ROK-U.S. Strategic Forum 2017: Keynote Conversation
September 5, 2017
LISA COLLINS: (In progress) – the Republic of Korea. Before assuming this position, he served as the South Korean ambassador to India, and also the South Korean ambassador to Austria and the Permanent Mission to International Organizations in Vienna. Minister Cho has worked on a variety of issues during his distinguished diplomatic career, including trade, nuclear security, energy, and climate change policy. He was also recently a visiting professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Please give a welcome round of applause to Minister Cho. We’ll have him come to the podium now and give his remarks. Thank you. (Applause.)
HYUN CHO: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m delighted to be here today to attend this forum co-hosted by Korea Foundation and CSIS.
Today I would like to talk about the three challenges Korea has been facing recently and how crucial the U.S.-Korea alliance has been for Korea in overcoming those challenges. My remarks today, however, are not an expression of the official position of the Korean government as, in fact, I do not deal with the issues I’m going to talk about today. I’d rather, therefore, present my own personal observation on the Korean government’s policy on these challenges or issues.
Twenty years ago, I was here in Washington, D.C. working as an economic officer at the Korean embassy. At the time, Korea was teetering on the verge of sovereign default. To make things worse, we were about to hold a presidential election in December. It was, indeed, a very tense and precarious period. I didn’t know what would happen, in Washington, tomorrow in Seoul.
As you are well-aware, however, we were able to overcome the economic crisis quite successfully with the IMF bailout program. Furthermore, we elected President Kim Dae-jung in this difficult time, ushering in a blossoming democracy afterwards.
I could witness that all this was possible with the support of the United States. I can testify today to you that a few warm-hearted officials in the U.S. government helped Korea to navigate unchartered, troubled waters at the time.
Twenty years later – today – your ally, Korea, is again in trouble. We need your help again. So let me move on to these three challenges we are facing now.
The first challenge we had some 10 months ago, when then-President Park was embroiled in a(n) influence-peddling and corruption scandal. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans took to the streets and demanded an immediate resignation of the president. I was then in India, serving as ambassador. I was holding my breath because of this very volatile situation in Korea. However, the demonstration and the candlelight vigil turned out to be very peaceful and even clean. Demonstrators swept streets after their demonstrations. But more importantly, the procedures of our legislative branch and the decision of our Constitutional Court were carried out in a very orderly and legal manner. An early election was held in May, and we had a fresh new start. I’m proud to say today that this was the victory of and triumph of the rule of law, which came from our ally the United States.
This, of course, would not be the end of the story. The remaining part of the challenge will be how the new government will accommodate the various and diverse voices of the people on the street without falling victim to populist policies.
The second challenge lies in the socioeconomic area. Before I was sent to India I had been seconded to a university, teaching international relations and getting along with young students. And I was surprised to know how frustrated they are. I was worried about their resentment. They were sneering at themselves as those born with a dirty spoon in the mouth, living in hell, Korea. Indeed, young people in Korea are struggling with numerous difficulties: getting a job, getting married, having children. Just normal procedure for my generation now seems to be a difficult task to achieve. The window of opportunity for them are becoming narrower, and the social stratification is getting more distinct and rigid. The dwindling job opportunities are leading to growing inequalities.
The Moon Jae-in government is addressing this problem through income-driven growth, divorcing itself from the conglomerate-dependent economic structure. Government policies, however, will be in accordance with the principles of market economy. They will also be a rule-based approach, such as an application of antitrust law. In other words, we will overcome this problem with application of stronger market economic principles – which, again, we share with the United States.
The third challenge – the most daunting one – comes from North Korea. While I was on air on the way to Washington, D.C. the day before yesterday, they claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb. North Korea is continuing its reckless provocations. Thirteen ballistic missiles have been tested this year alone, one of which flew over Japan, and the American territory of Guam is under threat.
Well, North Korea is rapidly becoming a threat too hard to bear. Is this Kim Jong-un’s survival tactic, or is this lunatic simply trying to change the status quo on the Korean Peninsula? Is he a consumer of his own propaganda? Does he believe in what he says in rhetoric? Whether he does all of these provocations with an aim of a grandiose plan of unifying the peninsula under his command or not, these are – there are two things we cannot accept.
