The North Korean nuclear issue continues to be probably the major security challenge of the Asia Pacific region. After all, it was some 10 years ago that the North Koreans agreed they would abandon all their nuclear programs. And since that time there were efforts to get them to implement that agreement, but today they have essentially said they are no longer interested in denuclearization.
We have, therefore, a special challenge of what to do with a country that has gone back on its word regarding nuclear weapons, and that has a new leadership that can be described as not very trustworthy and a leadership that really is not very steady.
The North Korean issue is not just a problem for the Republic of Korea to deal with, or the U.S. or China. What North Korea is trying to do with a combination of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles goes beyond the region, and threatens the peace and order of the world.
Even alongside the greatest issues facing the United States, including concerns about the Middle East, ISIS and the Iranian nuclear problem, it is clear the problem of North Korea is a first-echelon issue in which the United States must be engaged.
There is discussion, of course, of whether the Six Party process, which involves the Republic of Korea, United States, Russian Federation, Japan, China and North Korea, should be widened to a global participation of, say, six countries, or eight or 88.
The problem is not the number of countries involved. Six parties is a good platform. The real question is how these countries, and the international community as a whole, can work together to convince North Korea that it is not acceptable to pursue these kinds of dangerous weapons.
I think it is very important that the six parties — especially the five parties that consider this to be a problem — work on the issues in ways that reinforce each other’s efforts. It is very important that we not, for example, just say that China is the problem. It’s very clear that China has to do things, but so do we all have to do things. We need to resurrect the concept of a unified front — that we all are going to work on this problem together.
The fact that North Korea tested a nuclear device a few weeks ago, and then tested an intercontinental missile right after that, speaks to the fact that North Korea is not interested in what the rest of us are concerned about.
As a result the situation has shifted to a moment where we have to do a better job of getting North Korea’s attention. The Republic of Korea took a very important step after the ICBM test with the decision to discontinue the Kaesong Industrial Complex. To keep Kaesong going or not has always been in the hands of the people of the Republic of Korea, led by their government, and I think it’s important for the rest of us to be supportive of whatever the Korean people decide. The reason we need to be supportive is that we need to be respectful of the fact that this is a peninsula on which live Koreans — not Americans, not Russians, not Chinese. This is their homeland and we need to be respectful of the actions, the political deliberations, that the Korean people need to take in order to deal with this threat.
The Republic of Korea has taken a very important step with the closing of Kaesong, and what they are essentially saying to the rest of the world is, we understand that decisions we need to make are ones that can affect our interests, our own economic interests, but we are going to take those decisions because it’s the right thing to do. And so it’s my hope that the rest of us can look to see what is the right thing for us to do.
Sanctions are never an easy process. The United Nations knows that, and there continue to be disagreements on that topic. I hope we can all come together and understand that, even though sanctions may not be everyone’s favorite option, they are probably at this point one of the only options that can be employed to deal with this.
And finally, the third element, which I think is also a very difficult decision to make, and that is of course the strengthening of the anti-ballistic missile defense. This is a direct effort by the United States, working with the Republic of Korea, to do the best the United States can do to help protect the Republic of Korea. If the Republic of Korea wants our very best anti-missile systems, they deserve our very best anti-missile systems because we are allies, and this alliance is strongly embedded in our law, just as it is embedded in our thinking about how to deal with this problem.
Everyone hopes that all these measures will begin to get the North Koreans’ attention, but there’s one other thing that we also need to do, and that is to keep the door open to negotiations. We don’t want to give the impression to North Korea that we are desperate to negotiate because, after all, North Korea seems to be forgetting what they already agreed to. It is very difficult to negotiate with someone who cannot remember what he did the day before. Try it sometime.
However, we do need to keep the door open in the event that North Korea says, yes, we would like to go back to the table on the basis of things that we have already agreed to, and see if we can continue to make progress.
We have come to a very important stage, a time of history where it is very important for us all to be together in this, to support one another, and to make sure that everyone understands that nuclear weapons are a threat to all of us. If we can come together at this historic moment, perhaps we can arrive at a situation where Northeast Asia, this critical and beautiful corner of our planet, can be an area that exports all the good things we want to see exported, and will not export the instability that is produced by North Korea.
• Ambassador Christopher Hill is dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at Denver University. He was U.S. Ambassador to Korea (20042005) and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq (2009-10). These remarks are excerpts from his speech to the International Leadership Conference, held in Seoul, Feb. 12-16, which was sponsored by the Universal Peace Federation, The Washington Times and Segye Ilbo newspaper.
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