The Trump administration is nearing its last chance to resolve the North Korean issue without a conflict, former South Korean chief nuclear negotiator at the Six Party Talks Chun Yung-woo told NK News in a recent interview.
The U.S. President is also making a “critical mistake” by assuming China will voluntary cooperate in resolving the problem, he said, as Beijing is “more afraid of regime collapse” than it is of a nuclear North Korea.
“Trump hasn’t shown determination or resolve to utilize this last chance to fulfill the denuclearization through peaceful means,” Chun, who now serves as Chairman of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum (KPFF) in Seoul, said.
A veteran diplomat with 33-years experience and a former participant in the now-stalled Six Party Talks as South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, Chun said Washington should enforce a “total economic blockade” to bring Pyongyang to the negotiation table and that North Korea won’t put denuclearization on the negotiation agenda unless it is “strangled.”
The former South Korean diplomat, who also served as President Lee Myung-bak’s senior secretary for foreign affairs and national security and as a Second Vice Minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, also shared his views on coordination between Washington and Seoul over DPRK policy and South Korea’s role in resolving the North Korean issue.
This interview has been translated as well as edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: North Korea recently launched the “newly-developed” Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in defiance of mounting international sanctions. Do you still believe that the international community can bring Pyongyang to negotiation table by ramping up pressure and imposing tougher sanctions?
Chun Yung-woo: The most important things are the objectives and terms and conditions of future negotiations. It’s better not to resume negotiations if North Korea can use it as the means to protect nuclear weapons.
There are three scenarios in which Pyongyang will join negotiations. Firstly, North Korea will come to dialogue table when it faces sanctions at the level of a total economic blockade and it can no longer bear up with the aim to get out of a stranglehold.
Secondly, North Korea will accept dialogue when it improves nuclear and missile capabilities and achieves its goals since there is no need to conduct additional nuclear and missile tests.
The last one would be when Pyongyang believes that a preemptive strike by Washington is imminent.
What North Korea fears the most is that the preemptive strike and the second thing is to be suffocated by a total economic blockade. What is significant is that the negotiation on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can be pushed only when Pyongyang comes to dialogue while being strangled and suffocated.
The issue of denuclearization is off the table if negotiations are resumed at a time when North Korea has completed missile and nuclear tests. We can only have a discussion on how North Korea implements a moratorium on and freezes nuclear weapons and tests what kind of rewards it can obtain in exchange for abandoning additional developments.
“The U.S. should use the political card of Taiwan”
The most dangerous and worst situation for Seoul maybe that Pyongyang agrees to negotiate when international sanctions are bearable and the country hasn’t been under enough pressure or facing economic blockade. It would be the most difficult to achieve the denuclearization in this case.
NK News: The international community can’t achieve an economic blockade without the cooperation from Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy Song Tao couldn’t meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In this context, can China actually exert influence on North Korea? Do you believe that China will enhance its role in coping with North Korean issues?
Chun Yung-woo: China has a lifeline but only exerts leverage. If leverage becomes clout, it depends on China’s willingness to use it. But I don’t believe Beijing has determination because it is more afraid of regime collapse rather than Pyongyang’s completion of nuclear armament.
So, what China can do is to impose sanctions that don’t threaten the North Korean regime and provide incentives to give up nuclear weapons. Even though China holds the largest leverage, the country guarantees North Korea’s freedom to defy international sanctions with impunity. Therefore, there is no need for Pyongyang to come to heel, even if Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the DPRK.
The only thing that matters to Kim Jong Un is whether China has the determination to put pressure on North Korea at the risk of strangling and destabilizing the North Korean regime. If China cuts off exports of crude oil, blocks all the borders and prohibits ships and trucks from entering North Korea for one year, Pyongyang will think that they can’t maintain its regime without abandoning nuclear weapons.
China has influence. Unless Beijing takes these measures, Pyongyang will see Beijing as the shield which can protect it from tough and biting sanctions.
NK News: The Trump administration has put emphasis on China’s role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, but how can Washington persuade Beijing to wield clout against Pyongyang?
