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Crisis in North Korea

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I thank the majority leader, Senator Frist, for accommodating my being able to speak at this moment.

I rise today, after coming from a hearing of my Foreign Relations Committee, where Secretary Powell has just testified. I note at the outset that I, for one—and I think my view is shared by many—think Secretary Powell made a compelling and irrefutable case yesterday about Saddam Hussein's possession of and continued effort to hide his weapons of mass destruction and his desire to gain more. But I am fearful—that is the wrong word—I am concerned that our understandable focus on Iraq at this moment is taking focus off of what I believe to be an equal, if not more immediate, threat to U.S. interests and those of our allies. I speak of Korea.

Last week we learned that North Korea has moved plutonium fuel rods out of storage and possibly towards a production—for everybody listening, this is complicated stuff and I will explain what I mean. They announced today they are beginning their 5 megawatt nuclear powerplant. What happens with that type of nuclear powerplant—which we, until now, had them shut down with the IAEA, when there were cameras and inspectors making sure it was shut down. What happens is they have fuel rods—as my friend knows well, fuel is a nuclear power, produces nuclear power. That spent rod—in other words, the byproduct of that process of generating electricity through nuclear power—that so-called spent rod is then taken out of that reactor and, because of the type of reactor this is, it is the byproduct of that reactor. It is a spent rod that has plutonium in it. Plutonium—and I am giving an unscientific analysis. Not that the American public could not understand it, but this is an unscientific analysis of how it works.

That spent rod is then stored somewhere because it has a radioactive half life that is longer than any of us, or our grandchildren, or great-grandchildren are going to have. What we have always worried about is they would take that spent rod and move it to a plant not far from the reactor that generates electricity, such as the lights that are on in this Chamber, and they are put in a reprocessing plant.

The reprocessing plant is another process by which that spent rod that no longer generates electricity, that has the fissile material in it, essentially takes that rod—it is a long rod and it looks like a big pole, sort of. When it is put in that reprocessing plant, within 1 month there would be enough plutonium—figuratively—that comes out of that rod that is in a different form—enough plutonium to construct one additional nuclear bomb. That material does not lend itself to easy detection. Geiger counters don't click when it passes through a detection area. It is very hard to pick up, like we pick up knives in suitcases going through at the airport. That plutonium is exportable and hardly detectable. It is the stuff of which a nuclear bomb is made.

[Page S2061]
Correct, and prophetic! How then, do we explain the administration's muted response to the world's worst proliferator taking concrete steps that could permit it to build a nuclear arsenal?

We can't afford to put this problem on the back burner just because we are preoccupied with Iraq and the war on terrorism. The administration needs to demonstrate the ability to walk, chew tobacco, and spit at the same time.
If we follow the hard-headed engagement prescription, will it work? Will the North change course?

I don't know. It's impossible to know for sure unless we try. I say the odds, frankly, are stacked against us, and would have been stacked against us even if we hadn't wasted the last 2 years.

Pyongyang says it wants to resolve all of the United States' security concerns, including the "nuclear issue," and will do so if the United States formally assures the DPRK of nonaggression. Is this price too high? Can the North be counted on to fulfill its side of the bargain?

Prior to his departure for Pyongyang in 1994, President Carter was briefed by the State Department on the current situation in North Korea—its economy, military capabilities, diplomatic initiatives. He kept coming back to one question, "What does North Korea want?"

He answered the question himself with one word: RESPECT. The underlying cause of the 1994 crisis and the current one are the same.
North Korea is weak, isolated, and incapable of rescuing itself. Largely cut off from Chinese and Russian support, the DPRK is profoundly insecure. South Korea's economy has made possible a revolution in military affairs, and U.S. military prowess has been proved repeatedly in the Gulf, the Balkans, and most recently in Afghanistan. By contrast the North's conventional military forces are obsolete, its training budget minuscule.