First, we should not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state. We 50 million South Koreans will not accept ourselves being cowed by their nuclear threats. The U.S. will not accept it either, as nuclear North Korea will challenge and bring about a serious, well, challenge to the international nonproliferation regime, including the NPT system.
The second thing we cannot accept in any case is a war on the Korean Peninsula. Given the calamity a war would bring about, we cannot accept a war as an option. This is not because we are weak or we are cowards, but indeed because we have only two vivid memories of the Korean War. I understand the need to stress that all options are on the table, emphasizing it is needed or OK, but we should be careful that this does not translate into an escalation of war or cause miscalculation of North Korea.
Then, how are we going to deal with North Korea under these two things not to do? First, we will continue sanctions and pressure, which will eventually lead North Korea to a dialogue, the only solution for North Korea. Encouraging China to get onboard in these sanctions and pressure campaign will be crucial.
Second, we will enhance our deterrence efforts. We will upgrade our defense capabilities, including the Kill Chain and air and defense missile system. In this context, our two presidents also agreed to revise the current missile guidelines to the extent desired by Korea. With regard to THAAD, my president made a decision for the temporary deployment of four additional launchers of THAAD in the face of North Korea’s provocations.
In a nutshell, concerted and well-orchestrated cooperation between our two governments is crucial. Indeed, our two countries have been closely coordinating a joint approach to tackle the North Korean nuclear issue on every possible occasion. The recent summit meeting in June and the G-20 meeting in July and numerous telephone calls, including the one yesterday between our two presidents, demonstrate how closely we have been working together on this issue.
Ladies and gentlemen, I still would like to make additional suggestions for the successful resolution of the issue. May I start with a question? What went wrong? Obviously, North Korea is wholly to blame for their situation. The responsibility rests with Kim Jong-un and his father. However, if we look back on the past years, we might be able to identify two intrinsic constraints from our side.
First is the fact that we are democracies. As democratic countries, we have elections and change of government, and accordingly change of policies, which North Korea has been taking advantage of while sticking to their aim of nuclear ambition.
Second, the U.S. – United States, as a global power, seemed at times to have been distracted by some other priority issues. This may have left some room for North Korea to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
If this assessment is fair – well, if we admit that we have had problems of, first, continuity, and concentration, I would like to suggest that at this eleventh hour we redouble our concerted efforts for denuclearization of North Korea. We need more focused efforts for a longer period of time. We need strategy well-tuned by our two countries.
Finally, with your indulgence, I would like to talk about war and dialogue. I’m often asked by many foreigners why Koreans are so calm, so sanguine about their future, even when a bomb exploded in the North, tested in the North. My answer is that maybe we have been inured to that kind of threat for decades. And they do not really seem to be understanding me. They say that – well, they don’t say it, but they seem to be thinking that we are somewhat unrealistic, or if not daredevil. Then, if we talk about a possibility of war, some people say we are appeasers, we are cowed by them; you should be – become more brave. So we have to be balanced. At least we should be thinking about an escalation of tensions and miscalculations, and we should be wary of it. That does not mean that we are weak or we are coward.
This leads me to another issue, that we try to talk about the need for having dialogues with North Korea and we are criticized for being incongruous – the time is not good for that. Yes, incongruous as it may sound under the circumstances, but we need it because, actually, we need to understand it, because actually there are two types of dialogues. One dialogue for denuclearization, which should be resumed under the right conditions, including cessation of North Korea’s provocations and threats. Another dialogue is about humanitarian issues and reducing military tensions in the DMZ at a later stage. Such dialogues would not offset our efforts for sanctions and pressure on North Korea, and would not be a strategic mistake. Instead, they will help us ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. And we really hope that someday, some stage it will eventually create an environment favorable to a dialogue, the first dialogue for denuclearization. It may sound unrealistic today, but we cannot abandon it.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m well aware of your affection for Korea, as well as your enthusiasm for and dedication to the strong ties of our alliance. I count on your support. Thank you. (Applause.)
MS. COLLINS: Thank you, Vice Minister Cho, for those remarks.
We will now take a few questions. The vice minister has agreed to graciously answer a couple of questions, so we’ll take a couple of questions at a time. If you could please raise your hand, and also tell us your name and your affiliation before you ask your question, we’ll take some from the floor right now. We have a question in the back there.
