[Interview] US Special Representative on North Korea Policy: “We have a standing offer for dialogue”

Posted on : 2018-01-19 17:38 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Joseph Yun says that the US is willing to talk if North Korea announces a halt to missile, nuclear testing
US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun speaks to the Hankyoreh at his office in Washington
US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun speaks to the Hankyoreh at his office in Washington

Joseph Yun is the US State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy. He was interviewed by the Hankyoreh at his office in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 17 to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue at the possibility of US-North Korea dialogue.

Hankyoreh (Hani): How would you assess the current state of cooperation between South Korea and the US with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue?

Yun: We’re not even finished with January, and President Trump [already] spoke to President Moon twice in the first two weeks. Of course, my boss, Secretary Tillerson, has already met with Foreign Minister Kang. They were in Vancouver together. Earlier this week, my counterpart, Lee Dong-hun, was here, and then today in Songnam Lim deputy Secretary is here. And I’ll be seeing him later today along with our Deputy Secretary Sullivan. So in so many ways, we’re working together in very strong consultation and very strong coordination.

There are number of issues that we concentrate on during these consultations. One is to make sure that we have unified approach to North Korea. That is the most important thing. This is especially important because there are now very important talks going on between North and South regarding the Olympics. So we are very closely coordinated with them. We’re also closely coordinated on many of the economic issues, commercial issues, and global issues. So, I’m very happy that we’ve had a good start to new year, and let’s hope that we continue this way.

Hani: Frankly, the first US response to Kim Jong-un’s new year address from WH was not positive. But after the telephone call between President Trump and President Moon, the overall sentiment shifted rapidly. It’s a surprising pivot. What do you think was the reason for that shift?

Yun: I think you have to understand that the New Year’s remarks by Kim Jong Un had two main elements. One element was aimed at inter-Korean relations and the Olympics [and] the other element was aimed at the United States. So I believe that initially a lot of people saw this as continuation of very threatening remarks from North Korea. And that’s what it was. So, our assessment is consistently that North Korean attitude towards U.S. has not changed materially. They are still, we believe, preparing missiles, they’re still continuing with nuclear development, and then saying that all of the US mainland is targeted by North Korea. I’m sure you will understand that it was not well received. That I think is the first part.

The second part on inter-Korean relations was, I believe, well received by us. As a result, President Moon and President Trump spoke, and they said, “Well that part is the positive part of [Kim’s] remarks.” So I think that’s what happened.

I would say that the part about inter-Korean relations and having the Olympics together – participating in the Olympics, sending a delegation, and then agreeing that we want to all have a successful Olympics – that was the positive point.

Hani: The New York Times recently reported that the US military is quietly preparing for a war against North Korea, along with the news that B-52 and B-2 bombers have been deployed to Guam. What kind of signal do those moves send to North Korea or South Korea in the atmosphere of de-escalation of tensions?

Yun: Well, I think it’s not a secret. Everyone from the President on down to the secretary have always said that all options are on the table. And all options include military option. However, everyone, including the President and my own boss, Secretary of State Tillerson, and even General Mattis from Pentagon have stated that we want peaceful resolution. So I think that is very consistent.

US wants to peacefully resolve nuclear issue, but maintains all options are on the table

We want a peaceful resolution, but all options have to be on the table. That’s nothing new.

Hani: The United States has decided that Vice President Pence will lead the delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics. Will there be anyone in the delegation from President Trump’s family? First Lady Melania Trump or the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump?

Yun: You should ask President Trump that because I don’t know.

Hani: Inter-Korean dialogue is going on regarding the upcoming Olympics. But there are some concerns that such moves could undermine the US maximum pressure policy. Do you agree with that?

Yun: Oh no, we don’t worry about that. I think you know that the South Korean side, including President Moon, and of course yesterday in Vancouver, Foreign Minister Kang have repeated and reiterated that [inter-Korean dialogue] is beginning to have results, but also that the pressure campaign will stay until North Korea begins denuclearization. The commitment is [made] from the highest level of the South Korean government.

