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North Korea: "Conflict is clearly possible"



During 2003, Maurice Strong was appointed as the UN's special envoy to North Korea. He talked to the Canadian magazine, Maclean's, about the breakdown of trust.

MAURICE STRONG likes to say he never had a career. Rather, he says, he is "issue-oriented," moving from one business project or international event to another. When he was in his 20s, he created and ran oil companies in Calgary; at 32, he rook the helm of Power Corp., the financial conglomerate controlled by Quebec's Desmarais family. Strong has also been involved with the United Nations throughout his career, eventually becoming secretary general of the UN conference on the environment. He was instrumental in setting up the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where 172 countries endorsed the principles of sustainable development and set the stage for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Strong, now 73, and as special adviser to UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was sent to North Korea to discuss how to head off a looming food shortage that could effect a third of the country's 23-million-strong population. Instead, the leaders in Pyongyang wanted to talk to Strong about nuclear weapons and the standoff with the United States over North Korea's threat to build an atomic arsenal. Strong discussed the experience with World Editor, Tom Fennell. (The interview was published on 17 February 1993.)

What did you see after you got off the plane in Pyongyang?


I was struck by the little houses, small buildings, schools -- just the normal kinds you see in Canada on a bright, crisp winter's day. But there were no wisps of smoke coming out the chimneys -- virtually none. And people were walking everywhere in the cold, which indicate, they simply don't have any fuel. The place is in desperate shape. Unless urgent action is taken by the beginning of April, there will be very little food left. It could be a major tragedy.

From the North Korea point of view, what has triggered the standoff with the United States?

In 1994, the U.S. agreed to build two light-water reactors, which cannot easily be used to make weapons-grade plutonium. In exchange, the North Koreans dropped their nuclear program. But the Americans never built the reactors. It's the breach of that agreement that the North Koreans say has created the crisis. So the North Koreans are saying the agreement was with the Americans and we need to deal with the Americans. But there's been a regime change in the U.S., and the new regime doesn't have the same degree of commitment to that agreement.

What message did you deliver to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell?


The North Koreans are saying they have no intention of developing nuclear weapons and are prepared as part of the settlement to subject themselves to verification and inspection procedures. That's the main thing the Americans are after. On the U.S. side, President Bush has said they have no intention of attacking North Korea. In fact, as part of a settlement they are prepared to rejuvenate and possibly expand some of their economic assistance. So you have the phenomenon that both sides are more or less saying what the other wants, but they're saying it past each other instead of to each other. The problem is the lack of trust, and the fact that each side is suspicious of the signals that the other is sending.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently said that after Saddam Hussein is removed, Washington and London will turn their sights on North Korea. But the North Koreans seem to be much stronger strategically than Iraq.

It's quite different from Iraq because the North Koreans have one of the largest conventional military forces in the world - a million people under arms - and they've got artillery and missile technology. Any war they fight will be in an area where their conventional weapons could be used. So their concerns need to be taken seriously.

What are the chances of a war?

We could slip into conflict if the rhetoric isn't de-escalated, and if each party continues to misread the signals of the other. The Koreans also say that if the UN Security Council were to impose sanctions, they would consider that a declaration of war. The irony is that the elements for a peaceful settlement are there, but there is such, a breakdown of trust and communication that conflict is clearly possible.

You've said North Korea wants to modernize its economy. But can an administration as eccentric as this one ever change?

China is an interesting example illustrating that you don't have to have regime change to have significant change in the manner in which the economy is run. The Koreans need to open up. They're prepared to, but at their own speed. They want to change without regime change.

Will the UN's credibility be hurt by the Iraq situation?

If it is perceived as being used by the U.S. and Britain as an instrument of war unfairly, that will hurt the UN. On the other hand, if the UN does not agree to sanction the demise of a regime that's as bad as Saddam Hussein's, then it also could be weakened. But the UN is strengthened by the fact that it is the place where these things have to be worked out.

You were key in creating the 1992 Earth Summit and later, the Earth Charter. How is that developing?


Mikhail Gorbuchev and I got a group together after Rio and we've been working on the Earth Charter. Millions of people around the world have embraced it. The charter has a statement of moral and ethical principles designed to guide the conduct of people toward each other and toward the earth. We have to be governed more by ethical and moral principles and much less by the search for material wealth. Remember, some of the most creative periods in history have been those in which business interests have been secondary Greece and Rome, for example, where literature, the arts and culture were prominent.

The Kyoto Protocol came of Rio, Although Ottawa has ratified at, the terms are still hotly debated in Canada.

The targets themselves may seem hard to reach, but they're still quite modest. They're hard to reach if were not prepared to make significant changes in the way we use energy and the kind of energy we use. But we're going to have to make a transition, and Kyoto will eventually drive it. We're trying to make an adjustment without really significantly changing anything, but it's understandable. All major historic movements are resisted and controversial.

Canada's approach has been hesitant at best.

The U.S., which opted out of Kyoto, still has a lot of clout because it's such a big country. Canada couldn't do that because it would have meant losing a great deal of influence internationally. Canada's distinctive role in the world has come about because of the contributions to multilaterism. After the Second World War, Canada was invited into the club of major nations. We're still there, even though economically we would not be entitled to it. But we will jeopardize that status once we step out of multilateral agreements.

What message would you send to your former colleagues in the oil industry in Calgary, who continue to fight Kyoto?

When the slave trade was going to be abolished, the business voices of the period said, well, it maybe OK morally, but, it's going to ruin business. It was the same when they tried to abolish child labour. These things were not disastrous for business.