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Could U.S. ‘Start Fresh’ With North Korea’s New Leader?

December 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Mourners in North Korea said goodbye to Kim Jong-il Wednesday. The funeral procession, led by Kim's designated successor, signified the end of an era for an isolated nation. Gwen Ifill discusses how the leadership change could affect U.S. policy with Donald Gregg of The Korea Society and Georgetown University's Balbina Hwang.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: And we pick back up on the North Korea story for more on how the leadership change there could affect U.S. policy toward the isolated nation.

We turn to former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg. He’s now chairman emeritus of the board of the Korea Society. And Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University who was a Korea specialist at the State Department during the last Bush administration.

Ambassador Gregg, the president was in the region not long ago saying that the U.S. is now — an Asian power. So, now here is the first big test. What is the U.S. to do now with this change of leadership in North Korea?

DONALD GREGG, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea: Well, that’s a very good question.

I think the timing of his trip to Asia was excellent. And he ran head on into the growing influence of China. And one reason China’s influence has expanded is that we have done nothing to talk with North Korea in the last two or three years, and so the Chinese influence has increased as it has become the chief supporter of the North Koreans.

So we have some things to talk about with the Chinese about their role in North Korea. And the president has an opportunity to do that next month when the current vice president of China visits Washington. And I think it would be a very natural thing for them to talk about. He also needs to stay in close touch with his close friend Lee Myung-Bak in South Korea, who up to now has taken a fairly harsh line toward North Korea.

And if Lee Myung-Bak decides in his last year to be more accommodating and flexible toward North Korea, it would be — make it easier for President Obama to follow that line.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Hwang, he sees an opportunity, the ambassador sees an opportunity, an opening here, especially using China as a go-between. Other commentators say there’s nothing new under the son, which — speaking of course of his successor. Which do you think is true?

BALBINA HWANG, former State Department official: Well, I think, in this case, that the proper procedure would be to actually continue with Obama’s policy of what we have deemed a strategic patience regarding North Korea.

GWEN IFILL: What does that mean?

BALBINA HWANG: Well, strategic patience has essentially been a mixture of containment, in the sense of containing or deterring North Korea’s aggressive behavior, including its proliferation activities, at the same time, limiting engagement to the proven track record or the existing avenues, including the six-party talks, as ways to draw North Korea out.

Now, that may have not been the most effective policy vis-a-vis the purpose of denuclearizing North Korea. But, in this case now, as we face this new succession in North Korea, I think it’s actually the most appropriate policy.

GWEN IFILL: Is — let me continue with you for a moment. Is North Korea less stable than it was under the previous leader? Has this succession thrown things up in the air?

BALBINA HWANG: Well, no, I don’t think we should assume that things are completely unstable in North Korea and that things are in chaos.

I think that the images that we see clearly show that the new succession is in control and they’re managing very well. And I think, thus far, there’s every indication that the succession will proceed relatively smoothly, certainly as far as the purposes of the outside world.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Gregg, is that because of the new young leader or because of the man we saw walking behind him in that funeral procession, his uncle?

DONALD GREGG: Well, I think it’s a combination of both.

I am very impressed by the way the transition has gone. I agree with Balbina on that. But I disagree with her that a continuation of strategic patience is what’s called for. The North Koreans have already signaled that they want wider range of Western investment.

Kim Jong-il himself has more of a knowledge of the outside world due to the couple of years he was educated in Switzerland than either his father or his grandfather. And so I think there’s a natural opportunity for us to start fresh with a new chapter with North Korea.

Kim Jong-il took with him to the grave the Cheonan, the sinking of the ship, the firing of the missile, the nuclear test, and the bombardment of the island. As a very well-established South Korean observer has said, this is the first North Korean leader who has come to power with a clean record.

So, I think this is a chance to start fresh. I think that strategic patience has not worked well. All it has done is increased North Korea’s isolation and dependence upon China.

GWEN IFILL: What reason do we have to believe, Professor Hwang, that this is a fresh page-turn, that he’s not going to do some of the aggressive things we have seen with previous North Korean leaders when power has changed hands?

BALBINA HWANG: Well, the problem here is that there may be a new face, but this new face, this new young leader will have very limited opportunities to actually make these vast changes.

