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U.S. President Bill Clinton talks with CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King
KING: Thank you for joining us. We're here in Ho Chi Minh City with the president of the United States, Bill Clinton. This is the last day of his landmark trip here to Vietnam.
First, sir, thank you for joining us. The facts speak for themselves -- the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the end of the war, the first ever to set foot in Hanoi, the capital. Interested in your thoughts. You've called this a new chapter, turning a page in the relationship. What is it, do you think, it will mean -- first, for the people of Vietnam and also for the people of the United States?
CLINTON: Well, of course, I hope it means for the people of Vietnam continued openness and continued prosperity. This country has made a lot of progress in the last few years. The economy is diversifying. It's becoming more open to the rest of the world. Sixty percent of the people are under 30 years old. Most of them have no memory at all of the war, and they're very much oriented toward the future.
They're asking themselves all kinds of fundamental questions about, you know, what the world is like now, how they're going to relate to it, what their country should be. So I hope that we have, you know, opened a new chapter, and I hope it will be good for them and good for us.
KING: Now, obviously, part of the new chapter is a widely expanded economic relationship. Do you have much confidence it will go beyond that, at least in the short term? After your meeting yesterday with the leader of the Communist Party here, he referred to the United States in the daily newspaper as imperialist, said that he hoped there would be respect for the different way of doing things here. You mentioned in your speech, nationally televised here to university students, the examples of the United States in the areas of individual freedom, religious freedom, political freedom.
Do you have much confidence that the government here, as it accepts and embraces a wider economic relationship with the West, will do anything to bring progress on those other fronts?
CLINTON: Well, I think there will be more personal freedoms. You know, I had a roundtable this morning with a lot of young people, and they were asking themselves these same questions. And I believe that as we implement this trade agreement and then Vietnam moves toward membership in the World Trade Organization, the rule of law will become more important, openness will become more important. There will be a lot more access to the Internet and information of all kinds. And so, there will be more freedom.
And the question then becomes when does it become political freedom? Or will the political system try to restrict them more, as has been the case in one or two other countries? The truthful answer is we don't know where it's going. But I think that the trend toward freedom is virtually irreversible, and they're just -- these folks are too young, they're too vigorous. And as you can see in the streets, there's a lot of good will toward America here. There's a lot of interest in our country and how we're dealing with a lot of the challenges of the new century.
So I believe that the trend is positive. Now, of course, the political leaders will have their debates, and I had a nice little debate with the general-secretary of the Communist Party here about our country, and I stoutly disputed that we were an imperialist country, that we had never had any imperialist designs here.
The conflict here was over what self-determination for the Vietnamese people really meant and what freedom and independence really meant. But we have a chance to continue that debate now in a more peaceful and more constructive way. And I think the fact that they feel free to engage us in it and then have publicity about it -- they did, after all, allow speech to the country to be televised, which I think is a good sign.
And the people came out in Hanoi and here in Ho Chi Minh City to see me. So ... and it wasn't me. It was the United States. There is a lot of interest in and support for the United States here. So I think we're on the right direction.
KING: I want to ask you about some of the remarkable moments on this trip. If you're sitting back in the United States watching this, we see this only by the numbers. Nearly 300 sets of remains returned to the United States during your presidency. The money put into the excavation efforts.
But it is numbers until you had the opportunity to see what you did yesterday, to actually go out into the field. ...
CLINTON: It was overwhelming. I think it's very important for the American people to understand that what has made the progress in our relationship with Vietnam possible over these last eight years has been their cooperation in our efforts to identify and recover and return home our MIAs and to resolve the POW and MIA cases. And we have resolved hundreds of them.
And in the cases where we think someone's remains are located, like the site we visited. We believe a plane crashed there 33 years ago. We believe a pilot's remains are there. His two sons came with me over here, and we ... we watched all those Vietnamese people working with the American people up to their hips in mud, digging in the ground and taking these big chunks of mud over to sifters and watching other Vietnamese sift through the mud for any kind of metal object or any cloth object, anything that would give us a clue to whether this was, in fact, a crash site and whether there's something more down there.
It was profoundly moving to me. And it is that good faith effort that they have made with us and, by the way, we've made with them. They have 300,000 cases still unresolved. And I brought over about 350,000 pages of documents. We have another million pages of documents we can give them so they can do their own resolution of these cases. That's what has made possible this whole focus on the future and the commercial relations and the educational and health care efforts and all the other things we're doing.
KING: What were your personal thoughts? You're standing there, holding pieces of the aircraft -- a label from a part on the aircraft. Your daughter standing next to you, crying. Didn't look like you were terribly far from that yourself. And you're with these two big, grown men who last saw their father when, I believe, they were 6 and 8. What goes through your mind at a moment like that?
CLINTON: Well, first, I was glad we were doing it. I think it made me very proud to be an American and proud that we had made these efforts and had made this progress. I was very grateful for the cooperation we'd received from the Vietnamese government and the individual villages. You know, there were just people out there stomping around in the mud, trying to find some trace of those boys' father.
And I think for me it symbolized what was best about our country and what was possible in terms of the reconciliation of people who had been so bitterly divided such a long time ago.