Hani: South Korea announced that it will provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea via the World Food Program. What do you think about this humanitarian assistance to North Korea?

Yun: Well, you know humanitarian assistance has always been exempt from sanctions. So it’s really up to each country to do what they want to do in terms of purely humanitarian assistance. The US has even some NGOs that provide medical help and so on. It’s really up to the South Korean government to work out the humanitarian side of the assistance.

Hani: There are rumors that the White House responded negatively to this proposal.

Yun: I’m not sure if we’ve said any negative response. Don’t believe everything that you hear privately.

Hani: Will Secretary Tillerson’s plan to visit to Pyongyang still be effective if NK stops so-called provocations during a certain period? It seems that a 60-day period [of North Korea refraining from provocation] is no longer a precondition. Could you confirm that?

Yun: I think what you have to understand is that Secretary Tillerson has always stated that we are open to credible dialogue. And what form that credible dialogue takes, we don’t know. We really believe that it is up to the North Korean side to suggest how a dialogue could be credible. So fundamentally, I believe that now the North Korean side has to respond.

Hani: Is the “60 days condition” still in effect?

No 60 day condition for dialogue with North Korea

Yun: There has never been a “60 day condition.” What has been a condition is that North Korea should say we are stopping testing because we want a dialogue. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s sixty days or ninety days or whatever. They need to say that they want to have a dialogue, and for that reason they are stopping testing nuclear and missile devices.

Hani: If North Korea announces that it will stop nuclear and missile testing, could Secretary Tillerson meet with the North Koreans?

Yun: Well, it’s something that we have to think about seriously, but that would be a good first step.

Hani: Is the “New York channel” still working well? Is this being used to notify North Korea of US intentions?

Yun: We correspond regularly via the New York channel. The New York channel is a message center. So, I’m sure what we tell the channel gets to Pyongyang. So this is working fine. I’m not prepared to go into what we’ve discussed.

Hani: There are concerns the tensions might re-escalate if there is no tangible solution to the nuclear issue after the Pyeongchang Olympics conclude. Do you have any plan to keep the momentum that has resulted from recent inter-Korean dialogue and North Korea’s participation in the Olympics?

Yun: We have stated clearly that we are open to serious dialogue, and so it would be nice if North Korea responded meaningfully to our offer, which is a standing offer out there. So like you, I hope something can be worked out so they come to the table for serious and credible dialogue.

Hani: There is an argument that in order to keep the current momentum, the US-ROK joint exercises need to be scaled down or modified. Is that something the US is prepared to consider?

Yun: Again, we’re not going to reveal what we’re going to do and what we will not do. So it is tough to answer those questions. But I think everyone has made it clear that freeze-for-freeze is not acceptable for the US.

Hani: Would the US would accept South Korea sending a special envoy to North Korea in order to make a breakthrough regarding the nuclear issue?

Yun: Why wouldn’t the US accept it if there is a breakthrough and North Korea decided that all of a sudden, “You know what? You’re right. The special envoy from South Korea is right; we’re going to get rid of our nuclear weapons.” That’d be great. That would be fantastic. But is that going to happen? I don’t think so. I think it’ll be tough.

Hani: Secretary James Mattis indicated while en route to Vancouver that the current focus is freezing the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests. This seems to be an implication that the first goal of US side is to freeze the testing. Is that a fair inference?

Yun: I think everyone realizes that this will be a long process. and everyone also acknowledges that step one could be freezing nuclear missile test. But it has to be step by step, and I think everyone knows the steps clearly. You start from a freeze, then you stop development, and then you send in inspectors, and you begin what we call disabling and then dismantling and finally denuclearization. I think everyone understands these steps, and also acknowledges that the very first step is a freeze, yes.

Hani: Is that realistic?

Yun: Yes.

Hani: It’s realistic to think that North Korea will give up its nuclear program through a diplomatic approach?

Yun: Of course, I believe that. I think it’s going to take a lot of effort and time. I do believe that they will eventually denuclearize as many countries have done, including Ukraine, South Africa, and so on.

By Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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