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[Contribution] The boys and the frogs: How can Biden stop NK from being ‘stoned’

It is time to pursue a drastic change of thought, action and strategy to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and turn North Korea into a pro-US ally.

Rep. Song Young-gil
Rep. Song Young-gil
The presidency of the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, will begin soon. It’s a relief. During Trump’s four years in office, the world witnessed what lay behind the organizational facade of the US. The Trump administration’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” rather sounded like “Make America Greedy Again” to me. I am confident that the Biden government will not repeat the same mistakes made under the greedy “America First” policy. I look forward to seeing a significant change in the US’ policy toward the two Koreas under the Biden administration. The Trump administration caused friction between South Korea and the US by demanding an excessive amount of money from the South for its defense costs, and his administration’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula ended with disappointing results.

Hanoi, Singapore and Iran

The harmful consequences of the Trump administration’s unilateral foreign policy, which seems to have damaged the existing rules of international relations, can also be reaffirmed through Iran’s recent seizure of a South Korean chemical carrier. Iran’s capture of a South Korean ship is attributable to the Trump administration’s unilateral breaking of the Iran nuclear agreement, which involved permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, and its subsequent freezing of South Korea’s Iranian oil payments by imposing secondary sanctions. As a result, trade between South Korea and Iran has stopped.

Also, the situation on the Korean Peninsula, which seemed to be progressing rapidly through a series of inter-Korean and US-North Korea summits and the Panmunjom Declaration, was no longer advancing due to the US sanctions on North Korea. The US sanctions against North Korean and Iran played a decisive role in stalling diplomatic progress. In this context, we cannot help but pin high hopes on the incoming Biden administration, which advocates anti-Trumpism. Ironically, Iran’s seizure of a large South Korean ship in the name of marine environmental pollution just before the inauguration of Joe Biden could be an attempt to inform the world that Iran, which is struggling with economic sanctions, expects a different kind of approach than it had under the Trump administration.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear agreement, was signed under the Obama administration. The Trump administration’s foreign policy, which led it to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, has caused much controversy. Subsequently, a series of questions were raised over the US commitment, responsibility and trust.

However, the US tried to resolve the nuclear issue with North Korea -- a state that conducted six nuclear tests and declared itself a nuclear power -- through summit talks. National security adviser-designate Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State-designate Wendy Sherman, individuals who worked for the Iran nuclear agreement under the Obama administration, must have been surprised by the Trump administration’s absurdity.

North Korea must have been deeply concerned about Trump’s actions, which unilaterally nullified international agreements involving all the UN Security Council’s permanent members after the administration change in the US. It is not hard to guess what Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement must have looked like to North Korea, which has repeatedly claimed that the agreements reached with the US have been abolished by that same country.

President Trump’s attempt to create a new era in US-North Korea relations by resolving the North Korean nuclear issue through summits was indeed a global event that drew international attention. It once excited the hearts of the whole nation. Until the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit began, only a few Western leaders had met with Kim Jong-un in person to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue.

Long before President Trump, former President Barack Obama suggested the idea of a US-North Korea Summit. During the November 2007 presidential election campaign, he said he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Hillary Clinton, his rival at the time, attributed that statement to “a lack of experience” in state affairs. That was maybe why Obama left the North Korean nuclear issue virtually unattended under the slogan of “strategic patience” during his eight years in office. The US-North Korea summit was not even attempted from the beginning. The Obama administration reached the Iran deal, and normalized relations with Cuba, but sat idle on the North Korean nuclear issue.

In the Biden era, the administration’s policy toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons will be clearly different from the Trump administration’s. However, Biden will also try not to repeat the failure of “strategic patience” under the Obama administration, in which he served as vice president.

In 2017, after President Moon Jae-in’s inauguration, I visited the Kremlin as the president’s special envoy for Russia, and I met President Putin. I was already acquainted with President Putin since I had received the Order of Friendship from the president himself when I was mayor of Incheon. So I suggested the idea below during my 50-minute meeting with the president.

“Mr. President, you emphasize the principle of direct dialogue and peaceful resolution between the US and North Korea. However, the problem is that even China and Russia do not meet and talk directly with Kim Jong-un. The tension between North Korea and the US may escalate into a war, but not one of the world’s leaders has met and talked with Kim Jong-un in person. Mr. President, Foreign Minister Lavrov needs to be sent as a special envoy to North Korea to engage in dialogue.”

