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Can China take a leadership role in addressing a major international security challenge?
For over a decade Beijing had concentrated its diplomatic efforts to solve a security threat right on its own border: North Korea's destabilizing nuclear and missile programs. Career intelligence officer Joseph DeTrani worked for over 30 years with Chinese officials to align U.S. and Chinese interests on regional security issues, including as special envoy to the six-party talks -- an effort he says demonstrates China's maturity as a global power.
James Green: Welcome to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University. This podcast series explores diplomacy and dialogue between China and the United States during the four decades since normalization of relations in 1979. We'll hear from former ambassadors, cabinet secretaries, and White House advisors, who will share how they shaped the course of the most complex relationship in international diplomacy today. I'm your host, James Green.
Today on the podcast, we talk with North Korea Special Envoy Joseph DeTrani. Ambassador Joe DeTrani spent two decades in the Central Intelligence Agency addressing issues of peace and security in East Asia. He was director of East Asia Operations, the Mission Manager for North Korea, then in 2010 was appointed as the Director of the National Counter-Proliferation Center and special advisor to the Director of National Intelligence. But, unlike most career intelligence officers, Ambassador DeTrani stepped out from behind the shadows to work on a very public diplomatic effort in 2003: the Six Party Talks to curb North Korea's dangerous nuclear weapons and missile program.
Here's President George W Bush speaking about those dangers just after Pyongyang's first nuclear test.
George W Bush (audio): Last night, the government of North Korea proclaimed to the world that it conducted a nuclear test. We're working to confirm North Korea's claim. Nonetheless, such a claim itself constitutes a threat to international peace and security. The United States condemns this provocative act. Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond.
In his conversation with me, Ambassador DeTrani explains his working relationship with Chinese intelligence officers over several decades and how the shared U.S.-China interest in working to halt Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program spurred Chinese diplomats to take a leadership role in addressing a key regional, and global, threat.
James Green: Ambassador Joe DeTrani, thanks so much for taking time out. Great to see you again. I wanted to just start about your initial impressions going to China for the first time, what it was like, and what you thought you were getting yourself into.
Joe DeTrani: You know, the first time I went to China, it was 1980. And, wow, it was quite something, you know. Because being in Beijing, then going to Shanghai, it was cold, lot of bicycles, it was sort of bleak, to be very honest with you. It had that element there. When I was assigned there in 1984, it was so different. Although they were still in the throes of coming out of the Cultural Revolution. We had Deng Xiaoping in '78 and then normalization in '79. So China was really sort of moving in that dynamic way. But again, in '80, '81, that momentum had not kicked in.
James Green: So I've heard, we'll get to your North Korea time a little bit later, but I've heard people compare North Korea, when they went in the last few years, to China in the '70s and '80s. You've been to both. Do you think that's a fair comparison; Was there some similarities that you see in those, in China in 1980, North Korea in more modern times?
Joe DeTrani: You know, and I hear from many of my Chinese colleagues, former colleagues, friends, who know North Korea, who have been assigned to North Korea, they would occasionally say, "Joe, you have to be aware that we know North Korea well, not only because we have a peace and friendship treaty with them. But we've gone through the Cultural Revolution. We know how it is when it's difficult." And at least going back a few years ago. I'm not talking about Kim Jong-Un now. Certainly this was- was Kim Jong-il. They say the comparisons are there.
It was a bit like what I remember in 1980-81, not a lot of vehicles, bicycles. It was cold. It was the winter time. But China's so different than North Korea. I just think the comparisons are really not there. I think maybe for Chinese colleagues would say maybe the political overtones were there in the Cultural Revolution and what's going on in North Korea as we speak, or most recently. But people are different. In China there was, still there was that element, I always thought, especially over a meal- (laughs)
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right, right.
Joe DeTrani: ...of enthusiasm, vibrancy, a lot of collegiality. I felt it was a bit dire when I visited Pyongyang, even then. But I think it's changed. Over the years when I went back, it changed, and those who are certainly visiting Pyongyang now say it's changed in a very significant way.
James Green: So your first trip in 1980, wow, really early on and kind of opening-
Joe DeTrani: It was early on.
James Green: Yep.
Joe DeTrani: It was just the opening. We just normalized relations. Deng Xiaoping was kicking in with the economic reforms. It was a very- it was a very interesting period because there was an element of enthusiasm there.
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So then you moved there later in the decade in the '80-
Joe DeTrani: '84-
James Green: In '84.
Joe DeTrani: I was assigned there.
James Green: And how much were discussions with Chinese counterparts or just laobaixing, people on the street? Did people talk about the Cultural Revolution or what was happening? Did you feel like you could peak a little beyond the bamboo curtain?
