S Bosworth

Korea Policy Review – Harvard University

Inaugural Edition – 2005

“Nuclear Questions in the Korean Peninsula”
An Interview with Ambassador Stephen Bosworth

February 10, 2005

By Justin Rhee, Jung Joo Lee, and Rosemary Marotta

On the day of the interview with Dean Bosworth, North Korea announced its nuclear manufacturing capability.  The New York Times reported through an article titled, “North Korea Says It Has Nuclear Weapons” that the North acknowledged for the first time that it had nuclear weapons.  

KPR:   Sir, First, did you have a particular interest or motivation to dedicate your service to East Asia, perhaps your early year experiences or through your educational studies?

Bosworth:  Well, no, not when I was a student.  When I was a student, my interests led me into international affairs.  And my interest in East Asia developed somewhat later after I was already in the US Foreign Service.  And those interests in East Asia have now broadened and deepened so that it’s my principal region of professional interest.

KPR:  What motivated you to be a public servant?

Bosworth:  I think I was a major at Dartmouth College in International Relations and was always interested in public service and in international service.  So that led me into the State Department where I became a Foreign Service Officer.

KPR:  As we briefly discussed before this interview, today is a very busy day for you since North Korea has publicly announced it manufactured nukes.  In terms of its nuclear capability, is this another bluff as some media and some critics have been claiming?

Bosworth:  I’m not sure it’s a bluff.  A bluff means you’re saying something – you have something that you don’t have.  I mean, at least in a poker sense.  As a poker player, I have been known to bluff, but I’m not sure that this is a bluff or not because certainly most experts agree that North Korea could well have nuclear weapons or nuclear devices.

They have had access to the fissile material that would be needed.  They’re producing more fissile material probably, and it seems plausible that they have had access to the kind of expertise that they would need to build a device.  So I don’t think we can assume that it is a bluff.

Now on the other hand, it is almost certainly a negotiating tactic.  They are doing what they do frequently before a major negotiation or as a way of softening up the opposition, which is to raise the ante, continuing the poker metaphor.  And I think they’re basically trying to improve their own negotiating position.

KPR: Do you think they would use the nuclear weapon in a certain context if in fact they have it?

Bosworth:  They may use nuclear weapons in a diplomatic sense, but I don’t believe that they will use nuclear weapons.  They are not suicide bombers.

KPR:  The New York Times reported that North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear program is the most urgent threat the US faces today.  How would North Korea’s nuclear program threaten the US as well as international security?

Bosworth:  Well, I think there are at least two different dimensions to that.  One is if they demonstrate nuclear capability, if people come to believe they are a nuclear weapon state, it changes the strategic equation in Northeast Asia.  I think the next question would be what does Japan feel obligated to do?  My own personal view is Japan would not become a nuclear weapon state just because North Korea did.

But it nonetheless raises the question in a way that many in the region would prefer that it not be raised.  It certainly is of concern.  For that reason, it’s of concern to China.

I think the other dimension of risk is that in this country and elsewhere, there is a concern that North Korea given its economic deprivation, given its proven record as a proliferator of dangerous technology including missile technology, might at some point might be tempted to try to use their nuclear materials or their nuclear expertise for economic advantage.  There is already, of course, a report that they may have sold uranium hexafluoride to Libya.  That obviously is something that we would prefer they not do to say the least.

So I think there is the risk of proliferation.  I personally believe it’s unlikely that North Korea would want to or would sell nuclear weapons to other countries because I think they recognize the danger to them then would be quite extreme.  I also think it’s probably unlikely that they would sell them to non-governmental groups precisely for the same reason that we were able apparently to figure out that the uranium hexafluoride in Libya came from North Korea.

In other words, if they were to provide nuclear devices to someone that actually used them, I think the trail would lead rather rapidly back to North Korea.  And they could expect the most extreme kind of retaliation.

KPR: Some argued that 1994 agreed framework could be achieved because the Clinton administration had drawn a clear red line over North Korean’s reprocessing which it was prepared to go to war over.  Because North Korea believed that it was not bluff, they agreed with this. Now, should the US have clearly-established reasonable red lines?

Bosworth:  Well, North Korea, to the extent that the administration has set any red lines, yes, I think that’s a red line.  The problem is the red line might not be visible until there’s a nuclear explosion.  But my point is if there were a nuclear device that went off some place and it had come originally from North Korea, I think from a technical point of view, we would be able to figure that out.

KPR:  On six-party talks, what triggered it to be stalled?

Bosworth:  It’s a very cumbersome formula, a very cumbersome process.  It’s difficult enough to negotiate with North Koreans one-on-one.  I used to have to negotiate with them three-on-one when I was at the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) , and we spent most of our time coordinating among the three before we’d begin negotiating with North Korea.  The same is true in the Six-Party Talks.

Also, while I think the North Koreans believe there are things they can get from the other countries in the Six-Party Talks, their principal desire is to talk to the US because only the US can give them what they think they most need, which is some assurance that the US will not whack them.

