A: After President Xi Jinping took office in China we were able to see some changes, which President Obama also referred to as positive. I believe that China can exert more influence on [North] Korea, I think they can do more. . . . In order for North Korea to change, and in order for the Korean Peninsula to enjoy greater peace, North Korea needs to choose the right path, and China should exert greater influence in inducing North Korea to do so.
You have a good relationship with the new president of China and you are going to visit China soon. China has recently distanced itself from North Korea. Is China prepared to cooperate more with your government and the United States in respect to curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions?
When I meet with President Xi Jinping I look forward to engaging in very candid discussions with him on issues that encompass North Korea, its nuclear weapons, as well as peace and stability in Northeast Asia. I also hope to be able to engage in candid discussions with him about whether, if North Korea decides not to become a responsible member of the international community, and chooses not to take the right path, whether this current path that it is taking is sustainable. Is there a future there?
What more could China do?
Of course, we can’t expect China to do everything, and the Chinese also say they can’t do everything. But I do believe there’s room for them to undertake more with respect to some material aspects. At the same time China has been able to achieve growth and development through reform and opening, and I think this offers a very good model for [North] Korea to follow, and so they can perhaps strengthen their persuasion of Korea in this regard.
What do you mean by material aspects?
North Korea is very heavily dependent on China.
How do you assess Korean-Japanese relations?
I remember eight years ago, when I had an interview with The Washington Post, that was also a time when the North Korean nuclear crisis was ongoing, and when the Japanese were also making comments about [disputed islands], thereby raising the temperature between Korea and Japan. Eight years later I’m very disappointed and frustrated to see that we haven’t made any progress. Japan and [South] Korea share many things in common — our shared values of democracy, freedom and a market economy — and there is a need for us to cooperate on North Korea and on economic issues as well as security issues. . . . But the Japanese have been opening past wounds and have been letting them fester, and this applies not only to Korea but also to other neighboring countries. . . . This arrests our ability to really build momentum, so I hope that Japan reflects upon itself.
How dangerous are the tensions among Japan, China and other countries in the region, and what more could the United States do?
This could be referred to as the Asian paradox. We see deepening economic interdependence in Northeast Asia uneasily coexisting with tensions deriving from various historical issues that spill over into the political and security realms. . . . Unlike Europe, this region does not have a framework for multilateral discussions, and this just simply doesn’t make sense. This is why I propose to advance the Peace and Cooperation Initiative for Northeast Asia, whereby the countries of Northeast Asia, including the United States — and this would be firmly anchored to our alliance with the United States — could engage in discussions of nonpolitical issues, such as climate change, terrorism and nuclear safety. . . . We could build trust and then move on to larger issues of cooperation. This is what I proposed, and while it may not seem like much, I think the state of emotions here in the region can be quite risky and dangerous, so if we could build trust, this is a project which I wish to pursue jointly with the United States and in fact it is what I suggested to President Obama in my meeting with him today.
Is the U.S. “rebalance” to Asia aimed at China?
The reason we see the security posture in the region being strengthened is because of what North Korea has been doing, as North Korea escalates the level of threats and provocations. . . . The basis of peace in this area is to maintain a firm deterrence posture, especially with regard to North Korea. If North Korea were to choose to become a responsible member of the international community and desist from provocations . . . I’m sure we would not need to see the strengthening of military postures in the region.
Would you meet with North Korea’s leader?
I’ve proposed a trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula. We will never tolerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons and North Korea’s provocations. Its threats will not pay. At the same time, this trust-building process is about keeping open the window to dialogue with North Korea at all times. If it chooses the right path, there can also be consequences.
. . . But what use would it be at this moment? As the Korean saying goes, it takes two hands to clap.
Who is responsible for the tensions in the region, apart from North Korea?
I wasn’t referring to a specific country; it’s more about history. It can be said that if territory constitutes the body, history constitutes the soul. . . . Even a very small fire can be greatly inflamed, so it is imperative that we have a hard-headed and correct understanding of history.
The birthrate in South Korea is very low. Is this a problem, and can government do anything about it?
Declining fertility is a very serious issue. Some call it an invisible catastrophe, and I do believe government must work to address this issue. . . . My administration will work to alleviate the child-care burden and the education burden to better allow women to balance work with family. High on the list of my governing priorities is to allow women to better balance work with family in a happy way.
The issue of low fertility is closely intertwined with the state of the economy. . . . If you have many more decent jobs to allow both men and women to live up to their potential, that is the fundamental solution to the challenge of fertility, which is why I have attached top priority to reviving our economy. Without jobs there can be no income, and without income men and women, but especially men, tend to defer marriage.
Should South Korean and U.S. leaders talk about human rights in North Korea?
The ultimate objective of reunification is to improve the quality of lives of people in South and North Korea, to further expand freedom and human rights, and thereby build a happy Korean Peninsula. That is why . . . North Korean human rights is a very important issue that we need to take up, that we cannot turn a blind eye to.
Will you ask China to stop sending North Korean defectors back into North Korea?
If North Korean defectors are forced to return, I know very well from various reports the tragedy that awaits them, so this is a humanitarian issue that should not continue. . . . is my hope that China will send them directly to the Republic of Korea.