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Make or Break

Senior South Korean politician argues that multilateral talks are necessary to break through the current impasse in North Korea-US negotiations

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has professed himself very happy with the most recent large rocket test conducted by its national defense academy, the State Korean Central News Agency reported on November 29, 2019.  

It is the latest in a series of military-related tests and inspections. On October 2, the country conducted its first long-range missile test of 2019. On November 25, Kim inspected artillery troops on its western boundary line and ordered a live fire test on the spot. Analysts argued that North Korea was testing the tolerance of the US. Meanwhile, North Korea has frequently expressed its willingness to participate in dialogues, even as it heaps scorn on the US, its leadership and perceived hostile policies. 

In an exclusive interview with NewsChina, Kwon Ki-sik, political affairs secretary for former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, argued that Kim Jong-un has demonstrated his utmost sincerity in the previous talks with US President Donald Trump. Kwon, 57, served as South Korea’s chief presidential secretary for state affairs from 1988 to 2002 and deputy director of the 2002 President Candidate Secretariat. As chair of the Korea-China City-Friendship Association, Kwon said there is little time left for the parties to engage in direct talks.   

NewsChina: From June 13 to 15, 2000, then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung visited North Korea, meeting former leader Kim Jong-il for the first time. It was reported that Kim Jong-il had a strong sense of humor. What was your impression? 

Kwon Ki-sik: The summit between the North and South Korean leaders in 2000 and the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration were some of the most dramatic and noticeable events on the Korean Peninsula in the 20th century. 

On June 13, when Kim Dae-jung arrived at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, Kim Jong-il was waiting. We had not expected he would welcome the delegation at the airport, nor did we imagine Kim Jong-il would invite his South Korean counterpart to sit in his official car.  

Kim Dae-jung told me he was surprised and hesitated because it was so unusual. If he readily got in the car, South Korean hardliners and the US were likely to attack him politically. Nevertheless, Kim Dae-jung accepted the invitation. 

The two leaders spent 50 minutes in the car. Nobody was present except the driver. To this day, their talks remain a secret and Kim Dae-jung never released any details. It had never happened in the history of bilateral exchanges. Kim Dae-jung said later “we conducted talks without any reservation about the unification of the two countries.” 

Kim Dae-jung described Kim Jong-il as a straightforward, humorous man. During the meeting, Kim Jong-il even joked that “Kim Dae-jung awakened me from a reclusive condition.” During the visit, Kim Jong-il showed great respect for Kim Dae-jung as an elder. They instantly became good friends. 

After the visit, Kim Dae-jung said he would like to go back to South Korea by road but Kim Jong-il worried that hardliners in the North Korean military were likely to stage strikes. It reflected Kim Jong-il’s frankness.   

NC: What was the biggest divergence in views before the joint declaration was made? What were Kim Jong-il’s main concerns over denuclearization? 

KK: The view differed in that South Korea wanted step-by-step cooperation, but North Korea was determined to reach an agreement swiftly. North Korea hoped to sign a cooperation pact first before any details were discussed. South Korea, however, was unable to sign it because many South Koreans still opposed the agreement. For South Korea, it was urgent to stop military attacks and build military trust, ensuring the freedom of commercial trade and population flow.  

Back then, nuclear weapons development in North Korea was at an embryonic stage and denuclearization was not the main issue. What’s more, North Korea was unwilling to talk about it. There was nothing related to nuclear issues in the joint declaration. Kim Dae-jung hoped tensions would be eased if interdependence was improved through economic cooperation. As a result, economic cooperation and reunions for separated families were the main issues. 

Kim Jong-il cared most about the security of the political system and financial support from South Korea. Kim Dae-jung once said that in order to achieve peace on the peninsula, it would be necessary to establish US military bases of a certain size. Kim Jong-il also accepted that. Because of Kim Dae-jung’s pragmatism and Kim Jong-il’s openness, the joint declaration was finally signed.  

NC: What are the differences between North Korea’s receptions for President Kim Dae-jung and President Moon Jae-in? 

KK: At the reception dinner for Kim Dae-jung, Kim Jong-il opened lots of bottles of wine and the two leaders drank and laughed as if they were celebrating a festival. When President Moon Jae-in visited North Korea, Kim Jong-un was also hospitable, but the atmosphere was different. 

