[Interview] Why Biden is better than Trump for inter-Korean relations

Posted on : 2020-08-23 13:13 KST Modified on : 2020-08-23 13:13 KST
Former Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok says the US Democratic Party tends to listen to Washington’s allies
Lee Jong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute and former unification minister, during his interview with the Hankyoreh at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Aug. 7. (Kim Gyoung-ho, staff photographer)
Lee Jong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute and former unification minister, during his interview with the Hankyoreh at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Aug. 7. (Kim Gyoung-ho, staff photographer)

“Trump can’t solve the North Korean nuclear issue.”

Lee Jong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute and the former South Korean unification minister, has given up any hope that US President Donald Trump might solve the North Korean nuclear issue, and is now suggesting that South Korea should take it upon itself to openly share a more sophisticated alternative approach to the issue prior to the US presidential election. While nuclear negotiations with North Korea and other important foreign affairs are all on hold for the US ahead of its election, Lee suggested that it could lay key groundwork for real progress on future denuclearization talks with the next US administration if South Korea states a clear position and solution for denuclearization and sanctions relief now based on snapback provisions (which withdraw measures in the event that promises are not kept).

Many South Korean experts have argued that Trump’s reelection would be the best thing for the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearization -- even as they object to his policies that show a disregard for the two sides’ alliance, including pressure to greatly increase South Korea’s share of US Forces Korea (USFK) defense costs. But Lee said he prefers Democratic Party candidate Joseph Biden, who “knows how to listen to allies.”

On Aug. 7, the Hankyoreh met with Lee -- a scholar who has spent decades on in-depth research into North Korea and who directed foreign affairs and national security policy as the Blue House National Security Council’s deputy secretary and as the unification minister under the Roh Moo-hyun administration -- in his office at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, to ask him about his “blueprint” for South Korean diplomacy, including a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue, inter-Korean relations, conflicts between the US and China, South Korea-Japan relations, and the future of USFK.

Hankyoreh (Hani): On Aug. 7, US President Donald Trump once again said he would negotiate with North Korea “very quickly” if he’s reelected. He also reiterated his claims that there would have been a war with North Korea had he not been elected. Why don’t you think Trump is capable of solving the North Korean nuclear issue?

Lee Jong-seok (Lee): The late former President Kim Dae-jung once said that an outstanding politician needs to have a student’s sense of issues and a merchant’s perception of reality. Trump is outstanding when it comes to the merchant’s perception of reality, but he has no philosophical mindset in terms of why we need peace on the Korean Peninsula or what strategic determinations and ideas are needed to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. It’s a situation where you can’t hope to win over support from the American public, which is skeptical when it comes to North Korea. There’s also no system under the Trump administration for implementing any agreement that Trump does reach with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un. Having watched Trump for the past two years, I’ve come to the conclusion that his reelection will not help solve the North Korean nuclear issue.

Lee Jong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute and former unification minister, during his interview with the Hankyoreh at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Aug. 7. (Kim Gyoung-ho, staff photographer)
Lee Jong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute and former unification minister, during his interview with the Hankyoreh at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Aug. 7. (Kim Gyoung-ho, staff photographer)
Improving the top-down approach

Hani: The Moon Jae-in administrations’ approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue has been tailored to Trump’s top-down persuasion-based approach. How should it be improved?

Lee: We need to come up with our own sophisticated and concrete solution on the issue, present it in the sphere of public discussion, and work diligently to achieve it. The nuclear issue is a life-or-death matter that could determine our very destiny. We have to develop a clear alternative, something all of South Korea can share, and work consistently to win support for and implement it, even if we have to put up with some disagreements with the US at times. But the Moon administration has never clearly stated what its solution for the North Korean nuclear issue is. South Korea has a lot of experience with the issue of peace on the peninsula, whereas the Trump administration is basically a bunch of amateurs when it comes to Korean Peninsula issues.

We’ve also had ignorant and prejudiced people like [former National Security Advisor John] Bolton in charge of Korean Peninsula policies. North Korea halted its nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches and said in its Joint Declaration with South Korea on Sept. 19, 2018, that it was willing to give up its Yongbyon nuclear complex and its engine testing site at Tongchang Village. Even there, the US said it could only loosen sanctions after North Korea had completed all of its denuclearization measures.

It’s obvious that the problem will never get solved that way. South Korea needs to develop a concrete snapback-based solution -- one where North Korean denuclearization and US sanctions relief happen simultaneously on a step-by-step basis, with the sanctions restored if North Korea halts its denuclearization process or otherwise breaks its promises midway through -- and then openly share that and work to win support for it.

