As a second meeting between leaders of the US and North Korea is on the horizon, questions remain: will North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons for good? Or are we going to be thrust in another round of tension? We talked to Jae-Young Lee, president of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.
SS: But you see, not too long ago, they were seriously asking people on American TV if the U.S. should bomb North Korea. So they really were on the brink of war. And now they are about to meet for the second time. Does it mean that the worst is over? What do you think?
JL: Yes, last year everybody was concerned that a war on the Korean Peninsula was inevitable. But now the situation has changed drastically. There is movement towards peace. Last year we wouldn’t have even dreamed about this. Of course, this will take time, but I think gradually both the U.S. and North Korea will solve the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula.
SS: We saw how President Trump acted towards the North Korean leader. He wrote some nasty things on Twitter, resorted to name-calling, sent out and then recalled the navy. And now America and North Korea have unprecedentedly good relations. When Trump was behaving this way, he was criticised for acting with such recklessness. But now, I guess, it turns out that he did everything right?
JL: Yes, things have stabilised to a degree, and I think these are wise choices. Maybe it was some trick that Trump played in order to make North Korea participate in dialogue. But the situation in North Korea has changed as well. Its leader Kim Jong-un is like a young Gorbachev. His vision is different from the ideas of his predecessors. Americans think that the Soviet Union fell because of U.S. sanctions, but it’s not true. And we see the same situation now. Americans think that sanctions against North Korea are forcing the Koreans to talk. But it is only one of the factors. Now the situation in North Korea is a little different. Kim Jong-un has a different vision and is ready for disarmament.
SS: You know what I think? I think that maybe he just outsmarted everyone. First he scared the world with nuclear weapons, presenting the worst case scenario, and now he is capitalising on that, saying, “Ok, I will not use nuclear weapons, let’s be friends.”
JL: Compared to the U.S. and other countries, North Korea is small. They can’t fool the whole world. If they outsmarted or fooled the world, then we can’t expect anything good to come out of it. I think they understand this. Unlike previous leaders, Kim Jong-un wants a different result, and that inspires hope.
SS: Right now Trump and the North Korean leader are exchanging pleasantries, but the South Korean leader is also doing his part. Relations between South and North Korea are getting better. What can we expect from this policy?
JL: The Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea is trying and will continue to try to engage North Korea in dialogue. Even before the first U.S.–North Korea summit, we were doing something to ensure that it would take place. And now Korea is playing a major role as well. It is the connecting bridge. It is important for the U.S. and North Korea to come to an understanding, right? And our government is playing a very important role. This is how the current regime is different, and we all see positive results.
SS: I remember when the next round of harsh sanctions against North Korea was being discussed, President Putin said that sanctions don’t work, especially in the case of North Korea, because its people are not scared of difficulties. But why is North Korea making concessions now? We see it in its rhetoric – they say that they are ready for denuclearisation, “All right, we are ready to give up nuclear weapons.”
JL: In reality, sanctions against North Korea is just one factor that played a part in the current state of things; like when North Korea decided to talk to the U.S. and South Korea. When North Korea became a state, sanctions were immediately imposed. It is an important factor, but it is not the only one. But when the situation got really dicey at the end of last year and it felt like war was inevitable, things suddenly began to change. South Korea never stopped trying to talk to North Korea, and the Pyeongchang Olympics allowed us to make progress. It was a good excuse and opportunity to get together and talk. And both countries came to an understanding during these talks. North Koreans also didn’t want to miss this chance to talk to South Korea. And then after the talks South Korea signaled to the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan that there was progress, and North Korea was ready to engage in dialogue. And now we all see progress, which means that it wasn’t just the sanctions that made a difference. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was educated in the West, and he understands what’s really important now. And the important thing is to be able to feed the nation, which is going to be impossible without dialogue, peace and nuclear disarmament. North Korea understands that it won’t prosper without peace, that’s for sure.
SS: And another thing, about keeping the regime alive. It was obvious to everybody that the North Korean leader needs nuclear weapons to prop up the current regime. It’s the only guarantee of his safety and the regime’s future. Now he’s saying – again, those are just words for now – that he is willing to give up nuclear weapons. Does this mean that he has some other guarantees? Stronger guarantees than nuclear weapons?
JL: You know, when you’re starving but you have nuclear weapons – that’s a road to nowhere, and it could spell doom for North Korea first and foremost. Current leader Kim Jong-un is young, he studied abroad, in a Western country, and he understands Western culture. If you give up nuclear weapons, you can develop your country and your economy – this is what I hope he’s thinking. But he needs guarantees that no one will interfere in his country’s affairs, and if the international community and such countries as the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan provide such guarantees, it’s entirely possible that North Korea will denuclearise. Kim Jong-un just needs guarantees from the countries that he has some kind of trust in.
