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Scholars at odds over solution to NK quandary

JEJU -- Academics from Seoul, Washington, Beijing and Tokyo clashed over ways to rein in North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile program and bring it back on the path toward denuclearization at a forum in Jeju on Wednesday.

The Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity kicked off its three-day run on the resort island, bringing together some 5,500 former and incumbent heads of state, top policymakers and scholars from about 80 nations around the world.

At a preopening session, experts from four key countries introduced each government’s North Korea policy and explored how to facilitate coordination, especially with the new Moon Jae-in government of South Korea and an unpredictable Donald Trump leadership of the US. The participants include Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington; Wang Fan, a professor of China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing; Junya Nishino, director of the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies at Keio University in Tokyo; and In Nam-sik and Min Jeong-hun, professors at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.

This file photo, taken on May 26, 2016, shows a session of Jeju Forum under way at the Jeju Convention Center on Jeju Island. (Yonhap)
This file photo, taken on May 26, 2016, shows a session of Jeju Forum under way at the Jeju Convention Center on Jeju Island. (Yonhap)

Romberg, who formerly served at the State Department for 27 years, said the Trump administration’s North Korea policy is a “work in progress,” pointing to its inconsistent moves which have fanned uncertainties.

While “sensitizing” the North’ threats and Beijing’s role, Trump held up “harsh treatment” of China over trade and other economic issues as “clubs to be used to bring to china to heel to do what he wanted,” Romberg said. But after a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida in April, Trump apparently came to know about the complicated ties between Pyongyang and Beijing.

“Having previously believed that China had tremendous power and could virtually do whatever it needed to do, (Trump) realized as he said that it’s not so easy, it’s not what he would think,” Romberg said.

“He continues to indicate in various ways that perhaps Xi will eventually be not be able to solve the problem but he’s nonetheless confident that the Chinese leader will sincerely try to bring the North Korean program to an end.

“But How much more it would do and what it does do will be sufficient to make a serious difference in North Korea’s course is something that caused our concern.”

Wang defied calls for Beijing’s greater role, saying its influence in Pyongyang’s thinking is far more limited and rather accusing Washington of shifting the blame without doing its own part.

“China is indeed a main party responsible and could do something if that reduces threat from the DPRK (North Korea). But the DPRK’s point of view, China can only play a limited role,” he said, referring to Pyongyang’s security concerns stemming chiefly from US military presence in the South and the allies’ joint military drills.

“I don’t think China should do something while others just wait -- we can’t resolve everything.”

The professor suggested Pyongyang and Washington reopen negotiations to freeze further nuclear and missile tests and then normalize relations and replace the existing armistice with a peace treaty.

“China’s bottom line is to freeze the missile tests so that there will be no further development,” Wang said. “Denuclearization is a complicated process. If the US starts negotiations with the DPRK on a peace treaty, it might be a kind of a new start to resolve the peninsula issues.”

Nishino, however, ditched the idea, saying the North will unlikely desert its nuclear program and thus a freeze deal could compromise global denuclearization efforts.

With Moon in office in Seoul, Nishino displayed concerns the liberal leader may push for a reconciliation with the North without consultations with Washington and Tokyo, undercutting the three countries’ ongoing sanctions and pressure campaign.

“I hope he will pursue very cautiously to reopen dialogue, and take prudent initiative by exercising close cooperation with the international community, especially the US and Japan.”

Min sought to dilute the concern, saying Moon is pursuing pressure and dialogue to achieve a denuclearization based on the alliance with the US. A summit with Trump, slated for later this month in Washington, will be a “steppingstone” for the two leaders to forge a “close personal relationship and secure communication channel,” he noted.

“Even after North Korea stops nuclear tests, can we go ahead and have talks? I don’t think so,” the professor said. “And Moon also mentioned that the North should first take acceptable, well proved measures for a nuclear freeze so that South Korea and other actors take appropriate steps and move forward,”

By Shin Hyon-hee (