The North is one of the obvious targets of a new so-called "preemptive" military doctrine, and it is witnessing a military buildup in the Persian Gulf designed to oust Saddam Hussein from power in the very near future.
The message to Pyongyang could not be more clear: "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

Fine, Deterrence works, up to a point, and I am not against reminding North Korea of our military prowess.
But only comprehensive negotiations have a change to move Pyongyang back from the precipice it is approaching.
The administration should overcome its distaste for dealing with Kim Chong-il and engage the North in serious, high level, bilateral discussions to end the North's nuclear program once and for all.

Demanding that Pyongyang unconditionally surrender before the United States will engage in talks is a nice fantasy policy, but it has absolutely no hope in the real world.

We should instead adopt a posture of "more for more." The President is right when he resists "paying" North Korea to abide by the agreements it has already signed. But that is not what I'm talking about. The agreed framework left too much undone. Our objective should not be to restore the status quo ante.

Rather, we need to seek the removal of all of the spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. We need verifiably to dismantle the North's highly enriched uranium program. We need to account for the 8-9 kilograms of plutonium "missing" since 1994, and do so sooner. rather than later. We need to get North Korea back inside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and return the inspectors to monitor the North's conduct.

Long term, we need to address the North's development and export of ballistic missiles and its abominable human rights records.

To get there, we must bring something to the table other than threats and insults.
The North isn't looking for money from us. That can come from South Korea, Japan, our allies, in the form of trade, aid, investment, and war reparations.

The North is looking for respect and security. These are precious commodities. The North must earn them. But in the end, it seems a small price to pay if the outcome is a denuclearized Peninsula with North and South living in peace.
If you have a piece of plutonium that has a base bigger in circumference than the bottom of the jar I am holding up and about as half as thick and you have the right instrument, the right rifling effect—you know how a bullet that has gunpowder in it and a piece of metal at the end of it, the stuff that goes through your body, the bullet has to be directed some way; it has to be, in effect, ignited some way.

What happens is you have a rifle with a firing pin. It has a long tube. You hit the back of it, and it explodes the gunpowder, fires this projectile through the rifle, through the long muzzle, and it goes certain distances based on its configuration.

That is what happens when you have these two pieces of plutonium, if you can get your hands on them, and you put it in a nuclear device they call a rifle device. If you can smash those two pieces of plutonium together at the appropriate speed in the appropriate sphere, you can have, with just those two small pieces, a 1-kiloton bomb. A nuclear chain reaction starts when those pieces collide in the right circumstances.

If one of those weapons is homemade—it does not have to be put in a missile. Because it is classified, I am not able to tell you, but I know my friend knows because he has full access, as I do. If we put that so-called rifle device which is, like that old saying, bigger than a bread box but smaller than a Mack truck—it is somewhere in between—if you put that in place in a stationary position and detonate it, you would have been able to take down the World Trade Towers in, I believe it was 3 seconds—do not hold me to that, but very few seconds—and kill about 100,000 people according to our experts. Because this material is highly undetectable and moveable, it is of considerable concern.

What does this have to do with anything? Why am I standing here when we may be able to go to war in Iraq if Saddam does not make the right choice? Why am I talking about this?

What happened is, the North Koreans, who are trying to blackmail us and the world, who are the bad guys, who are doing the wrong thing and are doing it on their own—I am not suggesting anything we did produced that or made them do that—they are saying: We are going forward, and we just turned the light switch on in our 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that will only produce more spent rods—follow me?—the stuff from which you get plutonium, but we have 8,000 of these spent rods sitting in another location. But all we have to do is take these spent rods or the new ones we get and take them over to that reprocessing plant. We have not clicked the light switch on in that plant yet, but we promised you we would not switch the light on in our nuclear powerplant, and we are saying: No, we are out; we are out of the arms control regime; we are going ahead and switching the light on, and if you do not talk to us—basically, blackmail—we are going ahead and switching the light on in the reprocessing facility.

