Intermediary between the US and South and North Korea says now is the right time for Seoul to be more activeSince the deal reached by North Korean and US officials on February 29, 2012 ended in failure, the two sides have not had any meaningful interaction. Their positions remain diametrically opposed, with the US demanding that North Korea agree to give up its nuclear program as a prerequisite to negotiations and the North refusing.In the meantime, the political situation on the Korean Peninsula is becoming even more complicated as the US and China vie for hegemony and the US and Japan strengthen their alliance.“South Korea needs to convince China and the US to improve relations with North Korea. This is the right time, and in diplomacy, timing is everything,” said Tony Namkung, former deputy director of the Center for Korean Studies, in an interview with the Hankyoreh. Tony will be giving a presentation and taking part in a debate at the Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium, which will have its opening ceremony on Nov. 18.Namkung has served as a key intermediary between South Korea, North Korea and the US, helping to arrange former US President Jimmy Carter’s visit to North Korea in 1994 and to secure the release of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in 2010. His interview with the Hankyoreh took place at a hotel in New Jersey on Nov. 6.
Hankyoreh (Hani): In your presentation you’re planning to say that North Korea is focusing more on improving its relations with South Korea than with the US. Why do you think that is?Tony Namkung (Namkung): This started after the George W. Bush administration’s ABC - Anything But Clinton - approach. That was when North Korea’s Foreign Ministry discovered that the US government was not a trustworthy negotiating partner. Under the American political system, when one party steps down after an election and hands power to the other party, everything changes.Furthermore, the mood in Congress for the last few years - as far back as the 1990s - has been unfriendly to North Korea. North Korea witnessed how easily the Republican Party reversed the policies of the Clinton administration. After that, North Korea began to reflect on how it should approach the issue of a peace treaty.Another point to consider is that, during the Bush administration, North Korea refused to approach Washington through South Korea, as the US and South Korea wanted. But now, North Korea thinks that it may have to go through South Korea to get to Washington. Since Kim Jong-un came to power in North Korea, this kind of policy has been picking up speed. Hani: Do you think that the US hardline policy toward North Korea has prompted North Korea to change its policy?Namkung: The US has no genuine interest in long-term, permanent solutions. The primary interest for the US has been the denuclearization of North Korea; it doesn’t view denuclearization in the broader context of ending its so-called policy of hostility through signing a peace treaty or normalizing diplomatic relations. As a natural consequence, North Korea’s interest has turned to the South. Hani: The Americans complain that there are no trustworthy channels for negotiations in North Korea.Namkung: That’s ridiculous. That probably means that North Korea is refusing to respond to the continued appeals by the US State Department for dialogue. The current situation is that the US is fundamentally refusing to change its position [that North Korea must denuclearize first], and North Korea is also refusing to change its basic position. Hani: How do you think the renewed alliance between the US and Japan-and more directly, Japan‘s greater ability to exercise the right to collective self-defense-will affect the situation on the Korean Peninsula in the future?Namkung: The stronger military alliance between the US and Japan was designed to crank up the threat against North Korea, and I think it’s clear that this will have a considerable effect. But at the same time, there is a sense that Japan is trying to pursue policies that are more independent of the US. Hani: You mean that, in the long term, Japan has that kind of goal?Namkung: Of course. Hani: With the rise of China leading to a new world order organized around the G2, what do you think South Korea needs to do to seize the initiative on the Korean Peninsula?Namkung: Many South Koreans think that the role their country should play is serving as a liaison between the US and China. This is a very unrealistic idea. Instead of that, South Korea should play a more assertive and even combative role in regard to North Korea. I don’t mean that South Korea should attempt to overthrow the North Korean system or regime, but rather that it needs to establish long-term peaceful coexistence. Hani: In your presentation for the debate, you argue that North and South Korea need to recognize each other as two separate states. What is your objective here?Namkung: In order to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, North and South Korea need to accept a de facto policy of “two Koreas.” This is not a new idea. There is a growing move in North Korea to recognize South Korea as a sovereign state.In addition, this move can easily be combined with the unification policy of South Korea, developed by former prime minister Lee Hong-koo in the 1980s, to start with reconciliation and cooperation, move toward a confederation of North and South, and ultimately achieve a unified country. [In 1991], the prime ministers of the two sides signed the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement and North and South both joined the UN as separate countries. Hani: Is there anything else you would like to add?Namkung: President Park Geun-hye has two years left in office. President Obama has a little more than a year. It’s at this moment that South Korea needs to take the initiative. South Korea needs to convince China and the US to improve relations with North Korea. South Korea has a very important voice in the international community, and people have a good impression of South Korea. Therefore, South Korea needs to take a more proactive role, and this is the right time. In diplomacy, timing is everything.By Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondentPlease direct questions or comments to [email@example.com]
Tony Namkung (by Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent)