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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean government’s nominee for the position of unification minister on Tuesday told lawmakers he would, if confirmed, pursue “creative” ways to bring Pyongyang and Washington back to negotiating table.
Speaking at a hearing of the South Korean National Assembly following his nomination to the post earlier in the month, Kim Yeon-chul promised to “make substantive progress in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.”
“I will seek creative solutions so that both North Korea and the U.S. can meet before long and reach an agreement,” Kim, who previously served as president of the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), told lawmakers.
Those “creative solutions,” he said, would have to beneficial to both Pyongyang and Washington, adding that there are “several” options to move the countries out of an ongoing diplomatic impasse.
Among these, he said, was a plan for the two countries to develop a cooperative threat reduction (CTR) program that would see them dismantle, among other things, the DPRK’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.
Discussing a program originally proposed when he was head of KINU, Kim said a CTR plan would seek to “fundamentally resolve the program by dismantling nuclear or missile facilities and replacing them with industrial units.”
Kim’s comments are noteworthy: ahead of the first DPRK-U.S. summit, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met with former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, architects of the Nunn-Lugar CTR program, to seek advice on North Korean denuclearization.
That plan saw the U.S. seek to “prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related materials, technologies and expertise from the former Soviet Union states,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
Kim on Tuesday emphasized that while the U.S. and North Korea “did not come to an agreement at the Hanoi summit, I am aware that they closely exchanged views.”
He pointed to U.S President Ronald Regan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to reach a deal at their Reykjavík Summit in 1986 as an example of a landmark meeting that did not immediately yield results.
Those two leaders, he said, had signed a “historic agreement on the reduction of strategic weapons” the following year, referring to the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty signed in December 1987.
From this perspective, Kim continued, it is “crucial to prepare for feasible negotiation proposals” examining the current situation and “meticulously” reviewing the past.
Regarding the timeframe, Kim said both Seoul and Washington agreed on the need to achieve complete denuclearization “as quickly as possible.”
“But my understanding is that more discussions are needed to find genuine solutions to achieve complete denuclearization.”
In an attempt to bridge the gap between the DPRK and the U.S., Kim said the South Korean government was reviewing the option of “several steps” to encourage Pyongyang’s denuclearization, incentives he described as being like an “early harvest.”
His comments are broadly consistent with those made by a South Korean senior presidential official earlier this month.
Speaking at a closed-door briefing with press, that official said Seoul “must reconsider the so-called all-or-nothing strategy given that it will be… difficult to achieve complete denuclearization all at once.”
“In order to make meaningful progress in the denuclearization, we see the necessity of making an ‘early harvest’ once or twice,” they said.
“Our judgment is that the two sides can build mutual trust through the early harvest and that the established mutual confidence will lead to the achievement of the ultimate goal.”
Speaking at Tuesday’s hearing, Kim also stressed that he did not believe that North Korea would be able to pursue economic and nuclear development “simultaneously.”
“My view is that it is necessary to utilize the North Korean strategy of intensively developing the national economy as a means to accelerate denuclearization process,” he told lawmakers.
The concept of denuclearization includes “all nuclear weapons and all existing nuclear programs” in accordance with the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula of 1992 and September 2005 Joint Statement, he stressed.
Tuesday’s hearing also Kim share his thoughts on inter-Korean cooperation at the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and Mount Kumgang resort.
The nominee stressed that he still believes there were “other alternatives” to the Park Geun-hye government’s February 2016 decision to unilaterally withdraw from the KIC.
Seoul should instead, he said, have found “measures to put pressure and sanctions on North Korea… while minimizing the damage on South Korean companies.”
Emphasizing that any resumption of inter-Korean cooperation at the KIC would need to take place within the framework of international sanctions, Kim promised to seek a solution in “close consultation with the U.S.”
The nominee also stressed that he believed that Pyongyang held primary responsibility for the shutdown of the Mount Kumgang tourism, closed in July 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier.
Any reopening of the resort would need to see Pyongyang apologize and commit to allowing South Koreans to travel safely, he said.
Kim also offered an apology to the bereaved family of the 2008 victim over previous comments about the decision to withdraw from Mount Kumgang.
In a co-authored book published in 2011, Kim wrote: “the accident in which a tourist died from shooting would have been a rite of passage that we had to go through.”
The nominee on Tuesday, too, clarified that he believed that the Cheonan warship had “sank due to the North’s torpedo attack.”
While admitting that he had in the past labeled the sinking of the ROK Cheonan warship as “accidental,” he explained that his comments had been “distorted.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: National Assembly screengrab