Chinese pressure is key to North issue: Campbell

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Chinese pressure is key to North issue: Campbell


CEO of the Asia Group Kurt Campbell, left, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, holds a dialogue with Ha Young-sun, a chairman at the East Asia Institute, Friday at the Hotel Shilla in central Seoul. By Kwon Hyeok-jae

China putting pressure on North Korea is “our only way forward,” said Kurt Campbell, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and CEO of the Asia Group.

He was responding to a question by Ha Young-sun, a chairman at the East Asia Institute, on how to resolve the dilemma of Pyongyang’s strategy of trying to pursue both economic development and nuclear capabilities simultaneously.

The two sat for a dialogue on key issues confronting Asia last Friday at the Shilla Hotel in central Seoul on the sidelines of the Korea Global Forum, held by the Ministry of Unification and the East Asia Institute.

Campbell participated as a speaker in the forum which had the theme of “Trust, Peace and Prosperity: Path to Korean Unification.”

The East Asia Institute is a Seoul-based think tank founded in 2002 that researches and recommends policies in the areas of foreign affairs, security and governance.

The Asia Group is a Washington-based strategic advisory and investment group specializing in the Asia-Pacific region established last year.

Campbell, its founder, served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under the Barack Obama administration from 2009 to 2013 and is credited as being one of the key architects of the U.S. “pivot to Asia” policy, though he modestly denies the description.

In their dialogue, the two men covered five major areas: the evolution of U.S.-China relations; Washington’s alliance with Tokyo and Seoul; trilateral cooperation among China, Japan and South Korea; a realistic solution for the North Korea problem; and regional governance in the 21st century in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ha: When we tried to read between the lines of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, we could find at least two important basic positions. The first was “we are informed of a new strategic line of carrying out economic development and nuclear capabilities simultaneously” - because they would like to pursue two goals at the same time. Secondly, dealing with inter-Korean relations, the official statement had a rather strong emphasis on three different approaches. First, they would like to maintain the three traditional basic principles of unification established in 1971. Second, North Korea is inevitably pursuing its own national security. Thirdly, the statement briefly mentioned that there might be some hope that North Korea might try to develop better relations between North and South Korea. How can we - South Korea, the United States, China and some other stakeholders in the region - take a position which can induce North Korea to take a new strategic line?

Campbell: In my own personal view, given the dynamics on the Korean Peninsula, the only way that North Korea really fundamentally can return to the negotiating table is after enormous pressure from China… I think we’ve learned some important lessons over 25 years of diplomacy with North Korea. Most of what it seems is along the lines of the saying, “Have your cake and eat it too.” They want nuclear weapons; they don’t appear to want to negotiate that away under any circumstances. They’ll pretend to slow down, but they are secretly quite determined to keep their nuclear weapons. At the same time, they want some economic benefits from engagement with the West. We’ve constantly tried to offer them a choice and their answer is, “We’ll take both.” And it puts us in more of a conundrum, generally. I think our diplomacy with North Korea reveals a regime that is deeply uncertain. Kim Jong-un has very publicly executed a lot of people associated with the previous regime, with his father. That has created a lot of anxiety in North Korea. The larger implications for us is that in recent months, the people who’ve been either executed or taken off of the scene are those people in the senior ranks in North Korea who were once responsible for diplomacy with the U.S. Even if North Korea was prepared to talk, I’m not sure who we would speak with.

Ha: You mentioned pressure from China would be a critical factor needed for the emergence of a new strategic line for North Korea. But there is some debate as to whether China will pressure North Korea.

Campbell: We see signs that China’s body language has changed. They’re uncomfortable but they’ll talk about them more, they’ll even share some of their worries and concerns. But except for occasional insistences of China putting pressure on North Korea, subtle pressure, fundamentally their position has not changed, and I don’t expect it to in the short term. Given larger problems, they just don’t want uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula at all. I think the public and very brutal execution of Jang Song-thaek [in December 2013] was a very strong message to China about trying to influence North Korean leadership decisions.

Ha: On the vicious cycle of the emotional politics between Korea and Japan, which is now hitting a low point, how do you see the United States resolving this difficulty as a problem in its alliances?

Campbell: On the highly emotional and difficult politics between Japan and South Korea and what role the U.S. can and should play, I agree with you - the situation is fraught, and it is very difficult for the U.S. to intervene in such a way as to not alienate one or both friends.

We recognize that… And we’re now at a point where it’s difficult to have even the most basic kinds of conversations or address areas of conversations, and that hurts the U.S. badly. So I’d like to see the U.S. more actively involved in supporting diplomacy between Seoul and Tokyo, despite the difficulties involved… We have incredibly strong bilateral relationships, and where possible, over time, carefully, the U.S. should trilateralize certain aspects of our bilateral relationships.

Ha: Facing the rapid emergence of China, it is my understanding that Japan is trying to pursue a strategy or policy to cope with China with traditional, competitive nationalism and with the help of U.S. On the other hand, in parallel, China has not yet graduated from the 19th century traditional way of managing international relations. This means that in spite of stability between the U.S. and China, there might be a potential risk of conflict between core interests in something like 19th century definitions, between China and Japan. Relations between the two powers might be one of the most dangerous hot spots in this region. Do you agree?

Campbell: I think there needs to be more dialogue across Asia. Not just in Northeast Asia but Southeast Asia, India, Australia and other countries as well to share perspectives on China’s role. Because, in fact, how China goes will determine enormously how Asia goes. In truth, there are many questions about China right now… There are concerns that require very determined diplomacy: double-digit defense growth in China, some actions toward weaker neighbors that look like bullying - these are things that are not in our strategic interest. But ultimately a recognition that we are better off working with China than working against it has to animate all of our actions.

Ha: If we can’t devise some kind of sophisticated mechanism to solve dilemmas in East Asia, it looks like the second half of the 21st century might be a different picture between U.S. and China.

Campbell: U.S.-China relations are going to get more difficult but, they are increasingly more important. Figuring out how to work together and to recognize that the region is big enough for the both of us is going to be the central feature… Ultimately, what Asia wants to see is a balanced relationship between China and the United States. Not too cold, not too hot.

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