KPR:  A question on the South Korea Government.  The South Korean Government embarked on a new policy toward North Korea called the “Sunshine Policy.”  It seemed a very promising policy from the beginning.  But after North Korea’s nuclear ambition was revealed, the South Korean Government faced challenges in staying the course with such a policy, domestically and internationally. What’s your assessment or recommendation on the current South Korea’s policy toward North Korea?  Is it an appropriate approach for the South Korean Government?

Bosworth:  Well, the South Korean approach of engagement or sunshine has always assumed that at some point you would begin to see changes in North Korean behavior, that would eventually, if North Korea had a large enough stake in economic cooperation with the South, begin to influence their behavior.

Now this may be the time, I don’t know, when South Korea would have to test whether or not that’s true by threatening to take back some of the benefits that they have given.

KPR:  Is there a particular timeframe for this approach?

Bosworth:  It’s obviously going to take time.  Whether the underlying assumption that economic connections can change political behavior is correct, it still requires time to become established.  But I think that increasingly over the last few years there has been a desire to see some change in North Korean behavior.  I think this is a reality in South Korea’s domestic politics.

KPR:  We are aware that two different measures have been taken to handle the nuclear issue, political pressure and economical assistance.  We do not think any progress is being made on both terms.  What is your recommendation to the South Korean Government?

Bosworth:  It would be very presumptuous of me to make any recommendation to the South Korean Government.   I don’t know enough to make a recommendation, and I think the South Korean policy should be a product of South Korea’s perception of its interests, and I’ll best address those.

KPR:  There has been some level of conflict between South Korean Government and the US Government on the North Korea issue during the Bush Administration.  How should the South Korean Government handle this conflict?

Bosworth:  Carefully.  [laughter]

KPR:  The approaches that South Korea has taken, has it been in alliance with US objectives?

Bosworth:  The point of complexity and difficulty in all of this is the North Korean Nuclear Program.  When we had reason to believe or hope that that program was no longer a major threat, that it had been frozen, then it was very feasible for the US to support South Korea’s effort to use economic engagement to change North Korea’s political behavior.  And that may still be the best solution.

But the nuclear issue complicates everything.  I know that from the South Korean point of view, it’s not as severe a problem as it is from the American point of view.  You know, the difficulty is that we, South Korea, China, and Japan, all have one common interest, which is we don’t want North Korea to be a nuclear weapon state.  But our interests are not identical.

We have an interest in global non-proliferation.  We have a fear that North Korea might supply nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations.  South Korea is concerned that there might be a war on the Korean peninsula and that also its own economic well-being might be affected if North Korea collapses.

China doesn’t want to see collapse but neither do they want to see a nuclear North Korea.  So everybody has a somewhat different set of interests.

KPR:  In order for the six-party talks to have an effective outcome, what steps do you believe the neighboring countries such as China and Japan should take?

Bosworth:  Well, I think we should come together, make the best offer we possibly can to the North Koreans to give up their nuclear program in return for security assurances, economic concessions, etc.  And to give it up in a way that is verifiable, which means they would have to be prepared to submit to very intrusive international inspection.  So this is a very difficult thing for the North Koreans to accept.  On the other hand, it’s not acceptable for us to contemplate North Korea manufacturing six or eight nuclear weapons a year.

KPR:  Your thoughts on Bush Administration declaring that the US would not invade North Korea?

Bosworth:  See, what North Korea wants is to sit down directly with the United States, because for North Korea the key to their survival they think is legitimacy.  And the key to international legitimacy is to have the US provide its legitimacy.  So recognition by the United States of North Korea as a legitimate state is for them fundamental to any solution of this problem.

KPR:  Do you think that North Korea wants more than just the economical assistance from the US or international community?

Bosworth:  Well, I think they want it from the US.  They want some arrangement or some assurance that we’re not going to have aggressive tendencies towards them.

KPR:  Given your distinguished service, you are  certainly a role model for students pursuing a career in public service and/or as a diplomat.  For our last question, we will ask you to give us some words of wisdom or  a recommendation to our student readers.  Although the audience of this journal would be very broad, this question was specifically requested by many students.

Bosworth:  I don’t think there’s any specific recommendation I would make other than to be very certain that you are prepared to spend the years in public service if that’s your decision, but to know that it requires time before you can expect to have very much influence on what’s happening.

And I would also advise that people should develop some area of specialization, not just regional but also functional.  There should be something where you’re establishing some level of expertise.  It’s great to be a generalist, but within the generalist framework, there should be some specialist capabilities.


Stephen Bosworth is Dean of the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  He served as US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (1997-2000), Ambassador to the Philippines (1984-1987) and Ambassador to Tunisia (1979-1981). Previous Foreign Service assignments include Paris, Madrid, Panama City, and Washington DC serving as Director of Policy Planning, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs, and Director of the Office of Fuels and Energy; Recipient of American Academy of Diplomacy’s Diplomat of the Year Award (1987); Executive Director, Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) (1995-1997); President, United States Japan Foundation (1987-1995); Taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (1990-1994); Linowitz Chair of International Studies, Hamilton College (1993); Trustee, Dartmouth College (1992-present), Chairman of Board of Trustees, (1996-1999).   Bio according to Fletcher School, Tufts University