Joe DeTrani: This is the thing about China that I've always felt, I feel that way today. Having some of the language, I spoke Chinese at that time and I still do, and with a smile on your face, and being sensitive, to cultural norms and behavior patterns and so forth. No one wants to be obnoxious, right? (laughs) I found the people very open, very receptive. We would take trips out of Beijing to get to see the countryside and everything. And it was just great. I was surprised. I didn't think they would be that open and that friendly, and especially to Americans I felt, but also with the officials. The officials were prepared to talk business. On national security issues, as long as it's in our mutual interest. And we did some great work in Afghanistan. We did some great work on counter-proliferation and counter-terror. I mean, we really were able to connect on issues that, both countries viewed as important for their national security.
James Green: So when you were there in the '80s, the big issue was the Soviet Union, and it was in some ways what brought our two countries together in Nixon's opening. What was the discussion like? China was opening up. The Soviet Union was kind of opening up some, but still there was a lot of animosity there. Did you feel that U.S. and Chinese views of the Soviet Union were pretty well aligned at that point in the '80s?
Joe DeTrani: Yes, I did. I did.
I found the Chinese officials to be very receptive. And on the issue certainly of the Soviet Union, and indeed in regards to what the Soviet Union was doing in Afghanistan. So we had a mutuality of interests and the ability to come together and to talk about those things. I don't think the Soviets were surprised with that because of their, you know, their blatant aggression in Afghanistan and what it meant to the region. I mean, this was almost the Soviet, Brezhnev Doctrine where, you know, if we want to project power we're gonna project power.
Well, they failed in Afghanistan, and part of the failure in Afghanistan is the ability of not only the United States, but certainly of China and other countries to come together to say, "This won't stand." And Moscow got the message. Finally.
James: Was it your stand at that time in the '80s, talking about Afghanistan, that the level of knowledge in the Chinese system was particularly high about, frankly, any place outside of China? I mean, they had been so closed off for so many years, and then they're faced with this conflict right on their border.
Joe DeTrani: Right.
James Green: How knowledgeable would you say their experts were in what was happening in Afghanistan?
Joe DeTrani: I was always impressed with their knowledge base. The people I worked with, and I think many in the embassy worked with, were very professional, well-informed. What surprised me the most was there wasn't this element of trepidation or concern that we don't want to get too close to the Americans because, you know, they're bad. It was a sense that this is an opening, and I guess that's Deng Xiaoping, right?
This is an opportunity. And it was almost a more collegial approach to some of these issues. And they were, one, very professional, two, very well-informed, and three, very receptive to different analytical views. And occasionally, more than occasionally, our analytic assessments were not the same, but that was the strength of it. And I think we appreciated that, as we do. No one wants group-think, right?
James Green: Right.
Joe DeTrani: And I think, ... so I was impressed right from the get-go.
James Green: So I guess I would ask, you were there in the mid '80s at the kind of height in some ways of the kind of Cold War relationship between the U.S. and China against the Soviet Union. Gorbachev goes to Beijing in 1989. Some other things happen in June 1989 in Beijing, and there's the Tiananmen Square crackdown. In subsequent discussions with the Chinese officials in the '90s, did you feel like that shared sense of mission or that, camaraderie might be too strong, but that those relationships were somehow under more of a strain because of what happened in Tiananmen? Or as long as there were shared interests, could move forward with the United States?
Joe DeTrani: No, good question, James. No, I didn't notice any reluctance on the part of our interlocutors, our counterparts, to engage. On the contrary. I think, you know, we're looking at China now, that in '97, and that we had reversion in '97, July of '97.
James Green: That was the return of Hong Kong-
Joe DeTrani: Hong Kong.
James Green: ... to Chinese sovereignty.
Joe DeTrani: Yeah, exactly. So and, you know, that was after Deng Xiaoping's visit in '92 to the south where he made it very sure, very clear, to the Chinese leadership and the people of China that economic reforms are still on the table, and this is where we're going, and this is what it's meant to be. Obviously he had opposition, and he prevailed. And some of the people I dealt with in the mid '80s were there in the mid '90s. So I was dealing with some of the same, but not all. Most of them were different players. But they were just as open, just as willing to work on issues of mutual concern. And many of those issues are on national security. I mentioned whether it's counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and then there was the Soviet incursions into Afghanistan. These were common interests.
And issues that were more sensitive some of our other colleagues in the embassy may not have been discussing, they may have touched human rights. But there was a sense that China was moving in those different directions in a very positive way. We saw dynamic leadership coming out of Beijing at the top. Whether that was Jiang Zemin, and-
James Green: Zhu Rongji.
Joe DeTrani: Zhu Rongji. There you go. That's on the economic side. There is the movement on the economic side.
James Green: Yeah.
Joe DeTrani: These were interesting times.
James Green: That was a time when China was crossing the river by feeling the stones, and there was some experimentation and step forward and step back. The China of today seems a little bit less interested in the way the rest of the world works. Do you think that level of curiosity and inquisitiveness and openness to outside ideas is still there today? Or do you feel like that's a period of time that's now in the history books?
