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There can’t be another war on the Korean peninsula, says South Korean foreign minister: ‘You have to negotiate’

In an exclusive interview, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha tells Judy Woodruff that they are cautiously optimistic that possible talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump would be a breakthrough for a peaceful resolution. They also discuss President Trump's recent threats to pull American troops if the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is not improved, and more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump spoke this morning with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea just one week after the surprise offer of a possible summit between Mr. Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un.

    Moon's foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, is here in Washington to continue consultation with the Trump administration and Congress, a trip that almost didn't happen, after Tuesday's firing of her counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

    Minister Kang and I spoke earlier today, and I began by asking her about President Trump's recent apparent threats to pull American troops from South Korea if the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, or KORUS FTA, is not improved in the United States' favor.

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    Well, I think the strength of the Korea-U.S. alliance is solid enough to not take comments related to trade as indicating something about the trip presence itself.

    And we are having a session of renegotiating the KORUS FTA. We very much hope and expect the result to mutually beneficial and something that takes the FTA further in a way that benefits both countries.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is your government prepared to make concessions on trade?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    I think, as deals go, there have to be concessions both ways.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president also said in his remarks this week, he said, our allies care about themselves, they don't care about us.

    How do you read that?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    I think every country thinks of their national interest in the first instance. We do, the U.S. does, all countries.

    And I think it has to be read in that context, and not taken at face value.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's turn to the proposed talks between President Trump and the leader of North Korea, Mr. Kim.

    How confident are you that those talks are going to take place? Any question that they will happen?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    Well, I think this is the result of our special envoy's direct discussion with Chairman Kim. So, I'm pretty confident. You know, I think we're cautiously optimistic that the talks will happen and that this will a breakthrough for a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what conditions have to be met, in your view, before these talks can take place, on both sides?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    I think very much the conditions that the U.S. has so far emphasized, that is, the North Korean leader has to indicate his commitment to denuclearization has been met.

    That was one of the key points that came out of the special envoy's meeting and then conveyed to President Trump. The other was that they need to stop the provocations, and, again, clearly stated by the leader himself, no more provocations as long as the dialogue continues.

    So I think the basic condition that we have been flagging, the U.S. has been flagging, has basically been met.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Could there be new sanctions imposed on North Korea before any talks take place?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    Well, I think the international community together has been implementing the Security Council sanctions. And that certainly has been one of the factors that has led Mr. Kim to come out and start engaging.

    The Security Council — so, yes, if there are further provocations, there will be more sanctions. But Mr. Kim has — Chairman Kim has clearly stated there will be no further provocations, as long as the dialogues continue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does your government trust the leader of North Korea? I mean, the people who watch North Korea closely say it has violated every agreement it's entered into in recent history.

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    It's not a matter of trusting. It's a matter of approaching the opportunity presented with good will, and we have.

    We have — my president has been from the very beginning consistent and persistent in his message about North Korea. And that message has been North Korea's missiles — nuclear program will never be accepted, but we want to engage to find towards a peaceful resolution.

    This is a much better situation, I think we all agree, than we found ourselves mid-last year or even at the end of last year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned the sanctions imposed on the North.

    Why do you think the leader, their leader, Kim Jong-un, wants this meeting? I mean, after all the effort, all the energy, resources they have poured into building up their nuclear weapons program that can strike the United States, certainly strike countries in the region, why does he want this meeting?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    The sanctions and the solidarity of the international community behind the sanctions are, by all accounts, having an effect.

    The chairman has promised two things to his people. One is the nuclear program and one is economic development, improvement of livelihoods. And this was a part clearly stated in his new year message.

    And to make progress on the second track, he needs — he cannot do this, deliver this with — under the heavy sanctions regime. So he would understand that he needs to work with the international community, in the first instance, the United States, to ease the sanctions regime. And that's not going to happen unless and until he — unless he takes significant steps on the denuclearization track.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you have a goal, does your government have a goal in mind, should the U.S. have a goal in mind of what that denuclearization looks like? I mean, how far does it have to go for there to be an agreement?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    Well, we are very clear in our stated goal of complete denuclearization of North Korea.

    And it will take a long while, because the program is very advanced. So, from a very well-advanced program to complete denuclearization obviously will take a long time. And we're prepared for the long haul. But we approach this with clear eyes and with nerves of steel, but with a clear goal in mind.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What concessions should South Korea and the U.S. be prepared to make for there to be an agreement, and could it include removing or reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    I think the issue of the U.S. presence in South Korea is very much an issue that needs to be discussed, an issue for the alliance.

    And I don't think that, you know, we — you should even think about any concessions along those lines. It will not be an issue that we will readily discuss at the table with North Korea.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Your president is going to met with leader Kim next month, and it's — this is in advance of any meeting with President Trump.

    There are those who look at all of this and say, so that Korea and the United States are conferring a level of credibility and respect on the North Korean regime that it has not earned, that it doesn't deserve.

    How do you answer that?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    It's a regime, still, that we need to deal with.

    It poses a grave security threat to Korea, to the whole world. And you can only deal with this threat by engaging with it. We are absolutely clear that a military solution is not an option. It's — we are a country that has experienced the most destructive war in a lifespan that my father's generation can remember.

    So there cannot be another war on the Korean Peninsula. This requires a peaceful solution. And to have a peaceful solution, you have to deal with them. You have to negotiate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how much are you concerned about the fact that you are dealing with a U.S. administration that's undergoing a lot of change at the top? How much harder does that make it to work with the U.S. on this very sensitive issue?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    Well, it's people, but it's also institutions, which is why, despite the fact of the change at the top of the State Department, I still decided to come, because it's certainly, with people, you develop a certain camaraderie after a while.

    But that comes with part of the job . And I think that's what professional diplomacy requires.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I asked you earlier if you or your government trusts Kim Jong-un. Do you trust President Trump?

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    I have confidence in his ability to deliver on his strong desire to come to grips with this issue of the North Korean nuclear missile threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Foreign Minister Kang, we thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Kang Kyung-wha:

    Thank you, Judy.

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