KING: Thank you. We need to take a quick break, but we'll be back in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in just a moment to continue our interview with the president of the United States.
KING: I want to ask you a little bit about your personal thoughts and how ... your personal journey here and your thoughts on it. As a young man, you opposed the war, once wrote that you despised it. Yet as president, with the support of Vietnam veterans, you have led the effort, first, to lift the trade embargo, then to normalize relations.
As you come here, how do you think this visit will be viewed back in the United States not just among the veterans community, but especially among the Vietnam veterans community and your own personal thoughts on sort of bridging your youth with your role now in trying to create this new relationship.
CLINTON: Well, let me answer the two questions separately. First of all, I hope the veterans community will view it with pride. Because nothing that we have done in the last eight years would have been possible without the support of the Vietnam veterans in the Congress and in the various veterans organizations.
Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Bob Kerrey, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Chuck Robb, Pete Peterson, our ambassador, who was a POW for six and a half years. The first three years, his wife didn't even know he was alive. He never saw his third child until the boy was 6 years old. Pete was in Congress for a lot of this period before I named him to be the ambassador.
So I would think that the veterans community would be very proud of this. And also, I will reiterate none of this would have happened if it hadn't been for the cooperation of the Vietnamese with our attempts to resolve our outstanding POW and MIA cases. There has never been anything like it in the entire history of warfare, where the two countries worked this hard, this long, invested this kind of money and effort to resolve the POW-MIA issues.
So I would think for most of our people who understand that, the central role the American veterans in the Congress and in the country had, this would be a source of great pride. For me personally, it was interesting. I ... my overwhelming feeling when I first got here, was I was thinking about the boys I grew up with who died in Vietnam, four of my high school classmates. And I asked Pete Peterson, when he came back, how long it took him to get beyond thinking about how it was before. And he said, well, about an hour, he said. You know, then he had to deal with the challenges of being ambassador, and he went on with life.
And that's kind of what happened to me. I was ... I had a few moments there where I felt I was thinking about the personal tragedies that I had been in contact with when I was a boy, and then, you know, the moment intervened and we went on with the future.
KING: Let's move around the world quickly. In a matter of weeks, you will hand off to the man who will succeed you, the man as yet unknown -- and we'll get to that -- the portfolio on some of the most important strategic relationships in the world. I want to start first with North Korea.
You had at one point hoped perhaps to follow Secretary Albright and visit North Korea as part of this trip and decided in the end not enough progress was being made to justify that. Can you be as specific as possible in saying what it is you're looking for from the North Koreans in terms of the missile program and any other steps and whether you believe it is conceivable that you still might get there before you leave office?
CLINTON: Well, I haven't made a decision about whether to go. So I'll answer that first. Specifically, what we seek with the missile program is an end to the long-range missile program and an end to the exports of missiles. North Korea needs the foreign exchange money. They need ... I understand that they need the funds, and they're very good at making missiles.
But the people who are most likely to buy them are those that are most likely to misuse them down the road. So that's what we're trying to do.
We also want to ensure the continued vitality of this North-South dialogue for which President Kim of South Korea won the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Peace Prize, and he certainly deserved it. We want that to go on, and we want ... we want to have a sense about what the way forward is with regard to North Korea's relations with us as well as the South Koreans and the Japanese.
KING: Your successor, I assume, relatively shortly after he takes office, will receive a proposal from the Russians to go even beyond anything you and the Russians have discussed. Mr. Putin, because of the obvious budget constraints of his country, wants to go to roughly 1,000 strategic warheads. Is that in the interests of the United States' national security, and do you see any potential to get to that level and also perhaps as part of that deal get a compromise on the ABM Treaty that would allow the Missile Defense Program to go forward?
CLINTON: Well, first of all, I don't want to say anything that will compromise my successor's options. I think it's important. Now, I think it is quite possible that we could agree to go down to fewer missiles in our nuclear arsenal and theirs. I think that it's important that there also be fewer warheads. That is, there's a difference between missiles and warheads. I don't think we ought to go back to highly dangerous richly armed missiles, multiple warhead missiles.
KING: We need to take another short break. But when we come back, we'll ask the president about his thoughts on the crisis in the Middle East as well as the contested presidential election back home in the United States.
KING: I want to ask you lastly ... before asking you about the domestic political situation, I want to ask you lastly about the Middle East. You met separately with Mr. Arafat and Prime Minister Barak before you came on this trip. Has to be a source of enormous personal frustration to you because of all the time you've put into this. Do you have any reasonable hopes that you can bring the two of them together anytime soon, and that we will get anywhere beyond, perhaps even just calming the violence before you leave office, and anywhere back toward formal peace negotiations? Is that completely unrealistic at this time?
CLINTON: The honest answer is I don't know. For this reason -- I don't think they can start negotiating again until we can dramatically reduce the level of violence. It's not clear to me that that's going to happen right now, although I'm working very hard on it. And we've been working hard on it since I've been here.
And I wouldn't rule it out. But the tragic thing is that they're not all that far apart on a lot of these big issues, and that what we have seen is a sober reminder that, you know, the old status quo was not an option. You either have to keep making things better in the Middle East or eventually they'll get worse.
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