you. Happy New Year.

[End]

Released on December 29, 2002

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