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South Korea’s foreign minister on US role in denuclearizing North Korea

President Joe Biden is expected to meet Friday with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. The two leaders are at very different points of their terms. Biden, newly-elected, and moon in his final year. They are expected to discuss progress on North Korea, and discuss tense U.S.- China relations. Amna Nawaz gets the details from South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Earlier today, I spoke with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong.

    President Biden meets tomorrow with the country's president, Moon Jae-in. The two leaders are in very different points of their terms, Biden the newly-elected president and Moon in his final year. They will try to capitalize on the window by making progress on North Korea.

    The Biden administration recently announced its policy towards the North. It's an approach that offers incremental sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea making steps curtailing its nuclear program. It falls somewhere between the strategies of Presidents Obama and Trump, the latter of whom sought to engage North Korean leader Kim Jong-un directly.

    North Korea may top the agenda, but the two are also expected to discuss an increasingly assertive China.

    My conversation with Foreign Minister Chung began on the topic of negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program.

  • Minister Chung Eui-yong:

    North Korea has a very unique system of governance.

    There is only one person who can make final decisions, which is the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. So, we thought top-down approach was more effective. And we tried it, and it didn't work as we had expected. So, maybe, this time, we can have a combined approach.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    More of a bottom-up approach than top-down, though, right?

    I mean, they have said that they have a middle ground, we might say, between Obama's strategic patience and Trump's grand bargain. Do you think that that's sufficient, though, or do you think the U.S. needs to be more forward-leaning to see some progress?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Yes, I think it is more forward-leaning. It is a more realistic approach.

    At the two-plus-two meeting had in Seoul last March, we agreed to engage North Korea on a fully coordinated strategy. If you continue to engage North Korea on the same footing, I think we will be able to make more substantial progress in the future negotiations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But why do you think this is more realistic? Why do you think this approach will see success, where previous approaches haven't?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Well, first of all, the U.S. government decided to continue to maintain continuity in the negotiations, based on the progress we have made so far, between the U.S. and the DPRK and also between the two Koreas, including the Panmunjom Declaration of March — of April 2018 between President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un and the 2018 Singapore agreement.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That 2018 Singapore summit agreement you mentioned, some experts look at that and call it very minimalist. They say it was the weakest of all the agreements that have been signed between the U.S. and North Korea.

    It broadly said, as you mentioned, that both sides will work towards complete denuclearization of the peninsula. But it doesn't define what that means. So, can you tell me what that means to you? Does it mean that the U.S. is held to the same limits as North Korea?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    In 1992, the two Koreas issued a joint declaration of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

    In the declaration, they defined the complete denuclearization as like this, both Koreas will not test, will not produce, will not receive, will not possess, will not deploy, and will not proliferate.

    So, these are the very clear definitions of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But do you have agreement from the U.S., from U.S. officials on that same definition and are being held to the same limits?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Yes, by using the word complete denuclearization, North Korea's — North Korea was very well aware of the definition of complete denuclearization.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you think it would accelerate progress if there were higher-level meetings sooner?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Well, yes.

    Well, yes, we believe a higher-level engagement is very efficient, especially with the DPRK because of the political system there. There are a few people in the government who can make responsible and final decisions.

    So, it is better to engage them directly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Are you encouraging President Biden to meet directly with Kim Jong-un?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Well, if possible, yes.

    But it's not time yet for the top leaders to meet. We — I think we need to do more groundwork before top leaders meet this time. And I know the United States is now reaching out to North Korea. And I — we hope North Korea will respond to this initiative.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is that what you're working to help facilitate, is a meeting between the two leaders?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Well, this is the United States' initiative. And we are closely consulting with the U.S.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about the timeline, though, because I should also mention, it's fair to say President Moon is under internal political pressure back at home.

    He just suffered a series of major electoral defeats. He has one more year in office. Is any of that political pressure adding pressure to make something happen on the North Korean front?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Well, the recent political difficulties we are facing in Korea is not much to do with our policy with North Korea.

    It is people's concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic situation. We have been relatively successful in containing the pandemic, but we lag behind most advanced countries in vaccination. And we are still having a couple of hundred new cases on a daily basis. So, people are concerned about this trend.

    But, in fact, that we have secured enough vaccines to administer vaccinations twice the size of the population. But most of the vaccines we have secured are arriving in Korea In the latter part of the year.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One more question on North Korea, if you don't mind.

    Part of the Biden strategy appears to be maintaining strong sanctions. And that, of course, will require Chinese support. Do you think that that's possible, given that there are so — the tensions are so high between the U.S. and China right now?

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Both countries are very important to Korea. The United States is our only treaty ally. And China is our largest trading partner.

    And we think a stable relationship between China and the United States essential for peace, prosperity, and stability in the region and beyond. And we hope the U.S. and China will find ways to cooperate, rather than confront.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Minister Chung Eui-yong, minister of foreign affairs for South Korea, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Chung Eui-yong:

    Well, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed this. It's been my pleasure.

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