Joe DeTrani: In the '80s with Deng Xiaoping coming out and saying, "Look, we have to study from the United States. Send students to the United States." I mean, in 1997, and now you're asking about 2018, China has gone through this period of time where they're saying, "Okay, we feel we're a responsible actor. We're a responsible player. We feel we've we still have to interact. There's still much to learn. You never stop learning. You have to engage," and all that. But I think more so than in the past, even in the past, China didn't like to be lectured to, whether it was the mid '80s or the mid '90s, don't lecture, please. And you could just see people being, you know, their eyes glassing up, "The Americans are here. They're gonna give us a 25-minute lecture, whatever the subject may be."
So I think China is at the stage in 2018 saying, "You know, let's not lecture; let's talk. We have some issues. Some of those issues are a little, you know, contentious, because we are economic competitors. But we don't have to be competitors in other areas. We can come together." And, you know, there's nothing wrong with economic competitiveness. The consumer benefits on that. (laughs) Whoever produces a better product that's more reasonable is going to prevail.
So I think we're dealing with a different China, a China that feels, you know, more comfortable with themselves, a China that feels they can compete. So I think China has spent a few decades doing what's necessary to catch up. Now, that shouldn't include intellectual property areas, (laughs) stealing any of that. And I think Xi Jinping in discussions with President Trump, and before that with President Obama, is addressing those issues there. But I think there was a sense of, you know, we've been beat up for 150 years with the 100 years of humiliation and all that stuff. We're catching up.
The only thing that, at some of my conferences with think tanks in China, that always put me off a bit was a sense that conflict could be inevitable.
James Green: Conflict between the United States and China?
Joe DeTrani: Yes, yes. I would always say, "Why are you saying that?" We've been able to get together since 1970, certainly since 1972, Chairman Mao and President Nixon. We've come together in such a powerful way, we were a major advocate for China moving in that direction, and very happy with what China has done. So, why would, and I heard it a number of times, and we see it in some of the literature. Why are you saying conflict is inevitable? And I think that's an issue that we have to sort of address. The people of our respective countries shouldn't feel that conflict is inevitable. They shouldn't feel that we're going into a new Cold War.
James Green: And why do you think on the Chinese side that kind of persists?
Joe DeTrani: You know, I think there are different voices on this coming out of the Chinese side. I think the majority of people feel we've worked through these issues before. We've been there with China when they were coming out, you know, out of a bad period. Let's face it, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Deng Xiaoping moved them in that direction.
And we were there, and we worked on issues of mutual concern, and we've been successful working those issues. So why can't we continue to come together on these issues? I think that at least those who advocate or believe that conflict is inevitable look at the recent history, 100, 150 years. And from that view say, "Well, if we're too competitive, if we're too advanced in scientific, technological, but other areas also would that be viewed as a threat to the United States and maybe others, the European Union?" Which would be wrong. I think if I were looking at it. Conversely, I think from the U.S. side we look at the South China Sea, the East China sea, and we're saying "No, wait a minute, is China trying to sort of not only catch up, but it's trying to say, this is Imperial China." So that's where both sides have to moderate their behavior and come together, because we don't want to stumble into something that is not in anyone's interest.
James Green: I always thought one of the challenges is some Chinese textbooks that kind of whitewash over U.S. China relations in a way that's kind of not very helpful. And I worry about the way some Chinese are brought up to have this sense of inevitability or that the United States is predestined to try to stop China from growing.
Joe DeTrani: That isn't very helpful. And those who are, especially some of those individuals, teachers and universities and middle schools, high schools. They're not really reading contemporary history very well in regards to U.S.-China relations, because the U.S. has always been there for China, and we've worked well together on that. For them to assume that as long as the U.S. is the dominant actor things will be fine, I think that's being presumptuous, and I think they're flat out wrong, to be honest with you.
Now, of course, there's a Chinese constituency; there's 1.3 billion people. Politics is domestic. Right? So it's domestic in the United States. It's domestic in China also. So I would think the leadership in China has to play to that domestic audience, and part of that is the 100 years of humiliation and some of the other things that have transpired. Some of it could be, that we see the South China Sea, the East China Sea. We see the intellectual property issue in some of that. As, you know, prima facie cases where, you know, there's a problem here. And that's where, I think the leadership has to come in to play and the media to some extent, because it reaches out to the 1.3 billion people, and the over 300 million people in the United States, of what the issues are and how we work through it.
In fact, that's why we have diplomacy, isn't it? So I tend to be optimistic in this area. But it takes time. It takes work. And it's not a given.
James Green: One of those areas of cooperation that I want to move to is North Korea and how did you end up kind of working on North Korea, as someone who spent a fair amount of time working on China? How did that kind of come about?
Joe DeTrani: Yeah, I asked that same question, James. I left the CIA in 2003. I was Chief of East Asia director, and I worked very closely with the Chinese and others. But it was the whole of East Asia. But we were looking at North Korea because they had a nuclear program or a nascent nuclear program, missile program, and some of the other issues there. Secretary Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Rich Armitage reached out to me and said, "We're looking for a special envoy to work on the Six Party Talks." And I asked the same question you asked. I said, "But you know I'm not a Korean linguist. China is my area." And they said, "You know what? We need someone who's worked with China, who knows the region, and can sort of hit the ground running." And there's no real major learning curve there.
