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South Korean foreign minister on nuclear talks: ‘We want to take a different approach’

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke to Washington Post reporter John Hudson on Sept. 28 at the South Korean mission to the United Nations. (South Korean government)

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke with The Washington Post about her government's proposal for breaking the impasse between the United States and North Korea in their ongoing denuclearization talks. The interview took place last week at the South Korean mission to the United Nations. The following is a lightly edited transcript.

Q: What is the case you'll be making for why an end-of-war declaration is something that should be considered now?

A:  This is for us a political declaration. It is not a legally binding treaty that we’re talking about. A political declaration that clearly demonstrates the intention on the part of all who are part of that declaration, to say that . . . we’re leaving aside hostilities and we’re entering the discussions on denuclearization as well as working toward lasting peace with good intentions, and I think it’s also important for North Korea to get that sense of safety that they can take measures to give up their nuclear capabilities knowing that they can do this safely and that is the spirit of the declaration.

Q: If [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo's visit to North Korea goes as planned, will we see the U.S. move toward an end-of-war declaration, and the North Koreans in return provide a list of [their] nuclear arsenal?

A: What North Korea has indicated is that they will permanently dismantle their nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, which is a very big part of their nuclear program. If they do that, in return for America’s corresponding measures, such as the end-of-war declaration, I think that’s a huge step forward for denuclearization. This will be a process that is not like the previous processes where yes, you started with a list and then you checked whether the declaration was full, whether there was anything left behind and then you move toward verification of the things on the declaration.

I think given the lack of trust, this has to be done in a way, that with action, more trust is built. If you start with a list and then get into a huge discussion about verification, you’re still working at that level of a lack of trust, but if you do see concrete action, that assures the U.S., the rest of the world, that definitely concrete steps are being taken to eliminate very important parts of their nuclear program, then that’s a definite step forward and builds the trust.

So yes, at the end we have to reach complete, and that means all of it, the facilities, the materials, the weapons, the full bit. But getting to that, I think, the process is going to be different from the approaches taken in the past, and we have the political will riding with us on this process.

Q:  So it's preferable to have the dismantlement of Yongbyon at this phase rather than an exhaustive inventory of what the North Koreans have?

A:  I think we will have to see an inventory at some point, but that some point can be reached more expeditiously by action and corresponding measures that gives the two sides sufficient trust and I think at this point for North Korea to say here’s our list, and then you get into an argument about “is this complete, is it not complete, is there anything in hiding?” and then after the list you get into a discussion about verification, that could take a long, long time.

And then meanwhile, you continue to move forward on the basis of a lack of trust. So chunks of action, taken together to build trust, is probably what is more reflective of the political will on the part of my president and Chairman Kim and President Trump.

Q: Do you get the sense with your American counterparts that that phasing would be acceptable? Yongbyon instead of the list?

A:  In the end, it is the discussion at the U.S.-North Korea table to arrive at concrete agreements to move things forward, but we are also in constant communication with our American colleagues at various level: me with Mr. Pompeo, Ambassador Lee with Mr. [Stephen] Biegun, the new special representative, a very productive exchange of views, I do believe that there is a lot of flexibility.

Q: Did you have any discussions with special representative Biegun this week?

A:  He’s had a series of meetings with his counterpart on our side, Mr. Lee Do-hoon. He was in Korea for initial series of meetings and I had an opportunity to touch base with him, but I think he’s very strategic, very practical and very collaborative.

Q:  This was a big diplomatic week for him in terms of being new on the job and having a lot of the players at the table.

A:  Yes.

Q:  During your remarks yesterday, you mentioned that North Korea "promised to dismantle its nuclear test site, which it did." Critics have said that North Korea hasn't fully dismantled anything, so what were you referring to?

A:  I was referring to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. And they have closed it. At some point we certainly want expert inspection to ascertain, to verify, that indeed it is forever closed. That hasn’t happened yet because the closure was done in the presence of foreign media, but not foreign experts. So at some point we want to do that. But again, this will be a part of our ongoing ask vis-a-vis the North Korean authorities and hopefully they will at some point agree to proceed with this action as well.

Q:  From your trip, did you get a sense of whether North Korea would accept IAEA inspectors or other international inspectors?

A:  I wasn’t part of the small meeting the president had with the chairman, and I don’t think that level of technical detail — I don’t know if it's as raised at the top level, but in my informal discussions around dinner tables and lunch tables that didn’t come up.