That puts the President in a very difficult position, and I am not suggesting this is an easy call. At the end of December, the administration indicated that it intended to take a careful and deliberative approach to the emerging crisis on the peninsula.

The emerging crisis occurred when they blocked the cameras of the IAEA, kicked the inspectors out, and they went dark; we did not know what they were doing. Fortunately, we have COMINT and HUMINT, my friend knows, a fancy way of saying human intelligence on the ground and satellites above, that give us a pretty good idea what they are doing because we know where the reprocessing plant and nuclear plant are.

[Page S2062]
I think the administration took a fairly reasoned approach. They declared:
We have months to watch this unfold and see what happens.
Other administration officials, including the President, conveyed the importance of patience in assessing and responding to North Korean threats. Were North Korea 3 to 5 years away from acquiring additional nuclear weapons, this patience in diplomacy would be very appropriate. However, there are 8,000 spent-fuel rods in North Korea, which may now be moving out of storage, that can yield enough fissile material for five or six additional nuclear weapons.
The time line for reprocessing this spent fuel is a mere 5 to 6 months, but it gets worse. The North Koreans are likely to reprocess plutonium from spent-fuel rods in small batches. They do not have to take the 8,000 spent-fuel rods and start to reprocess them, meaning that the plutonium emerges a few grams at a time. Enough plutonium to produce one nuclear weapon can be ready in less than 5 weeks, according to our intelligence people and our scientists at the laboratories, after the initial spent fuel—those 8,000 rods—enter the reprocessing plant, not 8,000 of them but some of them.

The clock is already ticking, and I think it is important that the administration's assessment of the recent reports that North Korea has begun removing some or all of those 8,000 spent-fuel rods from those storage facilities—tell us how this development will impact on the overall policy of the administration in terms of patience.

Just restarting this reactor could produce another 6 kilograms of plutonium, in addition to those that are sitting in these rods right now. If Pyongyang completes construction of two unfinished, but much larger nuclear reactors, it could produce as much as 275 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium each year.

When the administration says North Korea's reprocessing, if they started, is not a crisis, it seems to me it makes a very unhealthy suggestion, and that is that the only use of this reprocessed plutonium, the stuff that can go right into a bomb, a nuclear weapon, that the only use they will use it for is to make another six or eight nuclear weapons.

They have, we think, one or two nuclear bombs now, from the time we shut down the process. We worked out an agreement that they shut down the process, and everybody agrees it was shut down in 1994.

I would have to agree with the administration because I think deterrence works. They seem to have a dual standard here. They say the reason we have to build a national missile defense is if deterrence does not work, and now they tell us basically: Do not worry, it does not materially change the situation on the peninsula if they get another three, four, five, or eight nuclear weapons. I think it does. Apparently they agree deterrence does work somehow or they would be much more worried about it.

I then ask the question, What happens if they do not take this spent fuel? What happens if they do not take it and put it in a weapon? What happens if they take this plutonium from the spent fuel and put it in a little canister? I am told by my staff who is expert on Korea that their total trade surplus is about $400 million a year.

If they have this spent fuel, I cannot imagine they would not be able to find buyers where they could pick up maybe $200 million for this. What would Iran pay for this spent fuel? They are trying to now generate the ability to reprocess their own fissile material.

What about al-Qaida, who I might note is alive and well, unfortunately? Damaged but well, damaged but in business. Remember when we saw those pictures as we took Kandahar, when we invaded Afghanistan with the multilateral force? Remember a reporter—I forget which news organization it was, but I think it was one of the weekly magazines. I will not say which one. I remember clearly, and everyone else will remember when I say it, they went into a safe house, I believe it was in Kandahar, and came out with a diagram—a safe house meaning a house occupied by al-Qaida—of an attempt at what looked like how to produce a nuclear weapon. Then we got further information saying there was clear evidence that al-Qaida had been talking to two Pakistani nuclear scientists who know how to and have made nuclear weapons. So obviously these boys are trying to figure out how to make a homemade nuclear device.
So I would like to think, and I agree the probability is North Korea is not likely to sell this—I should not say not likely—may not sell this plutonium. They may use it all for their own purposes.