But the key was who has worked with China. Because China, as you know, was the chair of the Six Party Talks. They had the leadership role in bringing the six parties together. I mean, you gotta give China credit for that. In 2002 things fell apart. North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. We stopped building light water reactors at Kumho, no heavy fuel oil. So the agreed framework was dead.
James Green: Just for a history lesson, the agreed framework, can you just set it up so we can then talk about the Six Party Talks?
Joe DeTrani: Well, the agreed framework, 1994. In 1993 the IAEA in North Korea was looking at Yongbyon and saw anomalies. And the North Koreans were very upset with the IAEA monitors and told them to leave, and threatened Seoul with a "sea of ashes." And we were looking at conflict on the Korean Peninsula in 1993. It was President Jimmy Carter, , who fortuitously was in North Korea, and Billy Graham introduced him to Kim Il-sung, and that was the beginning of the Geneva Talks. And that was Ambassador Bob Gallucci with Kang Sok-ju and Kim Kye Gwan. They came up with the agreed framework, which was North Korea would freeze their plutonium facility at Yonbyon. And we still hear about Yongbyon today. They would freeze that facility. That had over 8,000 spent fuel rods. They would not reprocess anything.
James Green: And the reprocessing is for pulling plutonium out for-
Joe DeTrani: Out for weapons.
James Green: Weapons, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Joe DeTrani: Plutonium based nuclear weapons. They would freeze that. And we said we would provide them with two light water reactors, 1000-megawatt reactors, and we'd build them in Kumho, North Korea. They were civilian nuclear capabilities. They need the energy. And in the interim as we're building them we would give them heavy fuel oil. So you freeze everything at Yongbyon. Once you get the light water reactors, and then you just dismantle. Everything is dismantled at Yongbyon. That was the agreed framework. It fell apart in 2002 because they had a uranium enrichment program which was in violation, certainly the spirit of the agreed framework. And that's when we pulled out by not providing heavy fuel oil and not continuing with the construction of the light water reactors. And then North Korea pulls out of the nuclear non-proliferation. And the key though, to your question, over 8,000 spent fuel rods were being reprocessed for nuclear weapons. A very tense period in the early 2003 timeframe. And we reached out to China, and then China convened a meeting between North Korea, the United States, and China hosting that. It was the beginning of the Six Party Talks.
James Green: I think you'd mentioned, this is pretty unique for China to really take a leadership role and recognize a international security issue and say, "We're gonna put ourselves out. We're gonna convene this."
Joe DeTrani: Absolutely.
James Green: What do you think brought the Chinese to that kind of leadership role at that moment?
Joe DeTrani: Good point. That's a very good point. Cause this was really the first time that China really came on the stage and said, "We're taking the lead on this. " And they put a lot into working the Six Party Process. They convened the meeting. I can't say enough about what Wang Yi and all his colleagues were doing on that. I think China at that time, and we see it now in spades in 2018, but in 2003 China was saying, "Look, we're moving economically. We've got, you know, a dynamic country there. We want to take ownership of these security issues, certainly in our region, northeast Asia, this is our neighborhood." And they took leadership role, and I think it was, in relative terms, successful. I think we got a joint statement in 2005, September. And a lot of that work was Wu Dawei who was their lead negotiator. But it was Foreign Minister, now Foreign Minister, Wang Yi who was presiding over it.
James Green: But what is in that kind of joint statement? What did that kind of lay down?
Joe DeTrani: It was really significant. Where, you know, North Korea agreed to dismantle and disable all of their nuclear weapons programs. In return for security assurances, economic development assistance. And the key here is eventual normalization of relations with the United States, with Japan, South Korea. I mean, that's really the crux of it there, and they have agreed to monitors coming in. The monitoring necessary to verify that these facilities were being dismantled. Economic development, what sort of economic development. Cause we wanted North Korea to be part of, have access to, the international financial institutions. Right? I mean, that was part of it. They were looking for investment and things like, which they still are, right?
So it was I think very comprehensive. It took us over two years to go there. A lot of work.
James Green: Wu Dawei and the rest of the Chinese MFA team, how did they kind of organize themselves and conceive of it and then execute it so that the other five parties would be there and that at the end of the day in 2005 the North Koreans would sign on the dotted line. What did you about that aspect of it?
Joe DeTrani: A lot of work. A lot of work. It was really sort of herding cats and because everybody's sort of out there doing their own thing, and then you have to bring them together. It's not like bringing them together at a certain time. It's bringing them together so that we would accomplish certain goals. And we all had certain goals and objectives. And, you know, sometimes working with the North Koreans, they tend to be a little temperamental. They don't show up for meetings. And you say, "Wait a minute. I thought we had a meeting here." The U.S. could be somewhat temperamental when we started in 2003, you know. I don't think we want to meet privately with them. And we said, "Wait a minute." Chinese said, "How are you gonna get any business done if you're not gonna be meeting with them? Don't you want any one-on-ones? I mean, can you look at them? Can you shake their hands? If they put their hand out would you shake?"