Q:  Is it true on that trip you took a hike, with a group that included Kim Jong Un, and suggested that they take a photograph and make the heart sign with your fingers?

A: Yes, we were all just so amazed with the weather. It was so perfect and everybody was just feeling that this was a very special moment and everybody was very spontaneous wanting to take a photo with the president, with the chairman. And at some point we were all lined up and somebody said, “Let’s do this and say ‘unification,’ ” and so I said, “Well, let’s do that, but let’s also say ‘love,’ and he immediately said yes, so for him it was a new gesture, but he did it.

Q:  So you had to teach it to him?

A:  Yes, well, we all went like this, and he went like this.

Q:  That's funny, because when I first saw the photo I thought it was a bunch of people saying, "Show me the money!"

A:  [Laughter] No, it was an extraordinary moment of spontaneity. The chairman not only complied with our request for a photo, but at some point he said, maybe now I can take photos of you, so he was very spontaneous, and the first lady as well.

Q:  President Moon [Jae-in] has said North Koreans are sincere in their desire for denuclearization. Do you agree with that? How come?

A:  I think my president has engaged with the chairman now three times very intensely, and this time around, this was the issue. And he managed to get the chairman to putting it on paper and announcing it before the world, on the Yongbyon facilities, on the missile test site on the launchpad, and on the launch missile site, without any conditions he said he would do this with expert observation and participation from relevant countries, and we very much expect that to happen.

So on that, no conditions, but on the second part, on the Yongybyon facilities, the permanent dismantlement, if there are corresponding actions taken by the United States in terms of security guarantees, perhaps the end-of-war declaration, perhaps it could be something else, but this is now for them to work out.

Putting such concrete action out there is a clear indication that he is moving in that direction, but you will also have heard him speak the words himself in his own voice for the first time and this in front of the media live with the president and then that same evening my president when after viewing this huge performance of various things that evening in front of [150,000] people in the stadium, President Moon was given, for the first time, a South Korean president to address publicly, the citizens of Pyongyang and there he also made an explicit reference to working with the chairman to bring about a nuclear free, denuclearized North Korean Peninsula.

That means this commitment is not just made to the outside world, but visa-a-vis, the internal North Korean public as well. And not just the public commitments, but after many hours of discussing with the chairman and my president says I have full confidence in this, I have to believe my president.

Q:  Do you think this plan to delay the list for later and do Yongbyon now is to prevent leaking from the U.S. intelligence community in my paper and others, doubting North Korean sincerity that could create distrust between the two sides?

A:  I think we want concrete action, and we don’t want more back-and-forth discussion. We can go that route, but it will take a lot longer and meanwhile the program continues, so it’s important that we stop the program, and dismantling Yongbyon will certainly be that. And that stops further production of the nuclear materials, and that will be a huge step if we get that from North Korea.

Q:  If your expectation is that a list would produce bickering, it sounds like you don't have a lot of confidence that North Korea would produce a complete list. Because if it did produce a full list, there wouldn't be disagreement and mistrust, would there?

A:  The past experience shows that the list and the verification about the list takes a lot of back and forth, and I think the last time things broke down precisely as we were working out a detailed protocol on verification after we had gotten the list, so I think based upon that experience we want to take a different approach.

Q:  Which time was that?

A:  2008. After the September 19 agreement of 2005, which was a very comprehensive agreement and that had to be followed by discussions on lists and verification, and 2007 I think is when it broke down over issues of verification.

Q:  Trump spoke recently that he was no longer concerned about a fixed timeline. Is that a positive or negative sign about the status of the negotiations?

A:  I don’t see it as negative. I think clearly the political will is there, but I think there is a lot more understanding and appreciation of the difficulty of the issue. As you know, this is a very advanced program so you can’t just dismantle it or do away with it in a matter of a short period, so I think it’s just an understanding of the extent of the work going forward. But I do believe that the desire and the political will is still toward an expeditious finality to this.

The chairman himself also has repeatedly told my president, and my president has told this to the public, that he wishes to complete the denuclearization process and get on with the business of economic development, and as long as the sanctions are in place, that’s very difficult to develop. And he has committed this to his people and he knows he can only do this after the sanctions have are lifted, and the sanctions are not going to get lifted as long as there is no significant action on the denuclearization front.