S. Korea needs to clarify its stance on N. Korea before US presidential election, not after

Hani: Whether it’s Biden or Trump who wins, what sort of diplomatic preparations should South Korea be making?

Lee: We need to come up with a sophisticated solution on the North Korean nuclear issue and present it not after the US presidential election but right now, before the election. If Biden is elected, then South Korea needs to make sure that when the next US administration takes office, it’s clearly aware of what our position is. If we wait until after we see the election results to try to get the ear of the president-elect’s associates, it will already be too late.

Lee Jong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute and former unification minister, during his interview with the Hankyoreh at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Aug. 7. (Kim Gyoung-ho, staff photographer)
Lee Jong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute and former unification minister, during his interview with the Hankyoreh at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Aug. 7. (Kim Gyoung-ho, staff photographer)
The importance of snapback provisions for N. Korea’s denuclearization

We also need to persuade the US of why it’s helpful for them too to have step-by-step measures based on snapback provisions. If North Korea takes follow-up measures such as dismantling its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon with expert observers present or abandoning its engine testing site at Tonchang, then the US can do things like loosen sanctions, establish a mission office, and sign a peace agreement. And if North Korea breaks its promises along the way and the snapback is triggered, then it’s difficult for North Korea to restore the facilities it’s dismantled, so it becomes an irreversible measure. Some people are claiming that if the US relaxes sanctions, North Korea won’t make any more progress on denuclearization, having enriched itself in the meantime. But North Korea’s objective is to attract outside capital that it can combine with its natural resources and workforce to achieve accelerated growth.

If at some point North Korea violates its denuclearization agreement and all of that capital is withdrawn, it may be a blow to investors in South Korea, the US, and China, but the damage to the North Korean economy will be far greater. We need everyone from the president to diplomats and scholars all explaining this same message to the US. Even if there are differences with the US, we need to talk about it openly and win support.

Hani: Some people are worried that if Biden wins the November election in the US, all of the agreements Trump has reached with North Korea will become null and void, and North Korea-US nuclear talks will be suspended as things go back to the same kind of “strategic patience” approach seen during the Barack Obama administration.

Lee: The US Democratic Party isn’t more moderate or flexible with its North Korea policy than the Republican Party. They’re both equally skeptical and distrustful toward North Korea. But while the Republicans have traditionally been unilateral when it comes to relationships with allies, the Democrats have been more willing to listen to allies. When the South Korean government has a position and is trying to win support for it, Democratic governments tend to listen. The Obama administration was willing to listen to allies – their ally’s presidents at the time just happened to be Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Biden pointed to the defense cost-sharing negotiations in his accusations against the Trump administration of damaging relationships with allies. If the South Korean government openly shares a solution on the North Korean nuclear issue now and works to enlist support for it, I think a Biden administration may listen to us more than a Republication administration would. That’s why I’m actually hopeful for Biden.

Hani: People seem to have pretty high hopes for a foreign affairs and national security lineup that’s focused on inter-Korean relations. What do you see as the top priority for the national security team to address?

Lee: The first order of business is to enact a law banning the scattering of [propaganda] leaflets in North Korea and to look for things in the Apr. 27 Panmunjom Declaration and the Sept. 19 Inter-Korean Pyongyang Agreement [of 2018] that can be concretely implemented without violating sanctions. The second thing is for South Korea to share a concrete vision regarding a solution on the North Korean nuclear issue. The declarations made by the South and North Korean leaders aren’t being implemented right now, so inter-Korean relations aren’t going to be improved through small-scale measures.

The steps taken by Lee In-young since his appointment as unification minister have been positive, but I’m hoping for even bolder steps. The government needs to explore how much potential there is for allowing individual tourism to North Korea and for connecting inter-Korean railways. Inter-Korean cooperation creates economic opportunities to the north, paving the way for opening up a new horizon in a time of economic difficulty in Korea.

Cooperation with North Korea means building an economic sphere that incorporates China’s three provinces in the northeast and the Russian province of Primorsky Krai in the Far East, which can pave the way for mutual prosperity in South and North Korea. In the past, North Korea wasn’t ready for that, but Kim Jong-un has moved in the direction of reform and opening. The remaining problem is the nuclear issue. The timeframe for the northern economic initiative and inter-Korean economic cooperation impacting the South Korean economy isn’t the distant future: depending on how the nuclear issue is resolved, that impact could begin immediately.

How S. Korea should navigate US-China tensions

Hani: The conflict between the US and China is intensifying and the US is placing more pressure on South Korea through the alliance to join an anti-Chinese front. What strategies and principles should South Korea devise?