So we went through periods.
James Green: This was in the atmosphere, sorry, of the breakdown of the agreed framework-
Joe DeTrani: Absolutely.
James Green: ... in which some in the U.S. administration just felt the North Koreans completely untrustworthy because they had cheated on the last agreement.
Joe DeTrani: And you know, a lot of that was justified. (laughs) Because the fact of the matter is they should not have had that uranium enrichment program, and they denied having that program. Well, you asked how we came about with the joint statement. I mean, China brought a lot of players together. We almost got to a joint statement in 2004, but because of the wording, we didn't get there. So here you have Wang Yi and the foreign minister coming in at that time and others with the media there. Little embarrassing. But it was sometimes difficult.
So China went through a hard period here. They did come up with a joint statement where we all came together. We tried to get in the joint statement mention the uranium enrichment program. So we were looking at language that said they would dismantle all their nuclear weapons program to include the uranium enrichment program, which the North Koreans refused, because they denied having that program. So we just said with all of their programs.
Fact of the matter is, in 2010, they brought Sig Hecker, who was the former director of Los Alamos, and showed them a significant uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon with over 2,000 centrifuges, which they said was going to be low-enriched uranium for civilian nuclear purposes, energy purposes. So they did have the program, but that's all right. I mean, it's all right. In retrospect we did have a good statement. We did start moving with the dismantlement of Yongbyon. It fell apart in 2008 because they wouldn't sign a piece of paper permitting monitors to leave the Yongbyon facility and visit non-declared suspect nuclear facilities. And that was something we needed.
James Green: Part of the joint statement was to not only have the declared facilities but have some ability to look at other parts of North Korea-
Joe DeTrani: Absolutely.
James Green: ... to make sure that programs weren't hidden.
Joe DeTrani: Absolutely.
James Green: And for the U.S. this was a required element. And for the North Koreans, this was something they had a hard time swallowing.
Joe DeTrani: (laughs) They wouldn't sign that piece of paper. And that was the end. So there you go, the Six Party Talks, the end of 2008, the beginning of 2009, ended on that note. That's too bad because a lot of work, as with the agreed framework, a lot of work into that. The Six Party Talks, a lot of work went into that. Now, mind you, we had five countries working with North Korea. And again, I give China credit for that. They pulled that off. They brought it together, and you know, and we would always tell the Chinese, you know, they're your ally. And the Chinese would be very insistent, and I think we can appreciate that now after having worked with the North Koreans all these years, saying, you know, "We could request certain things, but we can't tell them anything. They may not do it." (laughs)
James Green: You had kind of talked about the long relationship by North Korea and China. Lips and teeth I think is the way-
Joe DeTrani: Lips and teeth.
James Green: ... Mao described it. A lot of North Korea China relations on the China side have been conducted on kind of Communist Party to Communist Party.
Joe DeTrani: Right.
James Green: Could you say in the Six Party Talks, where was that party to party relationship? How did that kind of manifest itself?
Joe DeTrani: You know, for the North Koreans in the Six Party process, certainly when we had plenary sessions in Beijing at the state guesthouse they would reconvene, and the sense we had is they were going back to Pyongyang and getting their instructions. And there was no doubt in our mind that those instructions were coming from the highest levels of the government in Pyongyang, and Kim Jong-il was following these discussions. I would imagine the party element to those talking points for the negotiators was pretty significant, pretty significant. Now, sitting at the table they may have had someone from the Ministry of State Security.
Joe DeTrani: I think they all answered to the party, but I don't think it was, it didn't manifest itself in any significant way. I mean you mentioned going back to early when I was in China the first time in '84 to '86, you'd go to some meetings, economic meetings or something, I'd be with the economic counselor. And you'd sort of see someone was sitting next to the chief executive officer, and he was the advisor, but it was more or less that he was sort of carrying, making sure the party had a little role in that. And that changed in the '90s. We didn't see that. And certainly it's not there now. But for North Korea I would imagine that had to permeate all aspects to it.
James Green: But at the negotiating table it was Foreign Ministry people, and those discussions were Foreign Ministry.
Joe DeTrani: That's exactly right. That's exactly right.
James Green: And how did you see those interactions go, the Chinese and the Russians, the Chinese and the Japanese? How was that for them to manage on their side?
Joe DeTrani: You know, I personally think Wang Yi and Wu Dawei and Ning Fukui, Fu Ying, they all did a great job. At least it wasn't apparent that there was any reluctance, or if there was any element of preferential treatment, "We'd rather work with the Americans rather than, let's say, the Russians." No, we didn't see that. I mean the Russians were at the table for all these meetings. The Japanese were very much players in this, and because it's in Japan's interest, they came so close to normalizing in 2002 with Kim Jong-il and the visit of Koizumi, Prime Minister Koizumi. But they had the abductee issue, which is still on the table there.
