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South Korea’s foreign minister on how to reduce nuclear tensions with North Korea

World leaders have been gathered in New York this week for the annual United Nations General Assembly. Among them is South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha, who joins William Brangham to discuss her country’s current dynamic with North Korea, how to reduce nuclear tensions and why South Korea is clashing with Japan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    All this week, world leaders are gathered in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly.

    At his speech this week, President Trump reiterated his position that North Korea could achieve economic greatness if it's willing to give up its nuclear weapons program.

    William Brangham gets a view of what progress, if any, is being made on that front from South Korea's foreign minister.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump and Kim Jong-un have had two summits and one historic handshake, but not much to show for it.

    The North Koreans spent the summer testing short-range missiles, and nuclear talks seemed far way.

    So how does this situation look from South Korea?

    For that, I'm joined by Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha. She joins me from New York.

    Foreign Minister, thank you so much for being here.

    President Trump has continued to try to broker this grand deal with North Korea. They have had three meetings thus far, lots of pageantry, but not very much substance.

    Do you think the North Koreans do want to sign a nuclear deal?

  • Kang Kyung-Wha:

    Well, I think, first of all, thank you for having me.

    But the summits, I think, beyond the pageantry, the significance of that is, of course, that it builds and maintains the trust between the top leaders of the two countries.

    I think the North Korean commitment to continue the dialogue to reach a deal is there. Their recent public messagings have confirmed that. So we very much expect the working-level discussions to resume from where things were left off in Hanoi at the end of February.

    So I think President Trump's messaging also confirms the readiness on the side of the United States to pick up where things were left off in Hanoi.

    And we expect, because Hanoi didn't end in agreement, but I think the silver lining to that was, the two sides came out of it with a much better understanding on the expectations on the other side of the aisle, so that, when the negotiations resume, there could be quick progress on all three, four tracks of the agreement that was reached in their first summit meeting in Singapore in June last year.

  • William Brangham:

    I hear the optimism that you're conveying there, but the North Koreans have been quite firm that they want economic sanctions off, they want financial aid, and then they will be willing to make moves on their nuclear weapons program.

    The United States wants that order reversed. They want concessions on the weapons programs, and then sanctions.

    Do you see a way that those two competing threads can be married together?

  • Kang Kyung-Wha:

    I think that's the key.

    And I think, therefore, things have to move in parallel simultaneously. And that's the — also the basic agreement of Singapore, you know, to start building — improve relations between the two sides, to start working towards a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and the North Korean commitment to denuclearization.

    And I think the U.S. side is committed to moving simultaneously on all three tracks, the fourth track having been the excavation of the remains, the MIA remains in — that are in the hands of North Korea. That has taken place. We expect that to continue to take place as well, so the fourth pillar being the confidence-building measures.

    But we, of course, work in very close consultations with the U.S. And our discussions with the — with our U.S. colleagues indicate that — the readiness to move on all four tracks.

  • William Brangham:

    Is it your sense that there is a commonly understood definition of what denuclearization actually means?

    Because it seems like we have had multiple different iterations of what that means. Does it mean that North Korea gives up a weapons program, but still might be able to have nuclear power for electricity? Would that be acceptable, do you think?

  • Kang Kyung-Wha:

    Well, I think the concepts, the goal is very clear.

    For us, for the global community, for Korea, the goal of — the concept of denuclearization is spelled out in a joint declaration between South and North Korea on denuclearization dating back to 1993. We have lived up to our part of that agreement. For the global unity, it's clearly spelled out in the Security Council resolution.

    The question is how to get to that goal, how to reach that objective. And I think North Korea clearly has a different idea of how to — how it wants to reach that goal. But it has committed repeatedly, from the top leader himself, to that goal of complete denuclearization.

    And so the task is then to spell out a road map whereby we could reach that goal.

  • William Brangham:

    I would like to turn to the issue of the seemingly worsening relationship between South Korea and Japan.

    We have seen that this is over several issues, one about the forced labor that occurred during World War II, and another has moved towards the debate over export controls.

    Do you think that this rift can be healed? It seems like it's getting worse every day.

  • Kang Kyung-Wha:

    Well, history casts a long shadow, as I always say.

    And — but we are also very close neighbors that have built very interdependent relations over the past seven decades.

    Being an optimist, as you note, but also being the foreign minister of my country, you know, we remain committed to resolving the issues through dialogue, good-faith, honest dialogue.

    I had my first meeting with the new foreign minister of Japan. And my commitment to continue to work with him and his team on all of these different — difficult tracks remains very strong.

    I think the issue of the forced labor is clarified in our court judgment from the — of late last year, a Supreme Court judgment on the forced labor issue.

  • William Brangham:

    All right.

  • Kang Kyung-Wha:

    And, yes, it's a tough issue, because it's — we have different recollections, different ways in which we want to approach the past.

    But the trade restriction measures were, for us…

  • William Brangham:


  • Kang Kyung-Wha:

    … clearly unacceptable and retaliatory.

    But we are committed to finding a way through this very difficult situation through continued diplomatic engagement.

  • William Brangham:

    Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Wha, thank you very, very much for being here.

  • Kang Kyung-Wha:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And thank you, William.

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