Fred Hiatt interviews South Korean President Lee Myung-bak

Monday, April 12, 2010; A17

Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt interviewed President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul on April 7. A translation and transcript of President Lee's remarks were provided by his staff:

Q: What do you hope to accomplish on your trip to Washington?

A: I think President Obama convening the very first nuclear summit meeting in Washington, D.C., is very significant. . . . I believe it's going to contribute a lot to bringing about global security and safety, especially [as] we are all concerned about the development of, let's say, small, suitcase-sized nuclear weapons, because the threat is very real that these materials or weapons can proliferate to terrorist organizations or rogue states, so to speak. So the threat is real and I think President Obama's nuclear security summit will reaffirm to people around the world of this danger. For us, this security summit is going to contribute a lot, in terms of preventing the real threat that we face. In terms of North Korea, with Iran, and I think it may go a long [way] in preventing such states from wanting to acquire nuclear weapons capability.

Why would such a summit affect Iran's or North Korea's behavior?

There will be 47 heads of state and government taking part in next week's nuclear security summit, and we're all there because we want to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation and as well as materials and weapons. And I think the biggest contribution that this summit will do in terms of preventing countries like North Korea and Iran from acquiring weapons is that now there's a new understanding of the great threat that this issue is toward the global community. And that it will once again revive the international community's commitment and coordination and cooperation to achieve this goal.

You had some concerns that President Obama's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) might weaken the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea?

We carefully looked over the NPR report that was released recently and it stipulates that the United States won't be using nuclear weapons against states that abide by the NPT. However, they made an exception for countries like North Korea and Iran so we have no doubts about the reassurance of a nuclear umbrella to South Korea. Also I had a chance to speak with President Obama over the telephone a couple of days ago. We talked about a lot of issues and one of them was that President Obama -- and this was before the release of the NPR -- he once again reassured me personally that there will be no changes to the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States to South Korea.

What is the state of U.S.-Korean relations?

We enjoy an excellent relationship with the United States in my opinion and, most of all, the mutual trust that we have toward each other is great and very deep. And I'd like to attach a lot of significance to that. In the past the alliance that Korea and the United States had was largely confined to security issues here on the Korean Peninsula, but now we've managed to really expand that to make it more comprehensive. Last year when I had my announcement for a summit meeting in Washington, D.C., we announced what we called [a] "Future Vision of the Alliance" between Korea and the United States. If you look at this document, it stipulates that not only will the United States and Korea work toward the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, but also they'll work toward bringing stability to Northeast Asia and beyond, and that the United States and Korea will work together to really tackle global issues that we both think are very important. So as you can see, the alliance now has gone into the phase where we, of course, will talk about security issues, but also we will work to expand and strengthen mutual economic cooperation but also work together to resolve global issues like climate change, stopping the spread of nuclear materials, eradicating terrorism, poverty and so forth. So you can see that [the] relationship between Korea and the United States has become much more comprehensive and holistic. And for this, I think it's safe to say that the Americans also feel the same way, that this relationship has really grown compared to the past.

It's been said that you have among the best relationships with President Obama of any Asian leader.

Well, thank you. Let me just say that we welcome the return of the United States resuming its global leadership role and for that President Obama must really be commended for his efforts to reengage with the world. And when it comes to Asia, the American government and President Obama have shown their commitment and resolve to reengage with the Asian partners. And I'm just very happy to be working together with him here in Asia and with him in the United States, so that we could work together to really further strengthen this vital partnership.

How does the proposed Korea-U.S. Free Trade agreement (KORUS-FTA) fit into that?

For us, the FTA is not just simply a trade agreement or an economic agreement. It really is much more than that. And I think the KORUS-FTA will also play a very important part of the Obama administration's new Asia policy as well. And I'm very certain that the U.S. administration fully realizes the importance and the significance of the KORUS-FTA. I hope that the U.S. administration and President Obama will continue to work closely with the U.S. Congress so that the KORUS FTA will be ratified as soon as possible.

And, also, if I may add, when viewed from the U.S. perspective, there aren't many countries in the Asian region as a whole that the United States can sign an FTA with. The United States is not in a position to enter into an FTA with either China or Japan because of its economic size and other aspects. But Korea and the United States are in a very good matching position to enter into such an FTA, which will also have tremendous benefits not only for Northeast Asia but for Asia as a whole.

Why for Asia as a whole?

Like I said before, the United States is very determined to reengage with the Asian region, and I fully welcome that. And there is a role that the Americans must and should play in this region. And I say the KORUS-FTA will have a positive benefit for the Asian region as a whole because of the China factor. Because when we look at China, China's influence in the region, both militarily, economically and otherwise, is growing rapidly, and this is something that we will all have to take into consideration. And with the passage and implementation of the KORUS-FTA, the U.S. role in the Asian region will be much more specifically defined, and I think it will be a very positive aspect when we take into consideration everything, including the China factor.