I thought they dealt with the Japanese representatives extremely professionally, and the same thing with the Russians. But when we didn't have plenary meetings we didn't see much of the Russians, to be very honest with you on that. But the Japanese were always going to be there.
James Green: I just want to retell my own interaction with the Six Party Talks. I was in the policy planning staff and we were working on the working group for the Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism, which the Russians were hosting.
Joe DeTrani: Yes. They were hosting that.
James Green: And the Russians did a wonderful job of hosting, although I do remember that one "lunch" was basically just vodka and caviar. (laughing) And they, in the actual discussion, they weren't really adding much, the Russians weren't, on kind of what the organization could look like or what the different mechanisms could be to have countries in the region understand each other or have some sort of framework.
Joe DeTrani: I thought the Six Party process, it really brought the countries together. And we weren't beating up on North Korea. There was never that. And China made sure that was never the case.
James Green: You felt like if there was a document to be circulated beforehand it was done in as timely fashion as possible, understanding that some parties like the North Koreans or others might not sign off on it until the last second. As the host, as the chair, you can't control all of that. But, broadly speaking, you thought the Chinese as the chair or the hosts were as even as they could be in trying to make sure all members of the Six Party Talks were aware of what was going on and were knowledgeable, working off the same sheet of music.
Joe DeTrani: Absolutely. No doubt in my mind. I think it was somewhat difficult for the Chinese occasionally with the North Koreans, because they tend to be sometimes temperamental, (laughs) or they get mixed signals from Pyongyang. But I would imagine the Chinese probably felt the same about the Americans. (laughs)
James Green: You wouldn't answer. You'd have to get clearance from Washington.
Joe DeTrani: (laughs) Mercurial, they're not sure where they're going, and, you know, they're insisting on these things we can't get the North Koreans to give on. So can't both sides. In many ways, they were trying to bring both sides, both sides being the United States and North Korea. Can't you compromise on some of this? Can't we find language that brings us closer together. I think they were so happy there was a joint statement. Must've been great disappointment in the end of 2008 when that fell apart, because they invested so much into this, but understandably invested so much into it. This is the Korean Peninsula. This is China's neighborhood.
And, you know, going back to the Korean War and what we know, and there needs to be peace on the Korean Peninsula. And when we eventually look at reunification, a peaceful re- reunification is obviously in everyone's interest. China has a lot in this negotiation. China was ready to take the lead, it's their region and everything like that. But I emphasize that it's their region. They need to ensure that it, you know, transpires in a way that will not be inimical to their national security interests.
James Green: One of the issues that is kind of on again off again is when things are bad with North Korea, U.S. side often pushes doing contingency planning with the Chinese. If there's some collapse in North Korea, how can we kinda prepare for that? And in general, the Chinese side has resisted doing that for the idea of not signaling that they don't have faith in the North Korean-
Joe DeTrani: Right. That's right.
James Green: ... regime, or that somehow China is undermining North Korea's right to exist.
Joe DeTrani: Right.
James Green: And as entity as a separate country. During your time in the special envoy role, did you notice any change in the Chinese view on kind of those sorts of things of what people were willing to even whisper or say, or really was it Chinese, united front, within their negotiation was, "We're dealing with North Korea. We're sitting here around the table. We're gonna get to a place we're all happy with. That's why we're here. These other things are a distraction."
Joe DeTrani: I do believe that was their approach. Occasionally we would say, "Let's talk about ... " And they said, "No, no." Or, "Let's have a separate ... " "No, no, no. We need to be transparent for the North Koreans, for the reasons you site. We don't want the North Koreans thinking we're ganging up on them. We want them to know that, you know, this is a level playing field and we're working in that way."
On the other hand, it was the North Koreans who would tell, let's say, yours truly, because you know, I spent years in China and I knew some of the negotiators there, and we would speak Chinese and so-forth, and the North Koreans occasionally would remind me, saying, "You know, you're dealing with us. We're North Koreans. So you gotta focus a little more here. Focus on us here. And be realistic." You know, the North Koreans tend to be blunt. (laughs)
You know, we've had some bad times, but we want to ensure that this process lends itself ultimately, and I emphasize this because I think this is where they are in 2018, ultimately to a normal relationship with the United States. And not to use words that we used in the past, we will be a responsible stakeholder. But they always had a condition, and that condition was, "Accept us as a nuclear weapon state. Treat us the way you treat Pakistan. We will be responsible." And we would say, "Look, ultimately we would like to see normal relations. There are a lot of issues that have to be resolved, but not as a nuclear weapon state." The proliferation issues are so massive. It's not only that we distress that you would use weapons against your allies, or our allies and us, or our partners, but that some of that material could leak out and get into the hands of bad actors. And North Korea with nuclear weapons would end up having other countries seek their own nuclear weapons capability. So we're talking about a nuclear arms race in East Asia. This is not what we want.