Q: Hello. Thank you for being here. My name is Isabelle Hoagland with Inside U.S. Trade.
I’m curious how Korea is viewing these threats from President Trump to withdraw from KORUS, specifically from a civilian standpoint. What’s the feel over there domestically regarding these threats?
MIN. CHO: Thank you for raising that particular question. Some years ago, I was chief negotiator for the renewal of our 123 Agreement. I negotiated with Bob Einhorn. And at the time, I argued that this renewed agreement on 123 Agreement will be our third pillar, after the alliance and the KORUS.
So it is very important, and I’m very sanguine about its future. Some people worry about it. But, as I know, our negotiator, Kim Hyun-chong, happens to have many friends in the Beltway. He will sort it out. Thank you. (Laughter.)
MS. COLLINS: We have one question here on the side.
Q: Thank you. Sir, thank you very much for your speech. My name’s Andy Wright (sp). I’m with Pochemsi (ph).
So you mentioned there are two things that you cannot accept. One was a nuclear North Korea and one was a war on the Korean Peninsula. Mindful of the other actors that are involved – China or KJU – if you were forced, which one would you prefer to have? (Laughter.)
MS. COLLINS: We’ll take one more. There was a question here in the front. We’ll take this question as well. Microphone over here, please.
Q: This is Florence Lowe-Lee from Global America Business Institute.
This is follow-up on the first question, about 123 Agreement. You had a passion, and you are chief negotiator for 123 Agreement. But right now, the current administration policy is phasing out nuclear, civil nuclear program in Korea. How do you feel? Or is there any sort of viewpoints from your – from your – as a negotiator initially, as your perspective?
MIN. CHO: Well, the phasing out of nuclear reactors in Korea is not imminent. On the contrary, it’ll be a long-term goal, maybe 50 years. I do not know. And by the time we will work on it, because its meaning is to abandon our technologies and expertise that had been accumulated for decades.
We have the shared interest that building nuclear reactors around the world should not be left to countries other than Korea and the United States. So we will closely working on it.
Regarding the question, on this issue I would prefer doing neither of the thing, and I won’t answer to that very hypothetical question.
MS. COLLINS: I think we have time for one or two more questions, and we’ll take them together before the minister answers for the last time. Thank you. So we have, I think, one there in the back, and then one over here.
Q: Sir, my name’s Carlo Muñoz. I’m with The Washington Times.
I just wanted to follow up on your comments about – you said the White House has seemed distracted at times, which possibly could have allowed an opening for North Korea to have pressed ahead with their weapons programs. In your assessment of the White House’s response, has it been adequate enough to sort of tamp down pressures on the peninsula? Or, in your opinion, can the U.S. do more? And if so, what should they do? Thank you.
MIN. CHO: With regard to the current White House, I don’t see any problem. Due attention has been given to this issue.
As for previous ones, well, understandably there have been some very imminent and important issues all around the world. So there have been some cases – (inaudible) – and very nice words to say about it in a way that strategic patience, for instance. But thanks to North Korea’s continued provocations, we cannot afford such things recently.
MS. COLLINS: So I think we had one more over here, and this will be the last question.
Q: Mr. Minister, I think you’ve presented a conundrum for us, and I’d like to discuss it. You have suggested that we need a dialogue. On the other hand, you also have suggested that you cannot have a nuclear-armed North Korea. How do we enter into a dialogue without first having an understanding that there would be denuclearization?
MIN. CHO: Well, Robert, it’s good to see you after some 20 years. And I hope I could answer your question. Luckily, I do not deal with the issue, for the time being at least.
And so my answer to your question is that of my own, and I think it can be done through close cooperation/collaboration between our two governments for making a kind of road map, bit road map. And then we will ask China to jump on it and walk together for the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia.
Of course, the devil is in details. And unfortunately, I cannot go further.
MS. COLLINS: Please join me in thanking Vice Minister Cho for his remarks and for answering the questions. (Applause.)
MIN. CHO: Thank you.
MS. COLLINS: We will – we will now have a very short transition break for our next panel. So if we could have the speakers for the next panel come up to the stage, we’ll be getting started shortly. Thank you.