What if we are wrong and the ability to account for this material is virtually nonexistent, because it is so difficult to discern and determine where it is? The reason why our intelligence service, even after the agreed framework, is saying we think they have enough fuel, enough fissile material, plutonium from the past to have made one or two nuclear bombs by 1994, we do not know that. So what happens if we do not resolve this crisis, draw some red lines, make it clear what our intention is and talk with these guys? What happens if 6 months down the road they have started up the reprocessing plant and we know they have enough plutonium for 6 new nuclear weapons, and then we get an agreement? They are going to say we did not really produce X amount, we produced Y amount, or X minus whatever. Are we ever going to know where this material is? This is dangerous stuff.

As I understand it, the Bush administration says—which is the preferred course—we do not want to be blackmailed. We have to put this into a multilateral context. Again, I find it interesting they never wanted to do anything multilateral but now with regard to Korea they want to be multilateral, which is a good idea. They say China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan have as much at stake as we do, even more.

So what we are going to do—and it is correct if we can get it done—we are going to say we will negotiate or talk with North Korea only under the umbrella of a multilateral meeting called by the community I just named, where we are one of the parties.

What are the North Koreans saying? They are saying it does not matter what the rest of these guys think. We want to know what you think. We know if we do not get a nonaggression agreement in some form from you, our legitimacy continues to be at stake.

Do we want to legitimize this illegitimate regime? No. But here is the horns of the dilemma. If we do not talk to them about what it is we insist on in order to suggest we get a nonaggression pact or some version of it, if we do not let it be known, we will never know whether there could have been an agreement, and we almost certainly know that in the near term there will be plutonium that is unaccounted for coming out of that country.

My colleagues might say, oh, that is not true, Joe. All we have to do is we can take out those reprocessing plants—and we can, by the way. We can take them out in a heartbeat. We have the capacity. We know where they are. We can blow them up with our missiles, our jets, our standoff bombers.

Guess what. There are roughly 8,000 pieces of artillery they have sitting within range of Seoul. One of our South Korean friends told us, we do not support you using force against the North.

How can we go to war with the North when the South will not support us? Kind of fascinating, isn't it?
China says they are prepared to talk with North Korea but you should not waste any more time. Talk to them. South Korea is saying you should talk to them. In a sense, the President is put on the horns of another dilemma. One says we should talk multilateral because that is the best way to deal with this, and all our multilateral partners whom we say should be part of the discussion say, no, you talk, which is unfair because China will not step up to its obligations and its own interest, in my humble opinion. So much is at stake for South Korea in terms of the potential carnage that would occur to South Koreans, in addition to the 37,000 American forces on the peninsula. They are saying, whoa, we are not for you taking out those reactors. We are not ready to have you call the bluff of the North.

So what does the President do? Imagine being President of the United States and having to make the decision between shutting down a reactor you believe to be inimicable to your security interests, and knowing if you do, you may very well be in a position of starting a war—justified in literal terms, in my view—that would cause such overwhelming damage to the—and we would win the war, by the way, but it would cause such overwhelming damage to the very people we went to Korea in the first place to protect, the South Koreans.