And certainly, this is where China and the U.S. are totally in sync on this, also and Japan and South Korea also. But again, we would hear it from South Korea, privately. And they would say, "Look, if it ends up with North Korea retaining nuclear weapons you think we're just gonna sit here and be content with your extended nuclear deterrence commitments to the Republic of Korea? No, I think we'll ... " So those are the realities.
James Green: Speaking of political realities, I think one of the challenges the Chinese system had is dealing with a democratically elected government in South Korea. It seems to me sometimes the Chinese reaction for things that elected officials had to do in South Korea was not always one of understanding. And so they put an incredible amount of pressure, for example, on the South Koreans to not deploy missile defense.
And yet, for any elected government to say, "Oh, we're not going to pursue something that might make our country safer," is something they can't do. China's gotten a more sophisticated understanding of the United States than I think of other democratic systems. But do you see a kind of fundamental challenge in some ways if China's playing a leadership role in diplomatic efforts in their side, understanding what other countries kind of have to do with, deal with domestically?
Joe DeTrani: So you could see this is where negotiations come into play. This is where trust is so important in any relationship. And the North Koreans tell us we lack that element in our relationship with them, but we have it with China. We've had, you know, since '72. I mean, you know, we're talking about years of working closely. So there should be trust when we spend a little more time explaining the THAAD. Now, China did react to the THAAD deployment, you know, to the detriment of South Korea. I mean, South Korea took a big hit on that, economic hit on that. We all could have done that better. Because North Korea then sits back and watches this.
Because the sense we had, I've been watching North Korea, as you know, for many years, even before I became a negotiator, is that if they could put a wedge between the United States and South Korea, that's great the United States and China, that's even better. So let's show we are cohesive on these issues that transcend the respective country's interests, but are important for the region, for the international community at large. And that's ensuring that there are no nuclear weapons in North Korea with delivery systems that could permit those weapons to be used.
There are a number of issues here. You know, I think when we eventually do a post-mortem, and probably hopefully when we get this issue resolved fully. We've had two successes, but they were very temporary successes, but we have 25 years of failure therefore. But we need finally. And now we're sort of almost on the cusp. I would've said six months ago we're on the cusp of having a peaceful resolution to this. I'm still there. I'm not sure if it's a cusp any longer, because I think we're gonna need a little more time and a little more patience, but more perseverance, because we can get there. We can be successful with the North Korea issue.
You know, James when you look at the Middle East and you look at some other regions, and you look at the internecine conflict, whether that be religious, or tribal, or what have you. And then you look at the Korean Peninsula and you look at North Korea, and it's the nuclear issue. And here you have a leader, Kim Jong-un, who's, you know, a young man, 33. He's studied in Switzerland. He's saying, you know, if that's the only issue we should be able to sort of get that. And he's got a government and people in South Korea who want unification. You would think we could get there. But I think we'd be naïve to believe that this is gonna be like Libya. It's gonna be done, you know, we can do this in a year. Come on. You don't spend decades building a nuclear capability and billions of dollars, and then you're just gonna give it away. And then once you give it away, what are you gonna give me in return? No, I don't think so.
That's why in the Six Party Talks we said very clearly. You asked about the joint statement. Actions for actions, commitments for commitments. Because we knew, and the Chinese would always be telling us, but we also knew from dealing with the North Koreans, if we want them to do something they're going to have to get something in return.
James Green: I wanted to ask you about your stepping back on lessons learned for negotiating, kind of, with China, and I guess that's both sense of the word 'with'. And much of the Six Party Talks, we and the Chinese had very similar goals, and so it was much more shoulder to shoulder. Other times negotiating with is kind of negotiating against.
Joe DeTrani: Right.
James Green: Are there lessons for negotiating with China that we should kind of keep in mind going forward? You'd mentioned trust as an important issue.
Joe DeTrani: But with China, I think so. No, I really do. And again, I kept using the word 'mutual'. And I think when there is mutual interest, certainly on global issues that touch nations, whether it's economic security, national security, and nuclear security, whatever it is, I think we come together on that. You know, I don't want to sound too pollyannaish, but you know, history is important. And for China, it's contemporary history. And I think Xi Jinping has been talking about that. And I think it resonates with the people. But it's a reality.
And now they're on a path. And, you know, I applaud that. I think Deng Xiaoping was a great leader. And now having said that, I then would have to balance that by saying, "Okay," and we should understand that. But then conversely, China has to understand, the leadership at least has to understand that, okay, but there are parameters. And we have our values also. We have core interests. You know, they have core interests, we have core interests. And that's where negotiations come. That's where trust comes. Confidence building and establishing the trust.
I think we just need to spend more time, more time working some of these very, very important issues. You know, sensitive, yes. Everything is sensitive. But important issues. At all levels, and I think a little more, that's not just in the press. I think it resonates more I think with China when you can build that trust and everything. It's not you're doing anything, , behind anyone's back. It's that we're negotiating. We're making the sausage, now people don't have to see how you make it. It's the result. Is this going to be nourishing? Is it going to be good and all that? It's the result.