Because if you look at Korea, the trade volume we have with China alone is far greater than our trade volume with Japan and the United States combined. And, so, already China is one of our most important economic partners, and this gap or difference is going to widen as time goes by. And so having said that, the KORUS-FTA for the Americans and the U.S. administration is, in my opinion, going to be a very pivotal aspect of their new Asian policy, because when you consider all these together, the United States' new role in the region and everything else, and that is why the KORUS FTA, I say, is not simply an economic agreement or trade agreement, but is something much more than that.

There are companies and congressmen in the United States who oppose this agreement. What would be the consequences if it is not ratified?

I consider the KORUS-FTA as when it's going to get passed, not whether it's going to get passed. I believe it's just a matter of time before we see the U.S. Congress ratify the FTA. You spoke about a particular U.S. industry or company and certain members of the U.S. Congress being opposed to passing the KORUS-FTA, but when you look at a report, a very objective one, released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it says that with the passage and implementation of the KORUS-FTA that many, many new jobs will be created in the United States. So there are various statistics to attest to this. And I must really point out the fact that the FTA will be very helpful for the Americans and their consumers as well. And also another point I'd like to raise is that we hope that the KORUS-FTA will be implemented before our FTA with either China or the European Union. Because this will have a direct impact on whether American consumers and Americans will be able to create jobs and reap the benefits of the passage of the FTA. Because, again, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has released the report saying that the KORUS-FTA must be passed before Korea passes its agreement with either China or the E.U. in order to reap the maximum benefits.

When you look at the FTA from a bits-and-parts point of view, of course there will be opposition; there will be pros and cons. But you really have to look at the whole, entire FTA and if it comes out as a plus, then it's the responsibility, I believe, of each country to really go ahead and try to push this through. It's the same here in Korea as well. We have certain members of our industry, certain members of our national parliament, who are vehemently opposed to the KORUS-FTA. But my administration is fully determined to overcome such difficulties and challenges, because we consider the KORUS-FTA as a whole to be beneficial for the entire country.

Why is China's growing influence a concern?

Just to take a couple steps back historically, Korea, as you can see, is located among what we call big countries. And historically we've always been the victim of numerous invasions and whatnot. But nowadays in the 21st century, of course, like I said, Korea enjoys a very robust economic partnership and relationship with our neighbor China. But I said "concern" because, for any country, including Korea, for any economy to be so dependent on one economic partner, I think that is not very good. I think . . . many countries want to diversify their economic partners and that is why we were concerned about the growing dependence of not only Korea but other countries in the region toward China. However, having said that, Korea and China, we enjoy, like I said, a good economic partnership. We are engaged in a lot of dialogues and discussions with China. We've elevated our relationship to that of a strategic partnership, because we fully understand the importance of each other.

Would the concern be less if China were a democracy?

If we shared the same values and systems with China, our concern would be less. And I think the same can be said for other countries, including the United States. But of course we respect the differences that are present and we take everything into consideration, and we do all that we can to strengthen friendship and partnership with our neighbor.

You mentioned FTAs with Europe and China. Hasn't the E.U. agreement already been negotiated?

Yes, as for our FTA with E.U., like you said, all the negotiations have finished. And now it will be implemented beginning January 1st of 2011; so that is next year. As for the prospects of FTA with China, we are currently studying the possibility and the feasibility of entering into negotiations with the Chinese. I would have to note that the Chinese are forceful in requesting that we engage with them so that we can set up an FTA with the Chinese. So for Koreans, it depends on us, whether we decide to enter into formal negotiations with the Chinese regarding [an] FTA.

What's the status of efforts to denuclearize North Korea?

As of now, I don't think that North Korea will voluntarily and willingly give up its nuclear weapons capabilities. Without continued tough sanctions and measures employed by the members of the six-party talks, as well as the members of the U.N. Security Council and the international community as a whole, I don't think North Korea will willingly give up its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Unless North Korea is forced into a position where they have no choice but to give up their nuclear weapons capabilities, until such a time comes, I don't think the North Koreans will voluntarily give it up.

And I'm sure President Obama fully understands the situation as well, and that is perhaps one reason why we are seeing a very close coordination among the members of the international community when it comes to dealing with the North Koreans. And I think such cooperation and close coordination by the international community is applying a lot of pressure on North Korea, telling them to return to the six-party talks table.

For a regime willing to let its own people starve, how can sanctions be effective?