Putin responded positively to my proposal and eventually sent a special envoy to North Korea.

At first, President Xi Jinping also turned a blind eye to meeting Kim Jong-un. The North Korean leader’s trip to Beijing happened after the initial contact between North Korea and the US.

Similar to the way of resolving problems between people, to resolve conflicting interests between countries, among other things, the stakeholders must meet in person. To that end, efforts to create an atmosphere where stakeholders and neighboring countries come forward to meet and talk are essential. President Moon Jae-in’s “peace diplomacy” during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is a good example. The peace diplomacy brought a peaceful mood to the Korean Peninsula, and it paved the way for the talks between the US and North Korea. The leaders of North Korea and the US held their first meeting in Singapore in June that year after the tension on the Korean Peninsula had grown due to “fire and fury” and controversy over the size of each country’s nuclear button. On the occasion of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics with President Moon’s peace diplomacy, the Korean Peninsula barely evaded the crisis. The talks were, therefore, more historic and dramatic. Nearly 70 years after the armistice agreement, the North Korean leader and the US president met in person. This summit’s historical importance is as significant as the June 15, 2000, declaration between South and North Korea, when the leaders of the two Koreas met for the first time after 52 years of division.

However, the results of the Singapore summit were heavily criticized not only by US Republicans and conservative Democrats, but also by Korean conservatives, media and political commentators. The Singapore agreement was not implemented in detail, and the second US-North Korea summit in Hanoi in February 2019 ended without tangible results. The summits failed to reach a comprehensive agreement on the final denuclearization goal and implement it action for action.

In November last year, I was able to understand the failure of the Hanoi talks after talking for more than an hour with then-US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in Washington. The reason for the failure was that the working-level talks between Kim Hyok-chol and Biegun failed to produce a substantial agreement. If you go deeper, North Korean negotiators, including Kim Hyok-chol, had no authority to use their discretion. No substantial progress could be made because the North Korean negotiators feared that they could be purged if the negotiations went sideways. Decisions could have been made only with the approval of Kim Jong-un.

The working-level talks between North Korea and the US ended without a specific agreement, and all agenda items were handed over to the leadership-level summit. We all know the results. The agreement was broken by over-expectation and miscalculations on both sides. In particular, the hearing of Michael Cohen (Trump’s personal lawyer) in the US became the more important news throughout the talks. Due to the distraction, President Trump lost his will to sign the agreement. The Hanoi meeting ended with no deal in the face of opposition from then-security adviser John Bolton and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

One of the things I learned clearly from the Hanoi talks was that all negotiators from North Korea were just couriers for the North Korean leader. For future reference, when it comes to negotiating with North Korean representatives, we should move forward with the idea of dealing directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and give written papers for the negotiations to North Korean representatives at the table so that they can be analyzed and reviewed back in Pyongyang.

Will Biden recognize Singapore agreement?

Similar to the June 15, 2000, declaration between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il, the agreement between Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore had symbolic meaning. Also, the Singapore agreement stipulates in Paragraph 3 that it reaffirms the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration. Will the Biden administration recognize and develop US-North Korea relations from the Singapore agreement?

During my visit to the US last November, I read Biden’s memoir, “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.” It helped me enormously to understand the trajectory, philosophy and thoughts of Biden’s life. I think it will be useful to guess the direction of the US’ policy toward the Korean Peninsula and North Korea in the future. According to the book, Biden supported President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, and there were two impressive moments in the book that describe Biden’s support for the policy.

First is the moment when President Bush meets Biden after referring to President Kim Dae-jung as “this man” during the summit. In the book, President Bush asks Biden, “Why is your friend Kim Dae-jung so upset?”

President Bush leaned over and re-created the scene he’d had with the President of South Korea in the Oval Office a few months earlier, patting me on the knee as he spoke.

“All I said to him was I just don’t trust that little Commie (meaning the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il) up there.”

I reached over and patted the President’s knee.

“Mr. President, you know what he was thinking when you were patting his knee. He was thinking, ‘I look just like that little Commie up there.’ … Then, Mr. President, in walks Kim Dae-jung, and you apparently unceremoniously tell him, ‘Okay, this Sunshine Policy is a failure. We’re out.’ Mr. President, you obviously embarrassed him. It put him in a tough spot at home. I think that’s the reason he’s upset.”

