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[Herald Interview] ‘Neither wishful thinking nor empty threats will work on NK’

Seoul’s former point man warns not to underestimate Kim Jong-un

North Korea is defying every warning and sanction, experimenting with nukes and missiles in what appears to be the endgame of its decadeslong program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

But two countries handling the North Korean crisis -- South Korea and the US -- are employing ill-advised strategies: One is too timid, only repeating unrealistic pacifist messages, while the other is inconsistent, often making empty threats, said Seoul’s former point man on the North.

Chun Young-woo speaks during an interview at his office in Seoul (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Chun Young-woo speaks during an interview at his office in Seoul (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

In a recent interview with The Korea Herald, Chun Young-woo, former national security adviser for conservative President Lee Myung-bak, called President Moon Jae-in’s repeated pleas for the North to return to dialogue an outright “illusion.”

“Resuming dialogue without changing North Korea’s strategic calculus is much more dangerous than not engaging in dialogue at all,” said Chun, who also served as Seoul’s top envoy to six-nation talks for the North’s denuclearization between 2006 and 2008 under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun.

“If North Korea returns to the negotiation table without being pressured sufficiently, it would make things more difficult to achieve the goal of the (North’s) denuclearization.”

“Illusion and wishful thinking should never constitute the basis of sound policy.”

Chun asserted that now is the time for South Korea to work in tandem with other nations to maximize pressure on the North until it realizes the need to abandon its nuclear program.

If Seoul does not do so, it will lose its “voting right” on North Korean matters in the post-crisis period, he warned.

According to Chun, what Moon and his policy advisers have said and done give the impression that South Korea is not on the same page as the US and other nations in the global campaign to raise pressure on North Korea to an unbearable level.

To a certain extent, the Moon administration is the reason behind the sense that South Korea is being sidelined in global efforts to resolve the North Korean crisis -- referred to by South Korean media as “Korea Passing.”

Among other missteps is President Moon’s public declaration that South Korea will never allow a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, says Chun.

However right it may sound to South Koreans worried about the possibility of war in their country, it again gives the impression that Seoul is not willing to take a more decisive role in resolving the nuclear standoff, Chun added.

“If you really want to avoid a war, you shouldn’t talk about it in a public setting,” said Chun.

“The more you talk about such ideas publicly, the more likely North Korea is to view that you are weak and to act without worrying about consequences,” he said.

How much say South Korea has in matters regarding the Korean Peninsula in the future will depend on how much it contributes to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, he went on. “The more we contribute to the desired outcome, the bigger say we will have.”

The strategic blunders are not limited to South Korea. The US, too, is not free from such criticism, he said, calling US President Donald Trump’s harsh warnings against the North “empty threats” that its leader Kim Jong-un could take as bluffs.

Although he showed some restraint during his visit to South Korea last week, Trump had previously used bombastic and aggressive language against North Korea, threatening to “totally destroy” the country if the security of the US and its allies is put at risk.

Ironically, such remarks could be interpreted by North Korea as a signal that Washington would not pursue a pre-emptive strike unless the North crosses a red line, such as firing a missile toward the US mainland and within a distance where the US can shoot it down, Chun said.

“Kim Jong-un cares about how big a stick the US carries and whether it would use it. If the US really wants to do something, it never should have said it out loud. It’s an illusion that a public threat can make North Korea feel intimidated.”

Without a credible plan and readiness posture, any hints of military options are likely reduced to empty threats -- and that is why the Trump administration’s remarks about military actions and increased dispatch of strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula may do little to change Kim’s calculus, Chun said.

The conundrum facing the US was exemplified by its Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ visit to the inter-Korean border in late October. Despite the expectation that the US would demonstrate the strongest-ever resolve against the North, Mattis said Washington was “not seeking a war.”

“Mattis’ remark is like an honest description of the US’ policy options and the hard reality facing them. … So I don’t think such a confession would change anything with the North.” Chun said. “North Korea is likely to think that the US is begging for talks.”

Those strategic mistakes are based on the misplaced belief that Kim, the third generation of the ruling Kim family, is too inexperienced to navigate a military standoff with the US and achieve the goal of fielding nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, Chun said.

Under Kim’s five-year tenure, North Korea conducted successful ICBM and nuclear tests using what appeared to be hydrogen bombs. Many analysts and military officials suspect it will be able to launch reliable ICBMs toward the US by early next year.

In the meantime, North Korea’s economy has made remarkable growth. The once-impoverished country grew at its fastest pace in 17 years in 2016, according to South Korea’s central bank, despite international sanctions.

“He managed to make significant progress in developing intercontinental ballistic missiles while preventing a total collapse of North Korea’s economy. As far as the outcome is concerned, it is something that an average leader would never have achieved.”

“Kim Jong-un is not worried about whether the US will take a military option anymore. His only concern is how tough economic sanctions will get. What the US has done so far is to get rid of incentives for North Korea to stop provocations.”