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CNN LIVE TODAY

Critical Mass

Aired December 27, 2002 - 11:33   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: The last time the U.S. fought in Korea, it ended in a tense stalemate with the peninsula divided into north and south. Today, North Korea has a massive military that is openly hostile to the U.S. and has frequently acted with belligerence toward the south.
Former NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark joins us from Little Rock, Arkansas with some insight into what the Pentagon is looking at in regards to North Korea.

Good to see you, general.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, (RET.) CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Nice to see you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All, right now, reportedly, North Korea has something like three nuclear warheads and a potential perhaps to build more, and with the breaking of the seals of its nuclear reactor, and then covering the camera lenses of surveillance cameras, North Korea is saying they're doing this because they want to be able to generate more electricity. A lot of critics don't buy that, do you?

CLARK: No, I don't but that. This is a bargaining move on the part of the Koreans. There was an opening made by the North Koreans over the last eight years, a very tentative and very fragile opening, and it's a regime that wants to survive. It's a very repressive, and brutal and hateful regime, and it's trying to find a way to survive and get aid from the outside world to do it. And this is its only bargaining leverage, this and selling SCUDs. The North Koreans do have an enormous military potential, and they've starved their own people to create it.

WHITFIELD: So you're feeling pretty certain that this is North Korea calling the bluff of the U.S. to open up dialogue with the U.S. that maybe the U.S. would come to its aid given it is a poor nation now.

CLARK: In its own inept way, this is what this is. This is the ineptness of the North Koreans, who have never understood how to have a dialogue, but they believe they have to intimidate the rest of the world and push us into this dialogue, and it's not going to work.

So the United States then needs to go back out and re-establish the dialogue first with the south and build a relationship with the new South Korean government, and then use the south and use other countries in the region to persuade the south to back off its nuclear aspirations. WHITFIELD: And particularly the south, because the new South Korean president is not too keen on the idea or how the U.S. has approached Iraq, and perhaps the relations will continue to be strained unless that dialogue is established before there can be some sort of cohesion on how to approach North Korea, correct?

CLARK: Well, I think that there are a lot of local factors on the peninsula, which have affected the U.S.-Korean relationship. There were a couple of American soldiers involved in an automobile accident where a young child was run over and there was a court martial and they weren't found gilt guilty. This has been a focal point for anger. The United States owns a lot of real estate there. We've been there for a long time. We're very influential in the politics in South Korea, and there's always been strong nationalist movement in South Korea.

So our alliance is a very strong alliance, but we do have to contend with nationalist forces.

WHITFIELD: And so now the U.S. has a lot of irons in the fire. The war continues in Afghanistan, and of course there's a pretty significant military buildup, up to something like 60,000 troops in the Iraqi region, in the Persian gulf region, and now perhaps getting the U.S. involved militarily in North Korea. What potential do you see in that?

CLARK: Well, hopefully we're not going to see any expansion of military tensions. Thus far, there's been, as far as we know, no change in the readiness or alert posture of any of the forces along the demilitarized zone in the north, and so there's been no need for any response from the south.

WHITFIELD: But there is -- is there U.S. military support in South Korea?

CLARK: Absolutely.

WHITFIELD: There are troops there?

CLARK: About 37,000 troops, Army and Air Force, part of a U.S. division, some Air Force, and also some U.S. Air Force in Japan and in Okinawa, and forces in the United States and Hawaii that would be sent there in the event of a conflict.

WHITFIELD: Japan might be a problem as well, because they aren't too happy about the way the U.S. is handling Iraq?

CLARK: Japan has been very unhappy with the North Koreans, and they don't like the fact that the North Koreans have actually come back and admitted now they've kidnapped Japanese citizens to use them as aides in training infiltrators and spies, and they've never satisfactorily accounted for this or compensated the victims.

In addition, Japan will feel threatened by North Korea's nuclear capabilities. In 1998, the North Koreans fired a missile over Japan, which was a huge wakeup call in the Pacific, about the potential of the North Korean threat. So what we would not want to see a nuclear arms race in the Far East. That would be very dangerous.

WHITFIELD: Do you think we're on the verge of another Cold war?

CLARK: I think what the most immediate risk here, Fredricka, is the disintegration of the nonproliferation regime, which has enabled countries to go after peaceful nuclear power but provide something assurance they won't get nuclear weapons. And when North Korea throws out the National Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, it demeans that authority around the world. That's an agency which the United States has supported, which helps us meet our goes for a safer, peaceful world, and we need to support that agency, and we need to encourage others to do so.

In Iran, also there are questions about inspections, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has been wanting to go in and inspect certain facilities there, and the Iranians have told them no.

So the first crisis is really the disintegration of the nonproliferation regime that we've put in place over 60 years.

WHITFIELD: All right, General Clark, thank you very much for joining us from Little Rock.

CLARK: Thank you.

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