Former US Envoy to North Korea Ambassador Jack Pritchard: “They Needed a Prop. This Was the Prop”

Aug 5, 2009 5:31pm

Earlier today I got to interview Ambassador Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard, President of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, DC.  Pritchard served for President George W. Bush as U.S. ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with the North Korea from April 2001 until September 2003, when he resigned, protesting the Bush administration’s policy towards North Korea. He had previously served as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Asian Affairs in the administration of President Bill Clinton. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. It was transcribed by Sarah Tobianski.

Tapper:  Why did you leave the Bush administration?

Pritchard: I left because I didn’t agree with what we were doing – that we were headed in the wrong direction. The Bush administration wasn’t prepared to discuss anything with the North Koreans.  We were in the process of undoing the 1994 agreement framework which had frozen the North Korean’s plutonium program.  In that period of time — regardless of how you want to look at it now whether they were going to be cheating on it at some point in time –during that period of time, they did not produce plutonium.  They did not produce nuclear weapons.  They did not detonate any material at all.  That all came unraveled.  That was all preventable.

Tapper: I haven’t read Ambassador Albright’s book – but I understand she goes on in the book about Kim Jong Il about being somewhat obsessed with President Clinton and really wanting him to come visit while he was president. Did it surprise you at all that that was the leader they demanded – they didn’t want Al Gore –

Pritchard:  No.  Not at all. It’s a – it’s kind-of the bookend, if you will.  In October of 2000, Kim Jong Il sent his number two to the White House, and they had discussions with President Clinton in the Oval office.  He brought with him a letter from Kim Jong Il inviting President Clinton to come to Pyongyang, in which he said, ‘I will resolve all of your security concerns.’ Now that’s very tempting.  The president said at the time, ‘Now I don’t want to miss an opportunity.  If I can solve this problem that we are having with North Korea…’ Well, you know, those of us around him said, ‘You know, that’s not quite the way we do it.’ And we don’t send the president off without having any clear understanding of what you are going to come out of that with because that would give Kim Jong Il such a tremendous political wind, if you will. That resolved just a couple of weeks later with Secretary Albright going to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il. Well, nine years have passed and Kim Jong Il getting President Clinton to come – this is a guy that he spent eight years with in terms of watching how the United States was prepared at one point to go to war with North Korea, creating a negotiated settlement.  And then at the end of that, having relatively good relations with the United States. So yes, it’s understandable that he was fixated on President Clinton.  Why you see this kind-of stupid grin on his face as he is standing next to President Clinton.  He is extraordinary happy that President Clinton is there.  It came at a perfect opportunity for him to dispel a lot of the rumors going around about his health, his control, his authority, the potential of succession.  It meant a lot for Kim Jong Il. 

Tapper:  Why didn’t Bill Clinton come after the Albright meeting?

Pritchard:  Well, there are two reasons.  One, we never could come to an understanding with the North Koreans exactly what we could get out of a – particularly on the missile side.  We tried once after that to see if we couldn’t send the special advisor, Wendy Sherman or Bob Einhorn, back to meet with the North Koreans.  It just didn’t work out.  We couldn’t make it happen.  Most importantly, the president was fully involved with the Wye River Conference, the Middle East.  You know, he took a look at these two issues and thought there was a real opportunity to make some headway in the Middle East.  He chose to do that.  Then we had the elections, the unsettled results, and it just – we just ran out of time. 

Tapper:  When you look at the pictures, Bill Clinton is not smiling.  He doesn’t look particularly happy in his pictures out of North Korea.  Is that on purpose?

Pritchard:  Absolutely.  I think that he fully understood that he was there to escort the two women back.  That this had been accomplished.  He wasn’t there to negotiate.  He wasn’t there to open up new relations with the North Koreans.  And he understood that this was going to be a photograph for posterity for the North Koreans.  So he was very serious about that.

Tapper: The White House says that this was entirely a personal mission by President Clinton but in President Clinton’s written statement today, he said he went at the behest of the families, Al Gore and the White House.  If the White House is asking him to go, how is it just a personal mission?

Pritchard:  Yeah, it’s not a personal mission.  Now clearly the administration wanted to insulate themselves.  They wanted in the public’s and particularly in the North Koreans’ mind for this to be seen a separate issue other than the nuclear issue that’s going on.  And this is a way to say that, no, he’s not there to negotiate about the nuclear issue.  He’s not there on behalf of the United States in terms of official capacity.  He’s there – yes, we want him to go – but he’s there on a humanitarian mission. I think he made that very clear himself as well.

