South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, belongs to a progressive party that has been out of power for nearly 10 years. His formative political experience was working for another president, Roh Moo-hyun, whose government believed in cooperating with, rather than battling, North Korea — a policy on which Moon also campaigned. But North Korea seems eager to test the Western alliance since President Trump took office. In that time, the North has fired new long-range missiles that experts say could ultimately reach San Francisco. What happens when a dovish president in Seoul and a hawkish one in Washington disagree on how to contain North Korea? Ahead of Moon’s first visit to the White House this coming week, The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth sought to find out. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: You seem to want to engage with North Korea. During the campaign, you talked about going to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Un. Do you think this is a good idea?
A: If the right conditions are met, then I still believe it is a good idea.
Q: What are those?
A: President Trump also mentioned that under the right conditions, he is willing to engage in dialogue with North Korea. Regarding exactly how, we do not have a detailed way forward. It must be in close consultation with the United States. But there is one thing I would like to stress: Korea should now play a larger and more leading role in this process. During the periods when South Korea played a more active role, the inter-Korean relationship was more peaceful, and there was less tension between the United States and North Korea. The last U.S. administration pursued a policy of strategic patience and did not make any effort to improve its relationship with North Korea. Also, the previous Korean government did not make any such efforts. The result is the reality you see today — North Korea continuing to advance its nuclear and missile program.
Q: You’ve also discussed reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint North-South project from which Seoul withdrew early last year after another rocket test. But this would be a violation of United Nations sanctions. What is your plan?
A: The engagement that I am talking about is actually very similar to the engagement that President Trump is talking about. He has put the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue at the top of his priority list, and he has employed a tactic of maximum pressure and engagement, but engagement [can only occur] if the conditions are right.
Q: Are you willing to collaborate with the United States on putting maximum pressure on North Korea?
A: Yes. As long as North Korea continues its provocations, I believe that we will have no choice but to apply additional and strong pressure on it. At the same time, it is also important to send out a message to North Korea that if it decides to denuclearize and to come to the negotiating table, then we are willing to assist them.
Q: What do you mean? Are you talking about a freeze of its weapons program?
A: For example, the reopening of Kaesong. This is something we can do at a later stage, when North Korea has made some progress on denuclearization. [For now] we must continue to strengthen our sanctions and pressure on North Korea.
Q: Wouldn’t reopening Kaesong violate U.S. and U.N. sanctions?
A: Yes, that is true. But what Korea and the U.S. both ultimately seek to achieve is the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program.
Q: Do you think that is possible? North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and is firing off more and more ballistic missiles. Why is Kim Jong Un going to denuclearize?
A: It seems Kim Jong Un firmly believes that developing nuclear missile capabilities will provide security and guarantee his regime. We must make it clear that it is not nuclear and missile programs that will protect Kim Jong Un and his regime. The goal of the international sanctions and pressure is to make it unbearable for Kim Jong Un if he does not accept this fact. On the other hand, we are continuously trying to send a message that giving up its nuclear program and coming to the negotiating table is the right path for North Korea to protect itself and achieve its development.
North Korea continues to advance its nuclear technology and will soon reach weaponization. Regarding its intercontinental ballistic missiles, it is continuously making progress. So currently, it is urgent for us to freeze North Korea’s program so they will stop additional provocations and stop advancement of its technologies. I believe during my upcoming summit meeting in the U.S. I will be able to discuss a two-phased approach to the North Korean nuclear issue — the first being a freeze and the second being complete dismantlement.
Q: You are getting ready to meet Trump. What do you hope will come out of the meeting?
A: President Trump and I have a common goal — that is the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In the process of working toward that common goal, the friendship and trust between the two of us will be very important. I hope we will be able to show the world that the collaboration between our two countries is strong and will continue to grow stronger.
Q: The United States sent an anti-ballistic-missile system — the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense, or THAAD — to South Korea, but some in Washington are frustrated that your administration has not fully deployed it.
A: The decision to deploy was made by the previous administration. I have made it clear that I will not take the decision [to finish installing the final four batteries] lightly.
Q: Does that mean you will deploy THAAD?
A: It is not that simple. We have deployed the radar component of the THAAD system and two launchers. But we must go through due process, which involves an environmental-impact assessment.
Q: When you go to Washington next week, President Trump is obviously going to ask you whether you intend to deploy THAAD.