Lee: In a report about the US’ strategic approach to China that was released on May 20, the White House brought up ideological issues, including the claim that China presents “challenges to our values.” That’s a déjà vu to the Cold War and could lead to a new cold war. Such trends could represent a true danger if they become entrenched after the US presidential election. That would inevitably accelerate the decoupling of the US and China; South Korea is already being coerced to choose one or the other.

What we can do is make effective use of the two values of the alliance and multilateral cooperation. China prefers multilateral cooperation, and even the US cannot openly oppose it. China may be South Korea’s number-one trading partner, but our alliance with the US is necessary if only to keep our relationship with China healthy and on an equal footing. Our mission is to take up the challenge of simultaneously advocating the alliance and multilateral cooperation and to seek balance on each issue.

N. Korea is one of few issues on which S. Korea and Japan can see eye to eye

Hani: Amid the deterioration of South Korea-Japan relations, the Japanese administration under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has continued to obstruct the Korean Peninsula Peace Process. Now Abe intends to acquire enemy base strike capability, which would enable Japan to launch preemptive strikes against North Korea. How should South Korea respond?

Lee: South Korea-Japan relations have hit rock bottom. The problem is that historical disputes have been made a prominent part of those relations. That issue began when Park Geun-hye brought the comfort women issue to the fore, and was exacerbated when the issue of forced labor was made front and center under Moon Jae-in. At the least, we need to return to a two-track approach of keeping our discussion of historical and political issues separate from the issues of private-sector exchange, the economy, culture, and the North Korean nuclear program.

If there’s a place where South Korea and Japan can see eye to eye, it’s the North Korean nuclear issue. Japan wants to improve relations with North Korea, and South Korea also views that positively. We need to create room for that kind of cooperation so that we can reinstate the two-track approach in South Korea-Japan relations. Japan may be moving to acquire the ability to launch a preemptive strike on North Korea without consulting South Korea, but the very idea of Japan attacking North Korea is ridiculous, whether or not South Korea has been consulted. But one aspect of the South Korea-Japan conflict is Japan’s exploration of militarism and a massive expansion of its army. Japan is also playing a negative role in the North Korean nuclear issue by serving as a vanguard for American hardliners on the North. I think Japan and South Korea need to look for a way to start repairing their tattered relationship, which could involve Japan normalizing diplomatic relations with North Korea and working with South Korea on the North Korean nuclear issue.

Hani: Many thought it would be best to delay the South Korea-US joint military exercise in consideration of inter-Korean relations, but the exercises are beginning on Aug. 16. The Moon administration’s stance is that the exercise is essential for completing the OPCON [wartime operational control] transfer before Moon leaves office. What’s your take on that?

Lee: If we accept that resolving the North Korean nuclear issue is of extreme urgency and that suspending South Korea-US military exercises is necessary for that, why couldn’t we suspend them? Furthermore, it’s the US that predicated the OPCON transfer on holding South Korea-US military exercises. The OPCON transfer that’s currently in the works is different from what [was agreed to] under former President Roh Moo-hyun. Back then, the idea was for South Korea and the US to both have wartime OPCON over their respective forces. But currently the idea is to set up a future CFC [Combined Forces Command] under a South Korean four-star general. The deputy commander of the future CFC will be the commander of USFK [US Forces Korea], who also serves as head of UN Command. Something seems off about that hierarchy. If the OPCON transfer requires setting up a future CFC and assessing operational ability, the definition has changed considerably. The government has preserved the framework established under the Park Geun-hye administration.

Numerical strength of USFK isn’t important

Hani: Since Donald Trump became president, we’ve continued to hear predictions that the US might withdraw their troops in connection with defense costs. The US recently reduced its number of troops in Germany, and analysts are also saying the US may have no choice but to redeploy USFK according to its own needs.

Lee: The US pulled out the 7th Infantry Division in the 1970s, during the presidency of Park Chung-hee, and 12,500 soldiers were withdrawn under Roh Moo-hyun. Currently, there are about 28,500 American soldiers left in USFK. War scenarios and weapons systems today are different than they used to be. This is a time in which war is fought with drones. The South Korea-US alliance needs to stay firm, but the day will come when experts will have to debate how many American troops should be stationed on the Korean Peninsula, or whether they should even be here at all.

We need to come to terms with the fact that the numerical strength of USFK isn’t the important thing. The alliance needs to remain strong, but USFK numbers can be determined by military needs. The South Korea-US alliance is a legacy of the Cold War, but it needs to be maintained because of our predetermined relationship with China. Military matters aside, the South Korea-China relationship is very asymmetrical in terms of the economy. That said, if South Korea can make its alliance with the US reciprocal and horizontal, rather than dependent, China won’t be able to complain about the alliance. That would give new significance to the South Korea-US alliance. As for what happens after post-unification, we can cross that bridge when we get there.

By Park Min-hee, editorial writer

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

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