I think it's . . . there's no denying that the North Korean regime and its leadership are facing a transformative moment right now. Because in the past we know that the North Korean leadership was unilaterally forcing its ideology and its way of life to the North Korean people. And the general population really had no choice but to go along with the North Korean leadership. But now that is changing. This is a small yet very significant change we are detecting within North Korea. As you know, recently the North Korean leadership failed dismally in its effort to reform its currency; the state of the North Korean economy is worsening by the day; the people's perception about their leadership is changing as well, which is a very, very dramatic and significant change.

How are you detecting this change?

I mentioned their efforts to have currency reform, which failed, and as a result, the ordinary lives of the North Korean people have just gotten worse than before, and it's worsening day by day. We have received a lot of reports from North Korea that for the first time the North Korean leadership is now intent on actually explaining their reason for the failure to the North Korean population -- something that we haven't seen before is them admitting that they made mistakes. . . . This in itself is a very significant change compared to the past; it has been said that the North Korean leadership has executed the person in charge who undertook the currency reform, although we don't have 100 percent verifiable proof . . . . And so the difference in the North Korean leadership's behavior is that now they are actually addressing the population's discontent -- something that we haven't seen in the past.

And where could that lead?

We know the challenges that the North Korean leadership is going through at the moment and I believe this can be an opportunity for us to really explore substantive dialogue with the North Koreans whereby we can convince them to fully give up their nuclear weapons capabilities; we can really sit down and talk about specific ways whereby South Korea and the international community can help the North Koreans in terms of reviving their economy and improving their quality of life. It has never been my intention to topple the North Korean regime, but it has been my intention to help the North Korean regime achieve a level of sustainability that can provide the necessary goods to its people. And so this is my policy; this is something I will continue to do.

What's the level of hunger in North Korea?

We're going to have to wait and see how their agricultural productivity performed this year, because now we're just beginning with the planting season. In terms of the number of those who died from hunger, that statistic fortunately has gone down a little bit. And I think one reason for that is because many North Korean people, on a personal level, are venturing forth into northern China to gather whatever necessary food or other products they can get. So the number of people dying of hunger, from hunger, is decreasing, thankfully.

If North Korean leader Kim Jong Il goes to China, will he receive aid that might relieve the pressure you hope could lead to an agreement?

Well, I think the Chinese leadership is fully aware of what the North Koreans may want or may demand. If the Chinese leadership decides to provide North Korea with some sort of assistance, either in food or financial assistance, it is going to be very limited and with conditions. For instance, the Chinese will demand that North Korea return to the six-party negotiating table or they will put other conditions in return for their assistance. But I think the Chinese leadership is very aware that the international community is fully behind [it] and they're working very closely together. I do not think that the Chinese will freely go against what the U.N. Security Council has adopted in its resolution or what the other remaining members of the six-party talks want to do.

Do you have useful conversations with China's leaders about this?

Yes, I think it's safe to say that we have been engaging in more in-depth dialogue with Beijing compared to the past.

You've said no one should jump to conclusions about the sinking of your naval ship. But if North Korea turns out to be responsible, what options would you have for response?

The most important thing for us is to determine, of course, the actual cause of the sinking, but also for us to come up with a result, a report, that the international community will find acceptable and approve. So the process must be transparent and it must yield accurate results, and for that, we have invited experts from our ally the United States to take part in the investigation to determine the cause of the sinking. If need be, we will be inviting other countries or other experts from other institutions and countries. And also we've asked the United Nations for help and assistance in determining the accurate cause, and all of these measures are being carried out so that we can increase the credibility of the report that will be coming out. And for me, as president, I don't attach too much importance on whether we can come up with results as soon as possible, because I attach much more importance on the accuracy of the report.

But when it's finished, you will have to weigh your options.

Yes, of course. With the report, we will respond accordingly. But right now, I think it's premature for me to make a comment on what type of option or policy options that we will employ.

But I'm very committed to responding in a firm manner if need be.

Would you ask Chinese leaders to press Kim Jong Il for any information the North might have about this?

When it comes to the sinking of the ship, I don't think there's anything that we could ask or ascertain from the Chinese.

Right now, like I said, what's important is to accurately assess the reason for the sinking of the ship and then we will respond accordingly.

What's your view of the new government in Japan and its talk about new forms of Northeast Asian cooperation?

We have seen the change of Japan's leadership for the first time in more than 50 years. This has a lot of meanings, significant meaning, both within Japan domestically and also when you look at the region of Northeast Asia as well. And I think lots of changes are happening and will happen in the region. As for how the alliance relationship between Japan, the United States and our relationship with Japan changes and evolves, we are going to wait and see for the time being. As for the talks of establishing a Northeast Asia community that has been put forth by the Democratic Party of Japan, and for it to be materialized, lots of preconditions have to be met, but I don't think it is going to be very easy at the moment, and there is lots of work that has to be done in order to make this happen.