Chun Yung-woo: That can happen when China changes its policy toward North Korea. The critical mistake that the Trump administration’s policy is making is that they are depending on China’s voluntary cooperation in pressuring North Korea to achieve denuclearization. Trump’s policy is wrong. Beijing can never voluntarily press North Korea enough to give up its nuclear weapons because of the country’s structure of national interests. To change the structure, Washington should mobilize all possible means to put pressures on Beijing.
Imposing a secondary boycott on Chinese companies wouldn’t be enough, so the U.S. President should slap trade sanctions on China. If Beijing racks up losses of hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for protecting North Korea and being negligent in imposing pressures, the country can reconsider its policy toward Pyongyang.
If this option doesn’t work, the U.S. should use the political card of Taiwan. If the U.S. expresses its willingness to strengthen Taiwan’s defensive capabilities against China, China can abandon North Korea as it’s more crucial to keep alive the military option against Taiwan.
It depends on the Trump administration’s will on how much they can sacrifice U.S. – China relations. Consequently, I believe the denuclearization can be achieved in a peaceful manner if the U.S. presses China by all means available including economic retaliation as resolving to break bilateral relations with China. But if the U.S. imposes pressures on North Korea relying on China’s voluntary cooperation, they should forget about peaceful denuclearization as it’s impossible.
What is the most regrettable is Trump hasn’t shown determination or resolve to utilize this last chance to fulfill denuclearization through peaceful means. China wouldn’t step in the North Korean nuclear issue if Trump repeatedly calls for Xi Jinping to help him saying he knows that Xi can solve the North Korean nuclear problem. It’s a shame that Trump isn’t aware of this.
NK News: The Trump administration has always said all options are on the table, suggesting that military option remains as well. Also, there has been a theory that the U.S. can launch a preemptive strike against North Korea if a missile was launched at a normal angle. But the warning can target Beijing. Do you believe that these warnings can be an inducement for China to put proactive efforts in resolving North Korean issues?
Chun Yung-woo: This is the very clumsy and naive policy: the military option is nothing if it doesn’t have any credibility. And the U.S. military option is not entirely credible because there has been no preparation to use it.
The U.S. attempts to exercise their influence on Beijing and Pyongyang by threatening them, but both know that it’s an empty threat. Another reason why the option is unreliable is that the U.S. doesn’t enforce the economic blockade which is easier. Who would believe that they can use the costly option? Kim Jong Un won’t be fooled in this way.
If the U.S. launches the military attack on North Korea, the country’s strategy of developing missiles and nuclear weapons comes to naught and turns out to be a failure. This doesn’t mean that the U.S. can destroy weapons, but it means Pyongyang won’t be able to launch a military response. And Kim Jong Un has only two choices in the event that the military option is taken.
One is that North Korea takes the path of total destruction by retaliating, but this would lead to collective suicide. The second option is to survive while enduring humiliation and boasting that Pyongyang will develop more ICBMs and raze the U.S. mainland.
The strategies that Kim Jong Un has been selecting is to survive, he is not the type of person who would decide to commit suicide even if the U.S. attacks Pyongyang. If there is a path to survival, he definitely will opt for it since he can rule the country for more than 30 or 40 years.
“Washington should mobilize all possible means to put pressures on Beijing”
Despite there is less than one percent chance that the action can prompt a preemptive military response from Pyongyang, we should be prepared to defend the metropolitan area in South Korea. Who would believe that the U.S. can take the military option under the circumstance that 25 million people in Seoul and its metropolitan area are exposed to North Korea’s threat? North Korea won’t believe at first.
The military option can have credibility when they set up measures of handling consequences even though the chance of war is one percent.The U.S. strategy is based on the misjudgment and illusion that they can intimidate and fool Kim Jong Un with empty threats, and therefore I think this is an absurd and unworkable approach. The policy is better off without unreliable military options.
NK News: But some argue that the Trump administration also expresses mistrust on the South Korean government’s North Korea policy. What is the way to strengthen cooperation between Seoul and Washington to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue?