I think we need more people who are deep on these issues here. The lesson learned here is that you have to stay the course. You should not be polemical. You should not be disparaging, you should not be arrogant, you need to know history, respect history. But you need to be true to yourself and in this case for the United States, the people of the United States, our values. And I think what China appreciates, the core lesson I learned from dealing with the Chinese. More so than other countries I've dealt with, is they appreciate candor. If you're candid, if you're fair, you're objective and you're candid, they could work with you on it.
James Green: How did China loom in your time in DNI in terms of both North Korea but also these other kind of-
Joe DeTrani: Less contact with them, as I moved out of the negotiation side of it. But on counterproliferation issues I would visit and had some contact on that, with them on that. So it wasn't intimate any longer. But on mainly nonproliferation issues but also counterproliferation issues. Because with the National Counter Proliferation Center the concern was implementing the sanctions, ensuring that, you know, nuclear weapons do not get into the hands of bad actors.
I mean, there were contentious issues. We weren't always in sync on the issues. The Cheongan thing. Look, we know North Korea did that. 47 sailors died. North Korea did it. And you kinda say, in issues like that, China felt, "Okay, so you know it. We know it. But what are we going to do? Beat them up on it? Don't we want to get them back to the talk?" And then of course we had Kim Jong-un come in 2011. So there was a period of moving forward. Should we try to turn a page? Which we tried to do. We weren't successful in turning that page.
So, I dealt probably a little more with the North Koreans during my time with the ODNI because I was involved with the release of the two journalist in 2009, arranged for the President, Bill Clinton to go and return with the two journalists. Spent hundreds of hours with the North Koreans on this. And negotiating with the North Koreans requires extreme patience, because you think you have an agreement today, and then tomorrow it looks a little different. You say, "No, wait a minute. How come that's looking a little different than yesterday?" "Well, you did mean that." "No, that's not what I meant." So patience is necessary. But it was interesting working with the North Koreans on those issues.
I was a little disappointed to see the speed with which, and not too surprised however, the speed with which Kim Jong-un was racing to acquire nuclear weapons cap abilities. Which he did in 2017. But he turned the page on 1 January 2018, saying, "I want to focus on economic development. I want to have a good relationship with the United States, South Korea." And that's the Moon Jae-in Summits, and President Donald Trump's summit. And that's where we are right now. We're at a very important inflection point because we could be successful here, and hopefully we will be successful.
James Green: Sounds like you're kind of cautiously optimistic on the North Korea front. On the U.S.-China front, where are you? How do you see both those two going forward?
Joe DeTrani: Yeah, you know having been sort of a China watcher for decades, a little disappointed right now to hear, and I alluded to that a few minutes ago James, when I talked about to hear some people on the China side, and even on the U.S. side, talk about the inevitability of conflict. And you say this is unreal. This can't be. I mean, we were there for China, and I think China and the people of China appreciate that. And we have so many issues that we have a commonality of interests on. Why are we talking about, economic competitiveness is fine. Why can't we resolve even the South China Sea? That's what negotiators do, right? You negotiate these issues. East China Sea, and so forth. And no one wants to impose on the sovereign rights of any nation, but we have our values, and they speak to human rights. So we have a right to articulate those and so forth. Obviously not to impose them, but to articulate them and make that part of who we are obviously as a people.
But there seem to be a myriad of issues that have percolated to the top. It's not only trade. We're talking about now Confucius centers in the United States and what they're doing with the media and how they want to monitor this and that and everything. Well, you know, if there elements there that are of concern, they need to be discussed, they need to be negotiated. And I feel sitting down with the Chinese you can discuss this and you can find common ground and you can move forward. But I think now we're with people on both sides talking about the possibility of a new Cold War.
And if I was sitting in Moscow I would be saying, "This is pretty good news. I mean, let them go at it." I mean, what are we doing? What are we doing? So yeah, if there are issues, we table the issues and we work the issues. But let's ensure that we come together as a people and we work these issues of common concern. And those elements of tension between, our respective countries, work harder on them, resolve them. So I think we need to put much more time into the China issue. And it's not just headlines, it's not just a two-month study that comes out and says this and that and everything. This is a 24/7 and so forth.
And conversely, that's from the U.S. side, but I believe China understands this, and they need to put more time into where we are on these issues here, because the American people will not, and whether it's the business sector, whether it's the private sector, will not sit down, and just tolerate if it's intellectual property issues there, or censorship issues that touch the United States. So I think both countries need to do a much better job on bilateral relations.
James Green: Ambassador DeTrani, so great to see you. Thanks for all of your views and sharing your very deep experience, particularly on the Six Party Talks. Extremely helpful.
Joe DeTrani: Thank you so much, James.
James Green: Thanks.
Joe DeTrani: Thanks for what you're doing.
James Green: Ambassador Joseph DeTrani speaking with me from Washington, D.C. You’ve been listening to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University. I’m your host, James Green.