There is more flexibility in the thinking. But again, it’s going to take some time, but it’s not going to be open-ended. I think getting to that point where we say yes, we are assured, there is an irreversibility to the process now and we are clearly headed toward denuclearization, complete denuclearization, getting to that point could be a lot faster than many of these technical experts who have engaged in the issue in the past can think.

Q:  I'm sure it doesn't surprise you to know that there are some U.S. officials who believe South Korean officials are naive about North Korea and they need to be told by the U.S. to take a harder line. How do you respond to that? What's your response to allegations of naivete?

A:  Simply that we are not. I think we know North Korea better than any party in this process, and the goal of denuclearization is about our future. It’s about a future of permanent peace where complete denuclearization is an essential part of it. We are as keen and perhaps as committed as anybody on getting to complete denuclearization. We live there. This is our part of the world, and of all people we would feel the implications of this more than anybody, so our commitment to denuclearization is unshakable.

We know North Korea, we know the personalities, we know how to negotiate with them, we know how they negotiate. So naivete is certainly not something that would characterize my government’s approach to North Korea, and we would certainly think that the world should trust us and give a lot of credit to the experience that we bring to the table.

Q: When the Russians and Chinese yesterday talked openly about their interest in sanctions relief to North Korea, is that something you would support?

A: Our position is the sanctions have to be faithfully implemented. What we need to proceed with the South-North cooperation project as identified in the Panmunjom Declaration means that sometimes we may need waivers on the sanctions, but getting waivers is very different from seeking a weakening of the sanctions regime. … In fact, I think the strength of the sanctions regime is maintained by making sure that the needed waivers are permitted. So that’s not our approach.

I think the sanctions relief can come only after we have been assured of significant steps taken by North Korea on denuclearization.

Q:  Sounds like there is some agreement with the Russians, because they were talking about how some exemptions should be allowed to further North-South dialogue. The Chinese also mentioned that the Six Party Talks were a viable tool. Do you think incorporating more countries into these negotiations is a good idea? If so, when?

A:  Certainly getting the buy in of all key players to any deal is important, but in the first instance the core is the U.S.-North Korea discussions and we need advances at that level, but then the support of all the key players in the region would be important to move this forward on the denuclearization front, but also on the lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Q: President Moon is a former human rights lawyer; how come he so rarely raises human rights with the North Koreans?

A: I think human rights is a difficult issue for any government to deal with, and all governments don’t like it when outsiders raise this, but the North Korean human rights situation is a global issue and we are part of the global discussions here in the [U.N. General Assembly] and the Human Rights Council. But we also want to continue the discussions with the North Koreans in a way that gets to agreements and yeses, not no’s and resistance moving forward. So there are times to raise these issues. Certainly not at this time when we very much need to move forward on the denuclearization issue.

I worked in the human rights field for many years in the U.N., and doing human rights as a U.N. human rights official is very different than doing human rights as a government vis-a-vis another government. And you need to move things in a way that is context-sensitive and not like as I have been as a U.N. human rights agenda moving forward with full appreciation for the work that the U.N. human rights mechanisms do. I think it’s important that that engagement continue, but as government to government you have to make choices, you have to prioritize, and in a way that moves the dialogue and the relationship forward.

With every opening, whether it’s on the nuclear front, on the South-North front and you have more and more engagement with North Korea and you widen the scope of that engagement, obviously that has repercussions for the North Koreans that we engage and beyond them in terms of how they engage with the outside world.

Q:  There are frustrations by the U.S. with Kim Yong Chol's style, and at the U.N., Pompeo met with Ri Yong Ho instead. Did the U.S. reject Kim Yong Chol as its negotiating partner in New York? Should we be reading into this?

A:  I will not comment on who sits across the table. You deal with who sits across the table, and I don’t think governments have the freedom to choose whomever sits across the table on the other side. I think it’s good that Mr. Ri came and had his first meeting with Mr. Pompeo. He is the foreign minister, and the foreign minister is the one that represents them at the GA and the U.N., and you should just read it in that context.

But on the nuclear discussions it’s been so far Mr. Kim Yong Chol, and I think that has to be the expectation.

Q:  Did the meeting go well?

A:  I had a short debrief from Mr. Pompeo, and I think it went rather well.

Q:  Oka. Well, thank you so much; I really appreciate this a lot. I learned a lot.

A:  Thank you, thank you. Good luck.