Chun Yung-woo: The keynote of the policy is fundamentally different as Washington and Seoul have different points of view on China and North Korea. South Korea finds it impossible to smoothly communicate with the U.S. In order to achieve strategic coordination, both should interact with each other, share the same level of threat perception and pursue the same objective.
It’s still fundamentally impossible for the U.S. and South Korea to fulfill strategic interaction and policy coordination like Tokyo and Washington do. Therefore, it is most significant to keep themselves out of conflict and to manage to avoid a crisis.
Alliance with trust is not alliance, but the fundamental issue between Washington and Seoul is trust deficit. Unless both resolve the problem, they can only make perfunctory, superficial and artificial policy coordination.
I don’t believe that it’s possible to build up and restore trust given that each other’s philosophies and perceptions are different. Instead, both are maintaining alliance without breaking it up and living with their current situations.
NK News: What is the root of the difference in the U.S. and South Korean stances on the issue of the Korean peninsula?
Chun Yung-woo: Seoul and Washington have different points of view on North Korea and China and on who poses a threat and how to deal with the threat. Many of people who are at the core of the South Korean government consider the U.S. military option to remove North Korean nuclear weapons as more dangerous than the nuclear weapons. They were greatly influenced by anti-U.S. and Japan sentiment when they were student activists. They have a sense of shame and guilt about protecting the country with the help of the U.S. and Japan.
Washington brings up the military option to use it as the means to achieve denuclearization by threatening and pressing North Korea regardless of the actual use. But many people in the government think that the U.S. will take the military option, which North Korea doesn’t even believe. They don’t entirely understand the U.S. strategic intention of referring to the military option even though China and North Korea are aware of it. So, I don’t know how the U.S. can realistically coordinate with the South Korean government.
For example, if the U.S. and South Korea had the same strategic intent, they would have a discussion on how to turn an empty threat into a credible one as well as to protect the capital area and deal with a possible North Korea’s military response.
“There is not much hope under this government”
In order to work together with Washington, Seoul should make North Korea believe that the U.S. can use resolve the North Korean issue using military force if the country has no willing to denuclearize in a peaceful manner. But the South Korean government is putting more efforts to reducing the credibility of the military option.
NK News: So, do you believe that there is nothing much that the Moon administration can do to resolve the North Korean issues?
Chun Yung-woo: The government is losing its right to speak in the North Korean nuclear issue by making decisions which lead to limit the capabilities. The more Seoul has decided not to take the measures which Pyongyang dislikes, the less likely North Korea is to resume dialogue.
Therefore, South Korea’s voice and clout have steadily decreased, and there are fewer reasons for the U.S. as well as Japan, China, North Korea to coordinate and cooperate with Seoul in solving the problem as pros and cons. If South Korea doesn’t have ability or determination to do what China and North Korea hate, it will reduce its voice on the issue that directly affects the destiny of the Korean peninsula.
NK News: And do you think that the Moon administration has less influence than its predecessors?
Chun Yung-woo: Yes, the voice depends on the quality of the coordination with the U.S., the leverage which can change the North Korea’s destiny into a good or bad direction and the capabilities that can affect the policy of influential countries.
Even though we have limited capability in imposing unilateral sanctions on North Korea, but what is more significant is to have the ability of maneuvering countries with the means to change North Korea. This is the ability to coordinate with others, which can be the country’s power. But South Korea is making the decision of reducing its stake in both.
NK News: Can Seoul make any breakthrough to improve its strategic value?
Chun Yung-woo: I don’t expect much. There is not much hope under this government. They should change their thoughts. With regard to the breakthrough, Seoul should retract its stance on so-called “Three nos” and strengthen military readiness against North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles by taking measures including the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in the metropolitan area.
What I also want to raise is that Seoul can still put impose a lot of unilateral sanctions. South Korean has banned any vessels that have stopped at North Korean ports in the previous 180 days from entering the country. But Seoul can also prohibit the entrance of ships that carry North Korea’s cargo. Seoul can have a larger voice depending on how much we contribute to the economic blockade, but it doesn’t make any actions. South Korean can exercise its voting rights as a shareholder in resolving the North Korean issues, but it is now decreasing the number of shares.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Rodong Sinmun
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