07/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Conversation with Madeleine Albright: Let's Talk to Iran Just Like We Are with North Korea

Madeleine Albright, who met with North Korea's Kim Jong-il when she was U.S. secretary of state during the Clinton administration, is now an adviser to Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency.

She spoke with me on Monday about the new deal between the U.S. and North Korea. (In the deal, North Korea has declared the extent of its plutonium-processing program and agreed to shut down the Yongbyon reactor, but it has not declared how many nuclear weapons it has. North Korea also has not agreed to get rid of those weapons, and it has not reported on its missile capability or its suspected uranium-enrichment activities. These are for the next stage of negotiations. In return, the U.S. has agreed to remove North Korea from its list of "state sponsors of terror" if the declaration is verified. )

Nathan Gardels: You were close to a deal with North Korea, which you personally negotiated, at the end of the Clinton administration. What do you think of the deal the Bush administration has just made?

Madeleine Albright: This deal with North Korea is a very important step in the right direction. But a great deal of the data North Korea has handed over still needs to be verified through inspecting their nuclear facilities.

To be frank, however, the Bush administration could have had this deal many years ago had it picked up where the Clinton administration left off. When the Bush administration came into office, we thought that North Korea had enough plutonium to make one or two weapons; now the best estimates are that they have enough to make six to eight bombs, if not more. And, of course, they have openly tested a nuclear device.

So, while an important step forward -- I don't want to denigrate this deal at all -- from the U.S. standpoint we are nonetheless worse off than eight years ago.

Gardels: You are one of the few Western leaders to have ever met Kim Jong-il. What changed that brought him to the table again? What changed within the Bush administration that made it seek a deal?

Albright: From the North Korean side, the breakthrough came because the U.S. agreed to direct talks. Certainly, my experience has been that it is always direct talks that move a situation forward. When I was involved in negotiations, the American aspect was paramount to the North Koreans.

Also, the North Korean regime is under immense pressure due to food and energy shortages. There is no pragmatic alternative to escaping isolation and making a deal.

On the Bush side, those who believed in diplomacy finally prevailed against the hardliners, no doubt due to the realization that military intervention and policies of isolation without diplomacy rarely get you what you want. This meant that the U.S. negotiator on North Korea, Chris Hill, was given the go-ahead for direct talks with the North Koreans. This was key to getting to the point.

Of course, the direct U.S.-North Korea talks took place within the context of the "six-party" process (the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and North Korea), which has proved an important means to get the countries in the region to act together if they have a common interest -- in this case, stopping North Korea's nuclear ambitions from threatening its neighbors and upsetting the stability needed for economic growth. China, in particular, has shown they can be a responsible partner in managing nuclear proliferation in their own neighborhood.

Gardels: Are the North Koreans more likely to stick to this agreement because all the surrounding regional powers have signed on?

Albright: Yes, I think so. Of course, each party has a separate set of issues. For example, the Japanese want to get a full accounting of all Japanese who were abducted by North Korea. China is particularly important in keeping North Korea's feet to the fire because North Korea is so dependent on them for trade and energy.

So, it is a combination of elements that have made this work: direct talks with the U.S. and the "no hostility" aspect ultimately moving toward normal relations as well as the presence of the regional powers -- the Chinese, in particular -- as guarantors.

Gardels: What lessons does this diplomatic step forward with North Korea hold for the efforts of the West to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons?

Albright: The lesson is that the U.S. has to be engaged in direct talks with Iran to break the current stalemate. The Europeans can't do it alone. As with the North Koreans, for the Iranians, the "American aspect" is critical.

The history of negotiations with Iran has been Europe playing the good cop and the U.S. playing the bad cop. But that has not seemed to move the process forward.

It is time for America's leadership to understand that you don't lose by having direct contact and conversations. Talking is not appeasement. In my conversations with Kim Jong-il, I was extremely clear on what we expected in terms of shutting down their nuclear program in exchange for a course toward normal relations. And I was clear that everything agreed needed to be verified. We weren't just having polite tea and begging them to please be nice.

In some quarters, there is a complete misunderstanding of the vehicle of diplomacy. Its point is to deliver tough messages and to listen. The U.S. is doing neither with Iran. Doing so now with North Korea shows diplomacy can get results.

Gardels: You are now an Obama adviser in the presidential campaign. Is this Obama's message?

Albright: Barack Obama believes we should talk to our enemies, to pursue direct and aggressive diplomacy with both North Korea and Iran. He lauded the North Korea deal as a step forward and has said we should continue down this fruitful path. This success in North Korea is, in fact, a vindication of the very approach to the world Obama has been calling for throughout his campaign.

As a U.S. senator, he will have a role, since the Congress must agree over the next 45 days on whether North Korea should be taken off the terrorism list. Like others in the Congress, he understands that everything depends on verification of the data North Korea has handed over in its declaration. Obama has asked that the Congress have access to the declaration so it can take the time needed to check it all out.

Gardels: As Reagan said with respect to Gorbachev: Trust but verify.

Albright: Absolutely. The North Koreans want the sanctions associated with being on the terrorism list removed. The U.S. Congress won't remove those sanctions without verification. That is the way it ought to work. It is also, of course, in the interests of China and the other regional powers to have a verifiable agreement, so they too must do their part.