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South Korea ‘very much worried’ by possible U.S. military strike on North Korea, says adviser

A senior policy adviser to the South Korean president says his country is “very much worried about American unilateral military action on North Korea” and a possible “full-blown escalation conflict.”

Moon Chung-in, the South Korean president’s senior foreign policy and unification adviser and a seasoned diplomat, told the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff that the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang reopened all kinds of communication between North and South Korea, which hadn’t existed until talks about competing under a unified Korean flag began in December.

He said South Korea’s resposnse to provocations from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was “sharply different” than those of President Donald Trump’s adminstration.

“If we show panic, then we become hostage to the North Korean tactical move,” Moon told Woodruff. “That’s why we South Koreans tend to be much more calm over the North Korean threat. It is ironical (sic) to note that America is far away from North Korea, but America is most concerned.”

When asked by Woodruff whether the U.S. was too panicked, Moon said: “I don’t know whether it’s contrived or real, but American threat perception has been heightened over the last year.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, staying with the topic of North Korea, since the start of the year, tensions have lowered on the Korean Peninsula.

    In the past few weeks, North Koreans participated in the Olympics in South Korea. Kim Jong-un's sister attended the Games, and gave the president of South Korea a letter from her brother, inviting him to North Korea.

    And earlier this week, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in North Korean officials told him that the North was willing to have a dialogue with the United States.

    So, where do things stand now between North and South, and with the South's American ally?

    For that, we turn to Moon Chung-in. He is senior foreign policy and unification adviser to South Korea's president.

    Mr. Moon, welcome to the NewsHour.

    The Trump administration describes its policy toward North Korea as maximum pressure. You said yesterday that it should be instead maximum prudence. Why? What did you mean?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    What I said is, our President Moon Jae-in is taking maximum prudence in dealing with North Korea and in dealing with the United States.

    It is not for the American president, but we are hoping that our president would turn maximum pressure into some kind of dialogue and negotiation through prudent policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think the chances are that the U.S. and North Korea will talk sometime in the near future?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    Right now, it is hard.

    But if North Korea continues to show self-restraint behavior, not test-launching ballistic missiles, and not undertaking in nuclear testing, maybe there's a good chance. But North Korea has got to show self-restraint behavior.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If there were to be U.S.-North Korea talks, should denuclearization be the main focus of those talks?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    Oh, sure, and because denuclearization of North Korea must be the goal of the United States and South Korea.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I ask because, clearly, there are human rights issues, so many other issues that could be discussed between the two countries.

  • Moon Chung-in:

    No, I think it is better to prioritize our agenda with North Korea.

    Right now, the most urgent issue is the nuclear missile issues. It is better to focus on that agenda. If we come up with human rights and democracy issue to the front, forefront of the negotiation, then North Korea will regard is as a kind of hostile act by the United States.

    Therefore, it is better for us to focus on the nuclear and missile issues, then follow up with human rights and democracy, when and if there is some degree of confidence, trust-building between the U.S. and North Korea.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Should there be any preconditions before there were talks between North Korea and the United States?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    I personally believe that it is better to have a talk without any precondition, because time is on nobody's side.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And does the U.S. agree with you about that?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    I hope that they would come up that kind of conclusion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How often is your government talking to the North Korean government?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    No, on the occasion of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, South Korea was able to restore all channels of communication with North Korea.

    Therefore, it will be much easier for us to talk with North Korea now and in the future. But up until the end of December last year, there was no channels of communication. There was a big change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is clearly discussion about military exercises that the U.S. and South Korea are scheduled to carry out in the coming few months.

    The North Koreans say they obviously don't like these exercises. They feel threatened by them. Could those exercises be delayed? Does the U.S. and South Korea agree on whether to go ahead with them, the timing of them?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    The American Embassy in Seoul made it very clear yesterday that there would be no more delay of the scheduled — our joint military exercise.

    But, however, as to the joint military training, which is different from exercises, there could be some room for adjustment. But I cannot tell you what will be the future prospect.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And is that — is that going to be helpful toward getting the North Koreans to sit down at the table?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    I don't know.

    North Korea will — is likely to respond in very historic manner, that it is definitely up the South Korean effort to persuade North Korea to continue keep the self-restraint behavior, despite joint military exercise.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How worried are the people of South Korea, the Republic of Korea, about a strike by North Korea, either a deliberate strike or a mistake?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    Yes, we are very fearful of the North Korean threat.

    North Korea has now nuclear weapons capability. North Korea has deployed more than 8,000 long-range artillery pieces in local — they can cover the Seoul metropolitan area.

    But the dilemma is this. If we show panic, then we become the hostage of North Korea in a tactical move. That's why we South Koreans tend to be much more calm over the North Korean threat.

    It is ironical to note that America is far away from North Korea, but America is most concerned, and Japan still quite far away from North Korea, but Japan is second in terms of a threat perception.

    But South Korea, even though under the immediate North Korean threat, we show calm behavior. I don't know whether it's good or not. But that is the way we should handle North Korea.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about a strike by the United States on North Korea? How much does your country think and worry about that?

  • Moon Chung-in:

    Yes, we are very much worried about American unilateral military action on North Korea, because North Korea is most likely to retaliate against South Korea.

    And there will be a full-blown conflict escalation. Collateral damage will be a catastrophe. Therefore, South Korea cannot really tolerate American military action on North Korea.

    That is why we have been pushing for the idea of diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Mr. Moon Chung-in, we thank you very much for coming in to talk with us today.

  • Moon Chung-in:

    Thank you.

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