Biden criticized Bush’s hasty decision that the Sunshine Policy was a failure without considering South Korea’s position as the most significant stakeholder in the North Korean nuclear issue. To President Kim, President Bush’s comment regarding the Sunshine Policy can be interpreted as mistrust toward South Korea, similar to his distrust toward the North, so there was neither the least courtesy nor consideration for the alliance.

The second moment shows us a glimpse of Biden’s basic views on policy toward North Korea.

Senator Lugar and I were talking about the need to engage directly with North Korea. We believed the only way to stop Kim Jong-il from producing more weapons-grade plutonium was to start talks aimed at a nonaggression pact. That’s what he really wanted. I was agitating to get the neocons to refrain from threatening ‘regime change,’ which turned out to be like asking a Catholic to renounce the Trinity.

In this regard, unlike what President Bush said to President Kim, I assume that President Biden is unlikely to say -- your North Korea policy failed under the Trump administration’s policy; thus we will not endorse the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration and the Singapore summit -- at his first summit with President Moon Jae-in. When it comes to diplomacy, Biden has a different perspective from Presidents Bush, Trump and even Obama. He served for 38 years as a senator and served twice as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. It is also known that Biden prefers a proactive diplomatic approach to military pressure and economic sanctions.

Therefore, when I met US Democrats, including Rep. Brad Sherman and think tank officials, during my visit to the US last November, I emphasized, “The shortcomings of Trump’s North Korea policy should be supplemented, but the core value and the spirit of the Singapore summit should be carried on by the upcoming US administration.” The Singapore summit and the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration are intertwined, and denying them will raise various concerns between the US and North Korea as well as the US and South Korea.

Human rights issue as a political tool

The human rights issue is a matter of great concern for all humanity, and it needs to be addressed. However, we should refrain from weaponizing the issue as a political tool, which has been used to violate national sovereignty and overthrow governments, rather than to achieve substantial human rights improvements.

While 10 million people, including children and pregnant women, are suffering from malnutrition and diseases such as tuberculosis, neglecting to save them and being more eager to spread anti-regime leaflets is “putting the cart before the horse.”

In Seoul last fall, I met Frank Jannuzi, the head of the Mansfield Foundation, who served as an aide under then-Sen. Biden. From the conversation, I could understand Biden’s stand on the human rights issue in North Korea. I want to share a few remarks that he made: “Biden is very interested in sending humanitarian aid to North Korea. Biden’s idea was to nominate a special envoy for human rights in North Korea under the North Korean Human Rights Act and engage with the North Korean officials. During the US presidential election in November 1999, I thought that Al Gore would be elected. However, Bush was elected as the 43rd president of the US, and he nominated the wrong person for the special envoy. The special envoy spent millions of dollars just to visit Seoul, South Korea and criticized North Korea. He never visited North Korea nor talked to North Korea officials. It is a shame. The human rights issue should not only be used as a topic to attack North Korea.”

The conservatives and media in South Korea, and a few lawmakers and civic groups in the US, have expressed critical positions on the recent revisions to the Inter-Korean Relations Development Act (also known as the anti-leaflet law), which I sponsored as the chief author. In response, I sent letters to lawmakers of both the ruling and opposition parties in the US. I also contributed an article to “38 North,” an American website that specializes in matters related to the Korean Peninsula.

Most North Korean defectors say that the photo-op-like distribution of anti-regime leaflets in the military demarcation area interferes with the inflow of outside information and communication efforts to North Korea. The distribution of leaflets and thumb drives to North Korea through a third country is not subject to this law. Article 24, part 1, of the act specifies, “No person shall harm the lives or bodies of the people or cause serious danger by doing any of the following acts,” meaning punishment is given when such an act causes harm to the people. It is the same standard as the “clear and present danger” established by the US Supreme Court based on the principle of restricting freedom of expression. In light of that, the permanent suspension of President Trump’s Twitter and Facebook accounts is a recent example.