Kim Dae-jung visited North Korea with the offer of commercial opportunities and economic support. He was a businessman when he was young which was very rare for South Korean presidents. Kim Dae-jung led the business negotiations between the two sides on projects including the development of the scenic Mount Kumgang Resort and Kaesong Industrial Complex.  

In addition, he provided US$500 million in support to North Korea through the Hyundai Motor Company. Kim Dae-jung knew North Korea was short of money and Hyundai was also eager to tap the North Korean market. 

Kim Dae-jung’s political wisdom centered on the unification of the two countries and peace on the peninsula. His successful visit was thanks to his pragmatism and business-like approach. Because of sanctions from the US and UN, Moon Jae-in visited North Korea empty-handed which made it difficult to win trust from the North Korean side.  

In June 2018 when Kim Dae-jung’s wife passed away, Kim Jong-un sent a message of condolence and a wreath. In October, when Moon’s mother passed away, Kim Jong-un only sent his condolences. From the perspective of Korean tradition, a message of condolence does not carry much meaning in etiquette.  

NC: What is Kim Jong-un’s main change in diplomatic policies compared with his father? KK: In a word, Kim Jong-un takes a CEO-type approach to governing his country, one that is open-minded and supportive of enterprises. He and US President Donald Trump have similarities: Both are shrewd in business. 

Kim Jong-un studied in Europe and has a deep understanding of Western politics and culture. Despite the sanctions, the North Korean economy has improved.  

The breakthrough in nuclear weapons restored his confidence which manifested in his tough stance during the summit meetings between North Korea and the US. He flew on a plane provided by China to Singapore [for a summit with Trump], and also met Trump at Panmunjom [in the demilitarized zone] following Trump’s invitation on Twitter, which were unimaginable for his predecessors. 

The US insists on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In my opinion, Kim Jong-un has offered his utmost sincerity in negotiations and I believe if necessary, he would visit the US. The US and other Western countries should welcome the hand of openness from Kim Jong-un.  

NC: Is there any change in North Korea’s stance on the peninsula issue? 

KK: I visited North Korea five times during the tenures of Moon and former presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung. Once I visited Kaesong, and during a dinner with a top North Korean official, I was informed that North Korea has great respect for both Kim Dae-jung and his policies. 

I have studied the atmosphere of North Korea recently through foreign professors at Kim Il-sung University and South Korean entrepreneurs. I heard that North Korea has now a social atmosphere akin to the beginning of China’s reform and opening-up and the public are very proud of the nuclear projects. 

NC: There is an impasse between South Korea and North Korea. What are the problems? KK: Kim Jong-un seems to be disappointed at President Moon Jae-in’s role as mediator and thinks Moon cares too much about what Trump says. Moon failed to solve the funding plight of the Mount Kumgang Resort and Kaesong Industrial Complex which are not targets of US sanctions. I heard that Kim Jong-un was dissatisfied and compared the financial support between Moon and Kim Dae-jung. 

Kim Dae-jung was an elder statesman when he was in office and he had influence on the world arena. In terms of the [stalled] Six-Party Talks, former US President Bill Clinton would listen to advice. Now, Moon does not play a significant role, which caused North Korea and the US to start direct dialogue. To be frank, North Korea has been waiting for South Korea to table a solution to persuade the US, but nothing happened. 

For Kim Dae-jung, the economy was the breakthrough for NorthSouth relations, but Moon was previously a lawyer who did not pay much attention to the role of the economy. Take the example of dating a girl, Kim Dae-jung would bring presents on each date, but Moon goes empty-handed. Inevitably, the girl would break it off.   

NC: What is the main obstacle to the peninsula issue? What are the solutions? 

KK: I think the lack of trust between North Korea and the US is the main problem. In addition, countries involved in the peninsula issue have not reached an agreement on the solution. The roles of China, Japan and Russia have also been largely reduced. The excessive sanctions from the UN are also a hindrance.  

It is time to restart multilateral talks because there is no room left if North Korea and US fail in their direct talks. There is also little time left, and North Korea and the US should provide an agreement at the end of 2019 or early spring in 2020. Moon Jae-in has enthusiasm but lacks strategy and courage. It is urgent to deal with the problem of Mount Kumgang and the Kaesong Industrial Complex which have been suspended for many years thanks to the financial shortfall. What’s more, international organizations should start research and discussions on “Northeast Asia Peace Railways” that will connect North Korea. 

Kim Dae-jung said that if there were more places like Kaesong Industrial Complex, economic links between North and South Korea would be inseparable and there would not be war anymore.