A: Getting the environmental-impact assessment does not mean that we will cancel or reverse the decision to deploy.
Q: Before you became president, you were a famous human rights lawyer. People in the United States are very upset about the death of American student Otto Warmbier at the hands of the North Koreans. How do you feel about the overall human rights situation in the North?
A: It is very deplorable that North Korea still does not uphold human rights, which are universal values. That includes foreigners. There is still some speculation as to how Mr. Warmbier fell into a coma. [But] the North Korean authorities had the responsibility to immediately inform the family of this fact and to ensure he would receive the best possible treatment. Yet North Korea tried to withhold and hide this fact. This was a cruel act. I would like to extend my deep condolences to Mr. Warmbier’s family and to the American people.
Q: In your current agreement with the United States, your wartime forces come under U.S. command. But your new defense minister has long wanted to reverse this policy. Do you agree with him?
A: As a sovereign state, we should have operational command of our forces returned to us at an appropriate time. Korea and the United States have already reached an agreement where we will receive operational control of our forces when the conditions are met. I would like to add that Korea and the U.S. have maintained a combined forces command system for a long time. Even if [we] were to get operational control back, as long as this combined system is maintained, our countries will continue to have combined security, and U.S. forces will continue to play their part in our security.
Q: What is your assessment of Kim Jong Un? Is he crazy? Or is he being smart by building a nuclear program so that he can have some importance? How do you see him?
A: He is an unreasonable leader and a very dangerous person. Yet he is the person who has effective control over North Korea, and he is the person who has the authority to denuclearize North Korea.
Q: Or to use the weapons.
A: That is correct. So we face the task of the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program while dealing with such a leader.
Q: It won’t be easy to get Kim suddenly to decide to stop his missile tests. I assume he thinks his regime would go if his weapons went.
A: When it comes to getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear missile capabilities, it is the Republic of Korea that faces the greatest threat. For the United States, this is a threat, but to us, this is a matter of life and death. Although Kim Jong Un is a very unreasonable leader and has a firm, unreasonable belief that nuclear and missile weapons will protect him and his regime, we will continue to employ all possible means — sanctions, pressure, as well as dialogue — to draw North Korea to the negotiating table for denuclearization. To resolve the issue, we have to add dialogue to the current menu of sanctions and pressure. Every time North Korea commits an additional provocation, the U.N. Security Council passes another resolution. But when it comes to dialogue, currently there is nothing set. I hope to have frank and open discussions with President Trump on this issue.
Q: Do you feel that your administration might have a way to conduct a dialogue with the North that the rest of the world — including the United States — might not have?
A: When it comes to dialogue between South and North Korea and between the United States and North Korea, these can go on parallel tracks. South Korea and the United States can each play a role.
Q: President Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office this year amid corruption charges, took a tougher line toward Pyongyang. She shut down money flows to North Korea from African countries like Uganda — where she stopped Uganda’s military and security cooperation with North Korea.
A: Yes. . . . This had no effect, and North Korea continued to advance its nuclear and missile programs.
Q: So your message is that you have to have another approach to North Korea? And South Korea should play a bigger role?
A: Yes. The message that we must send to North Korea is twofold: If the North Korean regime believes that it can defend and protect itself through nuclear and missile programs, that is a misjudgment. But if North Korea gives up its nuclear program, we will help it secure and develop itself. We must consistently send these two messages.
Q: Does that start with family visits right now? A new kind of Sunshine Policy?
A: Humanitarian assistance and exchanges are still allowed, even under the sanctions regime on North Korea. Therefore, in parallel with sanctions and pressure, we must also employ humanitarian assistance. The meeting of separated families is also a measure to ensure human rights.
Q: Does humanitarian assistance include sending money and aid?
A: Sending money or hard currency to North Korea is prohibited under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Q: You’ve questioned the 2015 “comfort-women” agreement with Japan, in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized for his country’s use of Korean sex slaves before and during World War II — and established a $9 million victims’ fund. Are you going to revisit that?
A: The comfort-women agreement that we made with Japan during the last administration is not accepted by the people of Korea, particularly by the victims. They are against this agreement. The core to resolving the issue is for Japan to take legal responsibility for its actions and to make an official [government] apology. But we should not block the advancement of Korea-Japan bilateral relations just because of this one issue.