I think within Japan there is talk about how there is the need to reassess the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance. This discussion, when side by side with talks of establishing a Northeast Asia community, there is a lot of speculation coming out, especially from the U.S. perspective. I think we have to continue to watch very closely how this discussion evolves, but it is my personal thinking that our trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan and Korea when they consider the regional and global issues, we will once again enter into a very healthy partnership that contributes positively to global peace and stability.

You're two years into a five-year term. What have you accomplished, and what's your remaining chief goal?

First of all, as you know, this country, the Republic of Korea, in a very, very short period we have managed and built [and] established democracy and also managed to develop our economy as well, to become an industrialized nation. Now Korea is [at] a point where we must do all we can to become a more mature and more responsible member of the international community, [a] more advanced country in every aspect. And I consider my tenure as the president of the Republic of Korea, as a time to lay the foundation for future generations so they can live in a country that is more mature and advanced in all aspects. For that I have been undertaking various measures both domestically and internationally. First, domestically, I have been getting rid of unnecessary rules and regulations that have been hindering the market economy. Getting rid of old habits and traits within a society that has also been hindering our development, also trying to reform our economy, public educational sector, society in general . . . And on the international side, I have been stressing the importance of carrying out our responsibility as a member of the international community. I think we have been quite successful in doing that and in convincing people to become more international. Of course when we struggled along with last year's global economic crisis, our efforts over the last two years helped us overcome this crisis much more quickly and more successfully. I feel very fortunate for that. Also, we have been a part of the [Group of] 20 ever since the beginning, and now this year we chair and host the G-20, as well as other meetings.

For the remaining three years of my term, I will continue to carry out what I just explained. You asked me what I am proud of as president. Well, a survey has been released recently asking Korean people whether they are proud to be a Korean, whether they are happy living in Korea. For the first time, it has shown the highest percentage of Koreans who responded saying that they are proud to be Korean. They are pleased and happy living in Korea. So despite the global economic crisis, despite the effect of [the] North Korea threat still remaining, they are happy living here. That is one of the proud aspects that I have as being a president here.

You mentioned Korea will have to decide whether to engage with China on a free-trade agreement. What factors will you consider?

For us, from Korea's perspective, China is the number one investment destination as well as number one trading partner. From the Chinese perspective, Korea ranks about third or fourth in terms of trading volume and about third in terms of investment. So, we are very important trading partners, and this importance will grow. And so for the Chinese position, they are very much eager and intent on strengthening the economic partnership with Korea. So that is the basis for proposing a free-trade agreement with Korea. Many people will look at the statistics and say, 'Isn't it natural for Korea and China to enter into a free-trade agreement as well.' I believe so. But Korea will look very closely into the impact that a free-trade agreement will have on specific sectors in Korea, how it will affect us. . . . Of course basically in principle, Korea is open to entering into a free-trade agreement with China. And like I said, we see the remarkable growth and bilateral trade and investment between Korea and China. But despite this rapid growth, we are seeing relatively few trade disputes between Korea and China, which is again another positive aspect of our relationship. So I believe it is just a matter of time until we start negotiations with China on a free-trade agreement and we look forward to expanding our partnership with China economically and otherwise.

I see that Korea's debt-to-GDP ratio is only a little bit over 30 percent. America's is higher, and growing. Does the U.S. fiscal situation cause you any concern?

Yes, well first of all, I feel very fortunate that Korea, out of all the members of the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], our debt ratio, in terms of GDP, is relatively low compared to other members. And this was because we've been implementing various rules and regulations in the finance sector. Of course, as you know, during the crisis last year, we had a tremendous amount of fiscal expenditures by the government. But in 2012, we will start reining back in some of the government spending that we put out there. So I think it's fortunate that we are in a position to do so, compared to other OECD members.

As for your question about the rising debt ratio in the U.S. economy, let me just answer that by saying that the United States will, I think, for the long-term future, that because of your country's entrepreneur[ial] spirit . . . you've always been the pioneer of developing the latest, newest technologies in all areas. The United States has always been a leader in science, technology and other areas. So for that reason alone, the U.S. economy -- I'm very confident -- that it will pretty soon bounce right back. And once again be the leader in this area. However, having said that, the concern or worry that I have is that in order to revive your economy, I'm worried that the government may resort to certain protectionist measures. So that is a concern that I have. Because if the United States does that, it will lose a lot of its global leadership and prestige, because the United States has always been a beacon of free trade. And it must remain a beacon of free trade to be able to lead other countries around the world in other aspects as well. The benefits reaped from protectionism are very short-term, but the leadership role that you have, the status and prestige of the United States, in that regard, are timeless. And so I think that is one concern that I may have.

And I am also aware of talks within Washington about taking up this issue, passage of KORUS-FTA. But I think it will all hinge upon the Obama administration, how committed they are to getting this passed. And if they are, they are going to do all that they can to convince fellow Democrats to get on board.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company