SS: Why would Seoul need the close relations with North Korea that it has today? What is the aim of this policy?And what about North Korea? Why would they need to grow closer now?
JL: As you know, Korea values peace and prosperity.
SS: That’s a very diplomatic answer. Let me ask that a little differently. What is Seoul more afraid of – North Korean nuclear missiles or a war in order to destroy North Korean nuclear missiles? What are you more afraid of?
JL: After the Korean War, Koreans have always felt threatened. On the one hand, everyone is used to that, but on the other hand everyone hopes that an actual war is out of the question. But no less important – maybe the most important thing even – is the economic aspect. From a humanitarian point of view, Korea being divided in two parts, North and South, is a terrible thing, but economically speaking it’s so much worse. Korea is stagnating now. The population is decreasing, young people have to feed the elderly and they need to make more money. So we need new opportunities and more room to develop our economy. It would be great if such opportunities opened up thanks to North Korea. We could explore Eurasian markets more, including Russia. We could diversify our economy based on the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula and strengthen our ties with ASEAN and India, with the so-called southern regions. This is all very important to us. That’s why our current government and our people want a peaceful resolution to the nuclear problem and closer ties with North Korea.
SS: Okay. Do you think Trump might be expected to make some concessions in response to Kim’s actions? Say, stop military exercises conducted near North Korean borders? Could we expect something like that to happen?
JL: Well, it’s already happening. The U.S. military suspended military exercises with South Korea. They did it because North Korea stopped nuclear testing and started to dismantle some of its missile launch sites. Then came the mutual concessions. These are the positive results of the U.S.-North Korea summit. But it will take not one, two or even five, six, seven summits to ensure we don’t go back to the way things were.
SS: Go back, right. What role do you think Russia could play in this? In Seoul’s opinion, what can Russia do to normalise the situation?
JL: You know, the status quo we have in terms of North Korea’s denuclearisation stems from the differences between the U.S. and North Korea. Russia needs to play an even more active role on the Korean Peninsula, strategically speaking. For example, that can be accomplished via trilateral co-operation between North Korea, South Korea and Russia. I believe that North Korea will be ready to denuclearise very soon. There could be, say, an agreement about some of the nuclear weapons and materials to be taken to Russia and disposed of here. Then, on the basis of mutual trust, the U.S. and Russia could help North Korea in the energy sector, for example, build a gas pipeline and railway tracks. With this, North Korea would open up to the world a little more. That’s how we could solve this issue, too. This way, U.S.-Russia relations would improve. I mean, this possible co-operation will avoid getting sanctions involved.
SS: You know what else I think? Could trade between Russia and South Korea facilitate closer ties between the North and the South? Geographically, it would involve transit through North Korean territory, which would mean more co-operation between Russia, South Korea and North Korea in order to expand trade.
JL: One of the main obstacles for the Far East’s development is the instability on the Korean Peninsula. As soon as there is peace on the Korean Peninsula, we would have incredible potential for mutually beneficial development, and not only for the Far East, but also North-east Asia as a whole. Russia wants to co-operate with the Asia-Pacific, since that is the centre of global economic growth. The Far East and North Korea will be the engine of economic growth in the 21st century. Russia’s trade with ASEAN is growing, and the Korean Peninsula is a door to the Asia-Pacific region. If peace prevails here, Russia would be able to have economically beneficial relations not only with the West, but also with the Asia-Pacific countries.
SS: We touched on this before the interview – with all these tensions between Russia and the West and the latest U.S. and European sanctions, Russia is turning east. Look at this forum, for instance – it clearly proves that Russia is serious about this pivot. Does Seoul benefit from that? I don’t know, maybe by taking the spot vacated by the Western partners of Russia?
JL: I’m very happy that Russia is paying closer attention to the East, including Korea. Korea used to be Russia’s partner, we co-operated at sea too. It would be nice to rebuild all that. We definitely need to bolster our ties. I very much hope that we will meet many times in the future, here in Vladivostok at the Eastern Economic Forum that Russia made possible. In ten years, I think Russia will be a true Asian country not only in the geographical sense, but also economically. That’s what I think.
SS: Right now, the U.S. is South Korea’s closest partner. Any country which is out of tune with American foreign policy towards Russia is heavily criticised by the U.S. and is put under pressure for it. For example, there is a number of European countries which are not that eager to impose sanctions on Russia, but, when pressured by the U.S. – since the EU itself is under American influence – they have to obey and impose the sanctions. Aren’t you afraid that South Korea, being such a close American partner, would not be allowed by Washington to become friends with Russia?