The Korean Peninsula is legally in a state of war, and no peace treaty has been signed. The practice of sending anti-regime leaflets can be considered an act of psychological warfare. As Robert Gallucci, the US representative to the 1994 US-North Korea summit in Geneva, said in an interview with Voice of America, sending leaflets in sensitive areas is a matter of the South Korean government’s policy for dealing with the North, and the act of sending leaflets breaches the inter-Korean agreements. It is very dangerous for the US to decide on Korean Peninsula policy based on exaggerated remarks made by a few famous North Korean defectors without thoroughly reviewing the opinions of the South Korean government, the National Assembly and the majority of North Korean defectors. I don’t think the Biden administration, which emphasizes respect for the alliance, will interfere with the legislation of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, where freedom of expression and basic rights are guaranteed as much as in the US. If the Biden government does interfere, it will be a self-contradiction.

The US has a history of policy failure, particularly with Cuba and Iraq, from listening only to selective -- or biased -- Cuban and Iraqi refugees’ opinions. In 2003, after the outbreak of the war in the Middle East, I visited Baghdad as part of a parliamentary delegation to discuss the matter of sending our troops to Iraq. During the visit, I talked with a returned exile politician in Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, who was favored by the CIA. However, what Chalabi Ahmad claimed seemed to be very suspicious. He only repeated the same reasoning to us like a parrot, the very same reasons the US had given to justify the invasion of Iraq -- such as the development of weapons of mass destruction, which later turned out to be false information. Biden expressed similar thoughts in his memoir:

Unfortunately, the Bush administration wasn’t really talking to anybody inside Iraq. They were talking to Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who ginned up evidence about the viability of Saddam’s weapons programs and flat-out lied that his return with the American forces would be met with widespread approbation among the Iraqi population. I had been hearing the whispers that the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz axis had bought the Chalabi intelligence wholesale … the folly of relying on exile with no constituency in Iraq.

Restoring spirit of South Korea-US alliance

One of Biden’s presidential campaign slogans is “Restore the Soul of America.” Of course, the spirit of the South Korea-US alliance should be restored as well. The Korea-US alliance is not just economic and military, but an alliance rooted in shared values of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and a free market. The incoming administration in the US should quickly move on from the Trump administration’s policies that denigrated the alliance by demanding an absurd amount of defense expenses for the US forces in South Korea, and treating those forces as mercenaries who can easily be withdrawn.

It is meaningful that Biden’s first official event after the election win began with a tribute to the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Philadelphia. During my visit to Washington in November last year, the US House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution supporting the South Korea-US alliance. The South Korean National Assembly also unanimously approved a resolution supporting the South Korea-US alliance during the plenary session last December. I think this was possible because both South Korean and US politicians felt the need for the urgent restoration of the spirit of the South Korea-US alliance.

In terms of issues related to the Korean Peninsula, South Koreans, as the most significant stakeholders, have more expertise than any experts in the US. South Korean lives, and the national interests, are on the line. Hence, when it comes to the South Korea-US alliance and issues related to the peninsula, South Korea needs to take matters into its own hands by leading the alliance’s cooperation and persuading the US government to understand and follow the South Korean point of view.

The South Korea-US alliance’s spirit is often expressed as “Go together,” and additionally, I want to emphasize “division of roles.” Realistically, the improvement of inter-Korean relations and the US-North Korea relationship cannot move forward simultaneously without any errors. I think the North Korean nuclear issue should be managed through proper role allocation, which would create synergy between South Korea and the US. I believe that South Korea-US cooperation should be driven from the independent standpoint that South Korea decides its own destiny.

On the other hand, the United States, along with the Soviet Union, cannot be free from responsibility for the division of the Korean Peninsula. The US was one of the significant stakeholders of the Cold War, and it has a historical responsibility to solve the last remnant of the Cold War era: the division between the two Koreas. As with Vietnam, which fought a war against the US from 1965 to 1975 and turned into a pro-US ally through the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1995, it is time to pursue a drastic change of thought, action and strategy to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and turn North Korea into a pro-US ally.

In light of that, I want to quote a paragraph from Biden’s memoir, in which he emphasized the cautious attitude of the US. This superpower can devastate any country in the world by launching its nuclear missiles.

I’ll never forget the end of the closing statement of Anthony Cordesman, an expert on military strategy and the Middle East: ‘To be careless about this war, to me, would be a disaster. I am reminded of a quote about 2,000 years old by (Bion of Smyrna): ’Small boys throw stones at frogs in jest, but the frogs do not die in jest; the frogs die in earnest.’ This is not a game, and it is not something to be decided from an armchair.’

By Song Young-gil

The writer is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee at the National Assembly. The views reflected in the article are his own. -- Ed.
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