Tapper:  There’s been some talk and some questions about the precedent this sets.  There are now three Americans being held hostage in Iran.  There are probably other Americans in other countries that we don’t know about.  Does this not set a precedent that bad behavior can result in somebody, such as Bill Clinton, coming to visit you?

Pritchard:  Yeah. Well, let me put it in perspective.  I think that most of the criticism that surrounds this is if this were a terrorist incident in which Americans had been kidnapped – taken off the street and being held hostage – then I think it would be very clear.  We wouldn’t be doing this.  The situation we had with two professional journalists that, unfortunately, moved themselves into North Korean territory were taken into custody, tried, convicted, sentenced in an entirely different ballgame.  And with North Korea we have a precedent that had been set previously with Bill Richardson on two previous occasions – of using an envoy to satisfy a North Korean desire to do the right thing.  To release Americans that were being held.  In this case, we are having to deal with the fact that the North Koreans, under their legal system, had sentenced these two.  Had we not done this – there is no doubt in my mind – had we refused to do this and said no – that President Clinton is not coming – the next step would be the movement of those two journalists from a hotel to a prison.  And they would have been there for quite a long time.

Tapper:  Is it not possible that we will be seeing Ahmadinejad making a similar demand – those are three Americans who had wondered into Iran’s territory – that’s also a country we are worried about their nuclear powers – it’s also a country with which we are trying to have better relations. I understand you cannot compare this with dealing with a terrorist group but compared to another state that is a bad actor – is it not possible that some of this could set a precedent?

Pritchard:  Let me turn it around and say, if you are an American that you find yourself not of your own doing being held in another country and it’s not a terrorist and it’s not a hostage situation, do you want your government to say, “No, we are not going to send somebody simply because it looks as though we are losing face?” I am not so concerned with this precedent.  You know, we will have to see.  Can I be proven wrong, sure.

Tapper:  Of the three plus hours President Clinton spent with Kim Jong Il, how much time do you think was devoted towards President Clinton asking for the release of these two journalists?

Pritchard: The first few minutes.  This was a done deal before the President left and it required the President to go through the motions of saying, you know, I am here – whatever the magic words were that were predetermined that were then allowed Kim Jong Il to say that he was now going to pardon the two women according to the North Korean constitution.  That set them free.  That happened very early on.

Tapper:  And what do you think the bulk of the time was spent talking about?

Pritchard: I think that Kim Jong Il was talking about U.S.- North Korea reactions.  You know, clearly this is what the administration would hope would not happen but I am sure that it did happen.  But again, President Clinton is the right person.  He is not going to go outside the Obama administration’s boundary in terms of what our policy is towards North Korea.  It was a very safe choice.  A very good choice. 

Tapper:  Why would he not go outside the boundary? 

Pritchard: Well, there is a couple of reasons.  One, he has been there before as president of the United States dealing with the North Koreans.  He has had a not quite similar experience with former President Jimmy Carter in 1994. And so he understands the sensitivity of a U.S. president going off on their own agenda negotiating something that the administration – maybe they can live with but might not be the way they would want to do it.  So he understands that from the history of his own presidency.  He also has a relationship with the secretary of state.  And I am quite sure that he understands the sensitivity involved if he were to do something that caused a concern about his relationship with the secretary of state and doing things on his own.

Tapper:  The North Korean news agency reported that President Obama gave a message through President Clinton to Kim Jong Il – the White House says that’s not true at all.  What do you think?

Pritchard: Well, what the Korean Central News Agency actually said is “A message was transmitted from President Obama.”  You know, quite frankly having been in these situations, if President Clinton were to have said something along the lines of “The American people and President Obama are grateful that the two journalists have been released,” the North Koreans are going to take that and put it in own language to say “There was an official message conveyed from the Present of the United States through former President Clinton to the dear leader Kim Jong Il.”  We can expect that.  It doesn’t mean a whole lot. 

Tapper:  why is it so important for Kim Jong Il to have President Clinton come and sit there and eat dinner with him? I think to a lot of people – probably to a lot of Americans not all that familiar with the North Korean culture or Asian cultures in general they may not understand why. 