JL: You know, I think that one day sanctions will disappear like snow under the sun. But it will take time. For your country, and for us and the whole world economy, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and the EU have a clear detrimental effect. It negatively affects co-operation efforts throughout the world. I think that someday, U.S.-Russian relations will improve. When that time finally comes, we need to be ready. We need to start preparing the foundations for that.
SS: But what I was asking was, aren’t you afraid that South Korea will simply not be allowed to develop closer ties with Russia?
JL: South Korea is a small country, but we are a sovereign nation. We are not subjects of America, even though it is an important partner to us. There are many ways in which we are independent from America. We have the right to choose our own destiny. For example, the size of our economy. Besides America and Japan, we would be happy to develop relations with Russia, with the Eurasian continent on the whole, with ASEAN nations and with India. There is nothing bad about that, is there? No, I don’t believe that we are America’s puppets. No. That’s definitely not us.
SS: Some people are talking now about the possible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, they are saying that North Korea might finally give up its nuclear weapons and, eventually, sign a treaty with you. If that happens, will South Korea have any need for U.S. troops on the peninsula? Or will you say “So long, we don’t need you anymore, now that the threat is gone”?
JL: Well, denuclearisation and North Korea are not directly tied to the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, but I don’t think U.S. forces will be staying here forever. These two factors should not be perceived as related to one another. This is the way we see things. Right now, our priority is denuclearisation.
SS: While Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are building bridges, ties between Washington and Beijing are becoming strained. Could Pyongyang somehow take advantage of the crisis in U.S.-China relations? It could attempt to bargain for concessions by capitalising on U.S.-China tensions, for example…
JL: You know, China has a strong influence on North Korea. And so does America. And Russia, too. North Korea is very important to us. In order to resolve the issue of North Korea’s nuclear programme, we will require support from all parties, including such major powers as the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. Without the help of these nations, we will not be able to secure full denuclearisation and achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula. I say this because I want to emphasize just how important Russia’s role is to this entire process.
SS: I’d like to ask you something. When North Korea and America had poor relations, America blamed China, blamed Beijing for manipulating North Korea. Now that relations between North Korea and America have improved, we don’t see anyone acknowledge Beijing’s role or thanking China for, say, commanding North Korea to improve relations with America. In other words, when relations are bad between North Korea and the U.S., it’s China’s fault. But if relations do improve, then suddenly China had nothing to do with it…
JL: The trade war between China and the U.S. is heating up, which is very unfortunate, because the lack of close co-operation between the two powers makes it impossible to resolve the North Korean issue.
SS: Trump is very aggressive right now with respect to Beijing, isn’t he? He is taking some unexpected and heavy-handed measures against China. Economists are worried, and the markets are bracing for a new round in the tariff war. But what if all these threats are no different from what Trump did with Kim’s North Korea? Do you remember what he did? He kept piling on threats, until the two leaders finally met and declared peace. What if he’s planning to do the same with China? He will keep issuing threats, until he makes a sudden U-turn towards diplomacy. He could…
JL: Well, the way I see it is a little bit different. Previously, under the Obama Administration, the problem was that, from America’s viewpoint, trade with China seemed unfair. That was the way they saw it. But now, under Trump, there is a multitude of grievances with China’s policies. This is not just about national security, it’s also about stealing technology, about copyright and U.S. intellectual property, and so on. Still, the U.S. and China need to negotiate and arrive at a solution to this trade war. It’s all dragging on, and I think the fault lies with China. America is worried about its technology being stolen. This is what I believe America is most afraid of. That is why there are tensions.
SS: There’s one thing I don’t get. Are these two countries really that much at odds with one another that they prevent each other from prospering? How serious are the actual economic tensions between China and America? I mean, really!
JL: Yes, unfortunately, they are quite real. Recently, the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy investigated the way U.S. sanctions against Chinese goods affected Korea’s economy. What they found was that the entire situation was restricting Korea’s economic opportunities. So far, the effect hasn’t been too severe, but if the tensions continue to rise, and if it goes on like that for some time, it would become a threat to our economy, and to the region’s economy, as a whole.
SS: Right now China is busy with its construction project of the century. I’m talking about the new Silk Road project. They are putting in nfrastructure all throughout Eurasia. When will this megaproject be launched? Will China even care by that point about some tariffs imposed on them by Trump?
JL: Americans are very, very closely monitoring all this. Right now, they’ve taken the wait-and-see approach, they want to see what it all leads to. The Eurasian continent – I mean Russia, China and Korea – is in need of a high-speed railway system. And if America invests in it with their capital and their technology, and joins in, I believe that would guarantee high efficiency and a mutually beneficial outcome.
SS: Thank you very much for the conversation. I wish you all the best.
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