Reach Out to North Korea

The Korean Peninsula is heading into a difficult and very dangerous period. South Korean and U.S. troops are now conducting large-scale training exercises. North Korea is also planning military maneuvers, and threatens to pull out of the 1953 Armistice Agreement that has kept the lid on simmering North-South tensions for almost 60 years.

Pyongyang’s rhetoric has reached a new level of belligerence, threatening attacks upon America with its evolving missile and nuclear weapons capabilities. Such threats are still far beyond North Korea’s abilities, but they evoke shrill responses from conservatives in both Seoul and Washington, and stern comments from our military leaders.

I was in Seoul a few days ago and heard about calls for the reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea from conservatives in the National Assembly. As Washington’s ambassador to Seoul in the early 1990s, I worked to get such weapons removed from South Korea, which they were in 1991. A secret nuclear weapons program was started by Seoul in the mid-1970s but was discovered and stopped by the United States. But now recent opinion polls show that a majority of South Koreans favor the development of nuclear weapons by Seoul.

At a Yonsei University conference on U.S.-Korean relations where I spoke on March 4, former Foreign Minister Song Min-soon made an eloquent case for dialogue with Pyongyang. He said: “We must do something. Doing nothing is dangerous. Collapse in North Korea would create massive new problems. Negotiations must begin. Bring China in to help us. If negotiations with Vietnam and Burma brought change, why not try North Korea?”

On March 5, I also met with Moon Jae-in, the recently defeated liberal candidate for president. He said he would be interested in helping President Park Geun-hye reach out to Pyongyang, if she decided to do so.

In a meeting the same day, South Korea’s new foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, told me that President Park hopes to implement her “Trustpolitik” policy toward North Korea, but must respond in some way to Pyongyang’s latest spasm of belligerence. He emphasized that President Park had deliberately named her policy after Willy Brandt’s successful “Ostpolitik” and after former President Roh Tae-woo’s “Nordpolitik,” which gained South Korea diplomatic recognition by both Russia and China, and entry into the United Nations.

I also talked with the Seoul representative of Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation, who had just come back from visits to North Korea and China. At the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang he said he saw massive banners depicting North Korean missiles attacking the United States, even as Dennis Rodman and other members of the Harlem Globetrotters — towering over everyone in the hotel lobby — were the center of friendly attention. He also said that North Koreans in the Foreign Ministry remained interested in more contacts with the outside world, despite the strident statements by some of their compatriots. He said the Chinese he talked with in Beijing were apprehensive about imposing more sanctions on North Korea, a sentiment echoed in New York by the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, who called for “calm” after the passage on Thursday of a new sanctions package.

President Park’s hard-line predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, bequeathed a tense situation to his successor. Near the end of his presidency, he pushed hard for additional U.N. sanctions, the passage of which last month precipitated North Korea’s third nuclear test. The latest sanctions were in response to that test, and North Korea’s new threats have come in immediate retaliation. What will happen next?

Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young leader, is being subjected to what might called “ritual demonization” by critics in Seoul and Washington. The Washington establishment is loading blame on his shoulders for all that his father and grandfather did, ignoring the possibility that he is looking for validation of a new approach to leadership in Pyongyang. Thus far, the only significant positive reaction he has evoked is Russia’s cancellation of North Korea’s multibillion dollar debt.

I believe that Kim Jong-un seeks serious dialogue with Washington, but that he will push toward full nuclear weapons status for Pyongyang unless he becomes convinced that the United States means him and his country no harm. I take seriously the message that Dennis Rodman carried from Kim Jong-un to President Obama: “He wants Obama to do one thing: Call him,” Rodman told a television interviewer after he returned to America. He quoted the North Korean leader as saying, “I don’t want to do war.”

President Obama cannot be expected to pick up his telephone, given the way the message was delivered. But it should not be ignored. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with the North Koreans as recently as last March in New York, is still assembling his Asia team. In a recent speech at the University of Virginia, he repeated what he said to the North Koreans a year ago: The United States is a country “without any permanent enemies.” I hope that his opening moves toward Asia as secretary of state will fully reflect that belief.

President Park had the courage to visit Pyongyang in 2001, even though in 1974 a Communist agent killed her mother, Yuk Young-soo, in a failed attempt to assassinate her father, President Park Chung-hee. In 2002, when I congratulated her for going to Pyongyang, she replied, “We must look to the future with hope, not to the past with bitterness.” I hope that her policy of “Trustpolitik” will soon emerge, and that it will be successful.

Donald P. Gregg, U.S. ambassador to Seoul from 1989 to 1993, is chairman of the Pacific Century Institute.

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