Pritchard: This gave a great deal of prestige to their leader.  Bill Clinton is someone that the North Korean people know.  He is a charismatic personality.  He was a very successful president and someone in the North Korean vernacular that they have an honest respect and admiration for to a certain degree.  And so when that person comes to Pyongyang – when anyone comes to Pyongyang – it is they are coming to pay homage, if you will, to Kim Jong Il.  That’s not why the president comes but that is part of the interpretation.  That’s what being presented to the North Korean people that the United States of America – this most powerful nation – this most powerful symbol of this nation, even though he is no longer president, has come to Pyongyang that is an accomplishment. 

Tapper: Something else that I thought was interesting was the North Korean news agency put out that Bill Clinton’s plane had taken off.  About an hour or two before it did take off.  I remember because the White House was going to say something but not until the plan was in the air.  The North Korea was reporting that it was in the air and the White House said no, it’s not.  Then the North Korean news agency retracted it.  Was this just incompetence or was something else going on?

Pritchard: Well, the South Korean news media has already commented on this – that there were two mistakes that had been made.  One was on the arrival in which the North Korean news broadcaster began a sentence that “President Clinton has –“ and they cut him off.  And they went silent for five minutes.  They weren’t prepared.  They didn’t get the official okay.  Perhaps he hadn’t touched down.  Perhaps he hadn’t actually shaken hands with the greeter at the airport.  For whatever reason, the North Korean media made a mistake.  It did the same thing on his departure.  They were jumping the gun.   Nobody knows.

Tapper:  Could it have been testing just to see if the White House said something impolitic and then they could have rescinded the whole deal? 

Pritchard: No.  In this case, because it dealt with Kim Jong Il there were not many things that were going to go unscripted here.  It was a deal.  It was done.  It was going to happen.  It would have been extraordinarily disgraceful for the North Koreans had something gone wrong. So they weren’t testing the United States in this particular case.

Tapper:  If you were in President Obama’s shoes and in the spring, one of the families of one of these two journalists said we were told if Bill Clinton comes, they will get released.  Then in July, Al Gore secures Bill Clinton’s agreement to do this, would you have done anything differently?  What would you have advised the president – I should say – about handling this?

Pritchard: I think from my point of view – from a policy point of view – you take a look at the situation and say, we understand how this will play out and the two women can come home.  Now let’s look at it from a security point of view – from a relationship point of view – is something positive – will something positive come out of that? And the answer in, at least in my advice would be, I think that there is a signal here that the North Koreans don’t like the direction for which the relationship is heading.  And they can’t control it.  They need a very face-saving way to change this dynamic. I think they are signaling that they want to do something differently.  I would recommend that we take this opportunity.  Let’s see if this message comes out from the North Koreans. 

Tapper: I guess the only other thing – the administration says they view the detainment of these two women as entirely separate from the nuclear issue and the Six Party talks and all of that.  Is that accurate?

Pritchard: It is. But the problem is the reverse of that is not a mirror image of that.  The North Koreans look at these as being linked.  We had very similar issues, you know, ten years ago when dealing with the North Koreans, in which the North Koreans would say if you give us humanitarian food aid, then we will do X, Y, Z.  We said, no listen – that is not the policy of the United Sates – let’s talk about this issue and then we will be prepared fully to talk to you about humanitarian issues.  And they are separate issues and the North Koreans say yeah, yeah right.  But they link them themselves and they operated as though they are linked. The same thing is going on here.  The United States has separated the issues.  The North Koreans put them together. 

Tapper:  Is that bad for the U.S. though ultimately?  Does the North Korean government think the U.S. government is weak? Or does the U.S. or the North Koreans think the willing to show us the proper respect that we can now move forward? 

Pritchard:  No.  I think this is a reflection of a North Korean government and society.  They don’t have separate issues.  You can’t separate anything out from government policy.  And from the North Korean point of view, it’s very difficult to understand how other countries can do this themselves. That they are all linked.  There’s nothing that can’t happen in one arena that is not controlled by the government in another arena.

Tapper:  But did they view this show as a sign of weakness or as a sign of proper respect  and that now things can be better with the nuclear issue? 

Pritchard: They don’t think that way at all. They have used it, they understand it, they have used the situation both to their advantage and to provide a plus-up for Kim Jong Il and also to move the situation out of the direction where they don’t like it going and that’s to our good.  This is the equivalent to the North Koreans realizing on their own they’re heading in the wrong direction and they have made that self-correcting decision along the way. Well, they are incapable of doing that.  They need a prop.  This was the prop. 


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