Sung-Joo Han Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Diplomacy and International Politics: Conversation with Sung-Joo Han, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea; October 30, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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International Politics after 9/11

How do you think the events of 9/11 and the U.S. response has affected the dynamic in Asia and the U.S. role in that region?

In Asia, especially in Southeast Asia, it was not only the United States but other countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines -- all have been affected by the same forces, and so they do understand the trauma of the United States, of September 11, 2001. On the other hand, most people and most countries will not have the same degree and the same extent of feelings, which are very difficult to feel. The kind of actions that the United States takes, the kind of responses that the U.S. makes, often are seen as excessive, because distance-wise, and especially with the time passing, they may have a different perspective on what happened here and how people feel here, the kind of experience they have at the airports, for example, when they visit this country, which is perfectly understandable, but not easy to empathize with. This is where the U.S. can be a little more sensitive. Again, I don't think it has to result in any big distance in the way countries respond to the problem. I think that the U.S. government is coming around to understanding the complexity of the problem.

One of the arguments that was made before 9/11 was that we were in a new era in which economic issues would prevail -- globalization, maybe concerns about inequality and the distribution of resources, and so on. But now we seem to have gone back to heavily emphasizing security, military solutions to some of these problems, and also an emphasis on unilateral responses and not multilateral ones.

Let's look at those views and apply them to the situation of North Korea, which is a major problem for the world and for the region. It would seem that that problem can only be solved in a broader context, to use your image of a game of Go. You're looking at economic issues that concern the North Korean regime, then looking at multilateral solutions and working at them. Would you comment on that? In other words, how do we have to think about the world and how do we have to act in it, post-9/11?

Seen as a whole, I think there has been a pendulum swing on the part of the United States from multilateralism to unilateralism, and back. The reliance on military means to more comprehensive means, and back and forth. At the moment, I think the U.S. is placing more emphasis on multilateralism than it has ever done since 9/11, and that the U.S. is placing more emphasis on the comprehensive approach than simply relying on military means than before.

On the issue of the North Korean nuclear program, there was never a time when the United States thought military response was the solution. But especially now, the president, the secretary of state, the responsible leaders in the U.S. government are all placing great emphasis on a peaceful resolution of the issue, and also a multilateral process. The U.S. is treating the case of Iraq differently from the case of North Korea, and I think we all approve of the way that the U.S. is approaching it now.

If you were addressing an American audience, what are some of the key elements that you feel they should understand about the complexity of North Korea? What is the best way to think about this complexity and participate in this process of finding a solution?

One way to do that is [to examine] how the North Korean situation if different from the Iraqi situation. On the one hand, it has greater potential for danger, because North Korea is far more advanced with weapons of mass destruction than Iraq ever was. At the same time, it portends greater danger of any military action, because of the compactness of the geopolitical situation there, the geopolitics of it. There is the city of Seoul, with more than 12 million people, only about 25 miles from the border, where there are tens of thousands of artillery pieces and hundreds of missiles pointed at not only Koreans but tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of foreigners within the artillery range. This is a situation that is much more challenging, much more difficult to deal with.

On the other hand, we're dealing with a regime which is economically much more desperate and vulnerable; therefore, it will be possible to use this leverage or this inducement if we do it in a proper way. What we need is a very close coordination, especially among the three countries -- the U.S., the Republic of Korea, and Japan -- but also with other countries which are now participating in the process -- China and Russia. We need multilateral diplomacy, we need close coordination, but also a very intelligent strategy in dealing North Korea.

The big question about North Korea is, what is it they want? Do they want a nuclear arsenal more than anything else, or are they looking for ways to engage the world and become part of a process where they can salvage their economy?

It's impossible to give that answer. We had the same question ten years ago. Are they going to trade their nuclear program away at the right price, or are they determined to become a nuclear power no matter what, and they are just using the time or the negotiation to stall so that they can complete their program? There are several possibilities: They want to become a nuclear power no matter what. They may want to trade it away at a high price. They may want to wait until the next presidential election in the United States, November of 2004, and see what happens after that. They may want to adjust their goal and the strategy as things move on.

The challenge for us is to find a response and a strategy that will deal with all these possibilities. What that involves is to place emphasis on negotiation. Without having tried negotiation, we'll never know if it will have worked on not. We cannot start with the assumption that negotiation will never work, and do our best to bring it into a successful conclusion. If it doesn't, then we'll have to figure out what we'll do next. And whatever we do next, even if it is what we call "tougher measures" of pressing North Korea more, then the other countries, especially countries such as China, will be persuaded. It will be easier to persuade those countries to get onboard, because we have shown them that we have exhausted all our goodwill to resolve this in a peaceful way and to address North Korea's concerns and desires, but it hasn't worked. So that it is important, at first, that we exhaust all these peaceful means, which means negotiation.

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