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South Korea May Be Growing Less Tolerant of Pyongyang’s Provocations

May 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
While North Korea makes fresh warnings, other signs suggest that nation has backed off some of its hot rhetoric. Former State Department official Kurt Campbell and former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg join Jeffrey Brown to discuss South Korea's President Park Geun-hye and building trust with North Korea's leader.
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JEFFREY BROWN: We’re joined now by two former diplomats with extensive experience dealing with North and South Korea. Kurt Campbell was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the first Obama administration. He now has a consulting company. And Donald Gregg was U.S. ambassador to South Korea during the George H.W. Bush administration. He’s now chairman of the Pacific Century Institute.

Kurt Campbell, I want to start with you.

The North Koreans come out with a new warning today. We see President Park say, we will make them pay if they do something. What do we make of the level of at least aggressive talk?

KURT CAMPBELL, Former State Department Official: Yes.

Well, look, there’s clearly a ritual quality to this. This has been going on for months. I actually think the more significant language is not from the North, but from the South. What’s happening in South Korea is that the tolerance for this kind of behavior has decreased very substantially.

In the past, the South has been prepared to take these indignities, these provocations sometimes in stride — it’s difficult, but to accept them. I think there is a growing sense in South Korea that if they are presented with an opportunity to strike the North, they will take it.

And particularly Madam Park, who’s come to power with a clear determination to reach out to the North, finds herself in a circumstance where she has been really purposely undermined in that effort by the provocations of Pyongyang.

JEFFREY BROWN: Donald Gregg, what do you — how do you see the situation? And if you see it similarly, where is that coming from in South Korea with that stance that we’re seeing?

DONALD GREGG, Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea: Well, I was very sorry to hear of some of the right-wing groups in South Korea talk about the desirability of having nuclear weapons developed in South Korea.

When I was ambassador, I moved to get our nuclear weapons out of the South. And I’m appalled at the idea that there are people in the South who now think they need them themselves. I think that the meeting today between the two presidents gets them off to a good start. I think that’s terribly important.

But there’s an awful lot of work left to be done to restart some kind of contact with North Korea. And I would think the first thing that needs to be done is to reopen the case on the economics section just above the — along the DMZ, where almost 50,000 North Koreans were very effectively put to work by South Korean economic firms.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have both met President Park.

Let me ask you, Kurt Campbell, what’s the most important thing for us to know about her?

KURT CAMPBELL: Well, it’s difficult to say.

I talked with her when she was a candidate. I was part of the delegation that met with her during the transition. We have known her for years. She’s very sober. She’s very careful. She — her whole life has been about service to South Korea. We — you touched on the tragic death of her parents.

I think she came to power with a pragmatic sense that she wanted to have a constructive diplomacy with North Korea. I agree with Ambassador Gregg that that’s a desire of hers. I think she and her advisers have been a little bit surprised at how reluctant and difficult, if you will, the North Koreans have been in the opening gambit.

If you look historically, North Korean leaders almost always test new South Korean presidents during the opening months of an administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re both new, aren’t they, here?

KURT CAMPBELL: Yes. That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

KURT CAMPBELL: But, frankly, even though you might expect that historically, when you’re in the midst of it and you’re dealing with really a very unpredictable young leader, it can be somewhat unnerving.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Donald Gregg, when President Park and today President Obama also talked about the possibility, still the possibility of talks with North Korea, where is the potential in at this point?

DONALD GREGG: Well, I think a lot of that have is inside Park Geun-hye.

I met her first when I was chief of station in Seoul in the mid-’70s. I was there when her mother was shot by a North Korean agent who was aiming at her father, but missed her father and killed her mother. She went to North Korea in 2001 and met with Kim Jong-il. And I met her in South Korea in 2002 and congratulated her for going.

And I will never forget her response. She said, “We must look to the future with hope, not to the past with bitterness.”

And I think she carries that inside her. And I think she has a lot more political leeway to make some moves toward the North to get things going. And, again, I come back to Kaesong as something that worked to the benefit of both of their sides, that was something that can be worked on. There are also track two activities which can be encouraged.

There’s a scientific consortium which met for the first time in Europe, and the North Koreans came up with six or seven agriculturally related scientific issues that they would like to discuss with the West, so that I think if we can get beyond this period of really shrill rhetoric, I think there are ways of quietly starting some things which can act as confidence-building measures and sort of create a little bit of trust where absolutely no trust seems to exist now.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

Kurt Campbell?

KURT CAMPBELL: I would agree with that generally. And I think what Ambassador Gregg has outlined is the right approach.

I will say, though, that when the original conception of this sort of economic engagement was discussed over a decade ago, the idea was for actually more North/South real economic engagement. If you look at what Kaesong is, it is essentially a very contained effort in which workers work, and they’re kept apart from other North Koreans. And so it’s really a contained …

JEFFREY BROWN: So it never became what one might have thought?

KURT CAMPBELL: No. And so I actually don’t think it has been as — it has not served as the kind of opening that anyone had hoped for.

What the North is still struggling with is that they’re deeply wary of any kind of economic reform because of fear that it will undermine the leadership of the Kim family.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Donald Gregg, just briefly, in our last minute here, do we know more about the leader of North Korea at this point, enough to know whether, as you say, we can get past this point?

DONALD GREGG: I think he’s quite a high-stakes poker player.

I wish we had invited him to the United States in 2009, as I suggested. I think his father made a wise choice in choosing him. I think he’s smart. I think he’s tough. I think his over-the-top rhetoric has at least established his own stability within North Korea. He’s going to be around for a long time.

And we have to find ways to get in touch with him and move towards some form of trust politique, to use Park Geun-hye’s own term for her North Korean policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Donald Gregg and Kurt Campbell, thank you both very much.

KURT CAMPBELL: Thank you.

DONALD GREGG: Pleasure.