- The SAIS Review Interviews Joel Wit
October 15, 2019
What was your first experience with nuclear weapons, and what drew you to the topic?
With nuclear weapons? I've never had any firsthand experience with nuclear weapons, but I have had experience with the topic of nuclear weapons! It was in graduate school that I became interested in the topic and where I got my initial exposure to it. I went to Columbia, and there were a lot of courses there on security, international security, nuclear arms control, and nuclear deterrence.
What has your experience been with the topic of nuclear weapons as a professional?
After graduate school, I first worked at the Congressional Research Service, where I did a lot of studies for the House Foreign Affairs Committee on nuclear arms control. Then I went to the State Department, where I worked in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and tracked foreign nuclear test activities. After that, I worked in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs on nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, specifically the INF Treaty and the START Treaty. After spending from 1986 to 2002 at the State Department, I left the US government and was at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) for a while, and eventually ended up at SAIS, working at the US-Korea Institute.
One of the things I noticed (and other friends who had worked in the US government agreed), however, was that everything that had been written about North Korea was kind of silly. It was written by people who never had any kind of experience dealing with North Koreans and had never been to North Korea. [End Page 171] They were all just pontificating. So what we set out to do was to establish a place where people who actually had real experience with North Korea could write about important issues, based on their real experience. So that's what led to the establishment of the web site 38 North.
Clearly you have had much experience with North Korea. Could you walk us through your experience on that file at the State Department, particularly the 1994 agreement, the Agreed Framework?
By 1993, as everyone knows, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and nuclear arms control became less interesting to work on because of the change in the US-Soviet—which had become the US-Russian—relationship. I spent some time working on cooperative threat reduction programs with the former Soviet republics, but I felt that I needed a change. At the time, I had friends who were working on North Korea. I had never worked on North Korea before, but it was similar experience, dealing with another country and trying to end—or at least limit—their weapons program. So I ended up doing that in 1993.
Then lo and behold! In 1993, the first crisis with North Korea during the Clinton administration emerges, so it was pretty good timing. I spent the next couple of years working with Ambassador Robert Gallucci, trying to negotiate an agreement. These efforts ultimately led to the Agreed Framework, the 1994 agreement. After that, I—along with some other people—was sort of left behind to implement the agreement, which I did for the next four or five years.
Would you be able to speak about your experience working with North Koreans? What were they like as negotiating partners? What was their style of diplomacy?
Everyone tries to pretend that dealing with North Korea is something very different from dealing with other countries. Of course, there are differences between talking to the North Koreans and talking to the Soviets; you need to find your way through all the different things they're saying and pick out the key points. But in general, I think negotiating with North Koreans is very similar to negotiating with anybody else.
People talk about how the North Koreans are tough and how it can be very difficult to work with them in negotiations. But once you have agreements with them, though, it's...