[Page S2063]
What do we do? I suggest the members of this administration have the answer if they listen to the people who are now in their administration. The Bush administration claims the ball is in North Korea's court. North Korea says the ball is in our court. From where I sit, the ball is stuck somewhere in the net, or not even in the net. You know how once in awhile when you were a kid you would fake a jumpshot from the corner and it would get wedged between the back corner and the rim? That is where the ball is right now. Somebody has to jump up and put the ball back in play.
How does the ball get put back in play? There was a report written not long ago called The Armitage Report. He happens to be the No. 2 guy at the State Department now. In that report, Mr. Armitage and others—including the following people: Paul Wolfowitz, the No. 2 guy at Defense; the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Peter Brookes; current Assistant Secretary of Intelligence and Research, Carl Ford, among others. They are all part of this Armitage Report filed before President Bush became President—called for a policy of hardheaded engagement, developing close coordination with our allies and backed by a credible threat of military force. Their prescription was remarkably close to that offered by former Secretary of Defense Perry, but has the tremendous political advantage of having been embraced by so many leading figures on the Bush foreign policy team, the people running the show now.
What did Armitage advocate? Here are the key recommendations.

First, regain the diplomatic initiative. U.S. policy toward North Korea has "become largely reactive and predictable with U.S. diplomacy characterized by a cycle of North Korea provocation or demand and an American response."
Good idea. Now the Bush administration claims the ball is in their court, as I said.

The second recommendation was "a new approach must treat the agreed framework as the beginning of a policy toward North Korea, not as an end to the problem. It should clearly formulate answers to two key questions. First, what precisely do we want from North Korea and what price are we prepared to pay for it."

I am quoting from the Armitage report that Wolfowitz signed off on and Carl Ford signed off on, major players in this administration.

They said, "Are we prepared to take a different course if, after exhausting all reasonable diplomatic efforts, we conclude that no worthwhile court is possible?"

What diplomatic efforts have we exhausted? These are great questions, but the administration has yet to answer them. Indeed, the administration cannot seem to decide what it is about the north that bothers it the most. Is it human rights abuses or past support of terrorism, export of missiles, its military threat, or its nuclear program?

To me, the priority must be a verifiable ending of North Korea's weapons program, particularly nuclear weapons. Everything else must be put off for another day.

The third recommendation of the Armitage report: A U.S. point person should be designated by the President in consultation with congressional leaders and should report directly to the President.

We have a fine man named Kelly out of the State Department, but he has no direct access to the President. This has not been raised up to that level because we are being told—I don't know why—that this is not a crisis.

I think the American people and this Congress are fully capable of handling more than one crisis at a time. Iraq is a crisis. So we are told. Well, it is. But not in my view in terms of the immediate threat to the United States. Or the crisis could be in North Korea. Why can't we do both?

President Bush has downgraded the special envoy position, thereby assuring that we cannot gain access to Kim Chong-il, the only man in North Korea with whom we can get a deal, or at least figure out what he is about.

Fourth recommendation: Offer Pyongyang clear choices in regard to the future. On the one hand, economic benefits, security assurances, political legitimization. On the other hand, the certainty of enhanced military deterrence.
For the United States and its allies, the package, as a whole, means we are prepared, if Pyongyang meets our concerns, to accept North Korea as a legitimate actor up to and including full normalization of relations.

This is not JOE BIDEN writing this recommendation; it is Paul Wolfowitz. It is the Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Armitage. What happened in a year and a half? What happened to change their mind?

The good idea of the administration almost seems ready to be embraced. The President has spoken about bold initiatives toward the north but talk of carrots still has been undermined by the Bush administration's insistence that incentives are the equivalent to appeasement.

Before my committee today, the Secretary of State says we have no intention to go to war with the north, et cetera, et cetera. The right words, right phraseology. The Secretary of Defense walked out of a hearing yesterday with the House Armed Services Committee and said this is an evil empire, something much more provocative. Accurate but provocative.
The fifth recommendation by this committee that the notion of buying time works in our favor is increasingly dubious. Let me reiterate the fifth point of the report signed by Carl Ford, No. 2, over at CIA, Wolfowitz, No. 2 at Defense, Armitage, No. 2 at State: The notion that buying time works in our favor is increasingly dubious.

President Bush, please, even if you don't want to enunciate it, in your mind, treat this as a crisis because, if it is not contained now, our options are only diminished as time goes by, not increased.

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