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News Conference of the Senate Democratic Leadership

Location: Washington, DC

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Thank you very much, Mr. Leader. Madame Secretary, Mr. Secretary, this distinguished group that you have put together, Mr. Leader, I think makes a very—very cogent and important point. We quite frankly have no policy now. There is no policy. I would not call it benign neglect, I'd call it malign neglect. This is a notion where we have been treated, we have—ironically, I don't know how this has happened—the one most important thing I remember back when Secretary Perry was engaged in his initiatives was the principle that the now-senior members of the Republican administration, the Bush administration, and Secretary Perry were on the exact same page on, and that was the need to keep Japan, South Korea and the United States on the exact same page. The irony is we should be talking to North Korea and negotiating with South Korea. I mean, think for a moment the position we now find ourselves in. The North Korean provocation is used as further justification for a hard-line approach, the advocacy of a national missile defense, and the swing back and forth between name-calling and engagement. The resulting paralysis is less and less likely to prevent North Korea from reprocessing this plutonium, this spent fuel. They have 8,000 of these rods. They do not need much other then to begin the reprocessing facility. This is not—this is in a sense rocket science, but it's not rocket science. This is easily done. It's not a question whether the capacity exists.

And the point Secretary Perry makes in his very profound and almost understated way is that he said it doesn't take much of the plutonium—you notice he held his hands up—this is not a matter of us being able to detect as the average American thinks with some kind of Geiger counter this radioactive material that is going to click of if anybody tries to take it out of the country. This is fairly easy stuff to smuggle. This is fairly easy stuff to transport. This is not the stuff of which it is easy to detect.

And I would note, with the leader's permission, back in the good old days, for the brief shiny moment when we were in control, I went to the laboratories, and I asked our national laboratories, would we be able to—if you were an ordinary terrorist, a little above the ordinary, would you be able to off the shelf in effect construct a nuclear device? Because remember some of you came out of—some of your agencies came out of safe houses in Kandahar where little diagrams were found in those safe houses that al Qaeda was trying to build and figure out how to build a home-made nuclear device. They were talking to Pakistani scientists. So I asked is that possible. They went back and they constructed such a device, bigger than a bread box, smaller than a Mack truck, but one that is in fact within the realm of possibilities buy in a sense off the shelf the ingredients that would provide everything but the fissile material to make the bomb go boom. This is a grave concern—not only the concern that they will end up with five or six more nuclear weapons, which as Secretary Perry has pointed out will change the entire equation on the peninsula, and I—and I am not unique in this—will predict will end up with nuclearizing the peninsula, and in the very near term I may be the only one who thinks this, but Japan becoming a nuclear power very rapidly—all of which is bad. I am incredibly worried about the proliferation of fissile material.

Ironically, the path that we are suggesting here today is similar to an approach advocated by some of the most prominent members of the Bush administration before they entered office. It is a path that enjoys broad bipartisan support, and I predict would quickly win endorsement from our key allies. So the thing that perplexes me about this is why in fact when there are serious Republicans in this body—very serious Republicans—serious players in the Bush administration who all acknowledge the only option on the table quite frankly in my view, is the one that has been proffered here by Secretary Carter's report, why it is we are unwilling to move. You have to ask yourself that question. And I think it's because—and I may be the odd man out here, and I don't mean to be too provocative, but I believe it's because there is still a significant division within this administration between those who look at North Korea strictly in terms of regime change and those who look at North Korea in terms of keeping this inside the box, and not having the proliferation or the capacity to build more nuclear weapons. I think we are at a very dangerous point. I don't think there's much time left to decide what path to take. And I sincerely hope the administration will, if not listen to us, at least listen to voices within the administration—and they do exist—who are making the exact same case that we are making here today. I thank you, Mr. Leader.

SEN. BIDEN: I am not going to comment on that. I know that Chairman Lugar and I agree that there should be talks, and I know that we both understand that what Mr. Berger said. The fact of the matter is that absent us being willing to talk to find out what the bottom line here is—as Secretary Perry said, this will be an incredibly difficult negotiation—and he is not only optimistic, nor am I nor any of us that it will bear fruit. But it is only at that point are we able to, as Sandy Berger said, is to go back to the Chinese and say, Okay, here are the options. They are in this deal. They are going full bore. Now we need you, because it's clearly not in your interests, China, to have Korea become a nuclear peninsula. It's clearly not in your interests for Japan—Japan has not declared this—Japan to become a nuclear power. That's the only way I think we get back into the game with our allies.

Absent that there really is—one of the reasons why this administration loves to demonstrate its bravado. Why are there no lines drawn in the sand so far? Well, the reason there's no lines, there's not many options absent the South Koreans being in on the deal.

Q Do you see Senate Republicans -- (off mike) -- ?

SEN. BIDEN: The answer is yes, but I don't want to characterize which Republicans and how many Republicans. I am also confident within the administration at very high levels there are those pushing the administration to move in this direction. I have been here for seven presidents. It's the single most divided administration that I have been involved in—in fundamental ways. There's a San Andreas Fault that runs down the middle of this administration. On one side is one axis, and the other—I won't even characterize it—and the other side is a very different view of the world. And on this subject—on this subject, remember, I don't want to get them in trouble—there's a real division.

Q A question for Dr. Perry, if I may. A number of people in the administration have suggested that a war in Iraq would have a demonstration effect on North Korea, that we have to do the war in Iraq before we deal with North Korea. Given your experience dealing with the North Koreans, what impact do you think our imminent war in Iraq will have on their thinking, and will it in any way help to resolve it?

SEN. BIDEN: I want to make one point, and I apologize for interrupting, about when you asked Dr. Perry about whether or not you leverage if we, quote, "take down Iraq quickly we'll leverage our influence and power." I would respectfully suggest that one of the reasons we have not been more successful with China, that is an incredible key, one of the potential keys to a solution here, is that China has been unwilling to be involved, and notwithstanding this new evolved relationship that the administration talks about. China has been unwilling to get more engaged, because I respectfully suggest China doesn't know which part of this administration is in fact calling the shots. If this is for regime change, China is not for it. If this is for denuclearizing the peninsula, China is for it. You cannot engage in quasi unilateral actions and discount all of your allies and potential friends as it relates to Iraq and the rest of the world, and then turn around the next moment and say, Now, by the way, we expect you to get in the deal here. You cannot announce doctrines of preemption at the moment you're saying you don't want to go to the United Nations, and then go to the United Nations and confuse the devil out of all your people who you are trying to get support for, and say, By the way, jump in the middle of this now, because we don't know—and I respectfully suggest I'm not sure China know—nor I am sure the president knows what the policy is. I'll end where I began: there is no policy. There is no policy. And so there's consequences. So I would argue that our actions in Iraq and the way we've gone about it have had the exact opposite impact that has lessened our leverage, lessened our options, and made it more difficult to deal with a more dangerous situation.

Q Senator Biden and Senator Levin, in your dealing with the administration, do you believe that they have reached the conclusion that it is inevitable for North Korea to have nuclear weapons? And do you agree with that assessment?

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