I mean, look at President Obama. He was elected, essentially, very popularly in this country because people expected him to make great changes. And many became disappointed because even he couldn’t do that.

Kim Jong-un can only survive and only gain credibility and legitimacy by continuing the policies, at least in the short- to medium-term, which means that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for him to make any bold efforts towards reform or openness, even if that is what he holds in his heart.

By the way, it’s not such a clean slate. There are some that believe that Kim Jong-un was behind both the sinking of the Cheonan and the attack on the Yeonpyeongdo last year. Whether or not he masterminded them, he certainly was caught up in the aura of responsibility for it because it was deemed a great success in North Korea. That’s part of his attempt to garner leadership.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Gregg, let’s talk about another outstanding question, and that’s whether North Korea qualifies for food aid from Western nations and whether that should be linked to its effort to step away from its nuclear program. Do you think there should be a linkage there?

DONALD GREGG: Yes, I very much agree that we shouldn’t starve people for political reasons.

But I also have to respond to something Balbina said. I referred for years to North Korea as the longest-running failure in the history of American espionage. And I’m qualified to say that because I chased them unsuccessfully for a couple of decades.

And for us suddenly to say, well, we don’t know what’s going on, I think that’s true. But then when we say, oh, we think that Kim Jong-un was tied up into the sinking of the Cheonan and the firing of the artillery on the island, that’s nonsense. We have absolutely no basis upon which to make those assertions, except for the fact that we demonized Kim Jong-il and thought him capable of anything, and we have started the same process with Kim Jong-un.

And I think it’s time to step back, take a deep breath, admit we know dangerously little, and start working with a young leader, in the hope that he will be able to establish himself and move North Korea in new directions.

GWEN IFILL: Is that, Professor Hwang, what South Korea wants us to do?

BALBINA HWANG: Well, I think that there’s a great debate going on in South Korea.

I agree with Ambassador Gregg we certainly should not demonize Kim Jong-un ahead of time. On the other hand, we also should not ascribe to him, because he spent a couple of years at a boarding school in Switzerland and that he’s so young, that he is of this new young generation that is willing to reform and be open-minded.

I agree we may simply not know what is in his heart and his mind. My point is, I think that we can be pretty definite, though, in knowing that he cannot institute any of those reforms or make any bold efforts towards openness in the short term. It simply cannot be done if he wants to maintain his position as leader of North Korea.

GWEN IFILL: And Ambassador Gregg, you talked about China being our go-between. Have they sent any signals, has there been any indication at all that they’re willing to be that?

DONALD GREGG: In the past, they have not wanted to talk about that kind of thing, because I think they feel that we would encroach upon their influence.

I think the Obama administration is in a better position to do that now. He’s brought Wendy Sherman into the State Department at the number-three position. She’s very good on North Korea, having worked under Bill Perry.

And the vice foreign minister of China is an extraordinary woman named Fu Ying, whom I met several years ago in Xiantao. She understands North Korea very well. And I would hope that, at some point, Wendy Sherman and Fu Ying could get — sit down together and talk about ways that we in China can cooperate in dealing with North Korea.

Now, our policy goals in North Korea are not identical, but we share the same desire for stability. So, at least we can sit down with the Chinese and talk about making the peninsula far more stable than it has been.

DONALD GREGG: And I think Kim Jong-un’s ability to move in new directions in part is going to depend on how the outside world responds to him.

If there is a positive response from South Korea, if there’s a positive response from the United States, that empowers him greatly.

GWEN IFILL: Professor…

DONALD GREGG: And so that’s why I think it’s a two-way game in terms of how we move to help him establish himself and move in new directions in Pyongyang.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Hwang, a two-way game?

BALBINA HWANG: Most certainly it is, but we also have to remember that coming up next year, there will be regime changes all around North Korea.

South Korea will have elections. Of course, we will here in the United States, China, new leadership, even Russia. The point is, is that, if you look at the track record of North Korea’s engagement or relationships with its neighbors and with the United States, it’s actually been us, the United States, that’s been rather erratic.

This has been North Korea’s position. And so North Korea will not make any real attempts and certainly not trust the United States until at least the next administration is established, both in Washington and in Seoul.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Balbina Hwang of Georgetown, Ambassador Donald Gregg, thank you both very much.

BALBINA HWANG: Thank you.

DONALD GREGG: Pleasure to be with you.