U.S. troops not leaving soon, says Joseph Yun
Yun, a senior adviser to the United States Institute of Peace’s Asia Center, also told the JoongAng Ilbo and Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview Wednesday that the joint statement between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at this month’s Singapore summit should have been “stronger.”
The interview took place on the sidelines of the 13th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity at the International Convention Center Jeju.
Along with complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, or CVID, Yun said the statement should have included “concrete measures” addressing the North Korean regime’s security concerns.
“I don’t think there is any possibility in the near future, because I don’t think this problem with North Korea is going to go away,” said Yun, when asked about the possibility of the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Korea in the near future. “But probably at some point in the very distant future, when all the issues have been dealt with and resolved, then it is possible that U.S. forces could withdraw - if they are no longer needed.”
The Seoul-born Yun spent over 30 years in diplomatic service and, last March, stepped down as the U.S. point man on North Korea, a position he held since 2016.
He emphasized that the most important next step following the U.S.-North summit in Singapore is for the North Korean side to give a “complete listing” of all its nuclear weapons, materials and missile sites.
During the three-day forum, Yun was a panelist in a session called “The Summits and Beyond: Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” alongside experts such as Moon Chung-in, a distinguished professor at Yonsei University and a special adviser to the president for unification and national security affairs, and Ning Fukui, deputy special representative for Korean affairs at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Yun said Kim Jong-un has been able to change his imaging to that of a “regional leader” through his summit activities, despite continued skepticism about the young leader’s true intent. He also said he supports civilian, cultural and humanitarian exchanges with the North for “building confidence.”
The following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. Has North Korea’s attitude changed after the recent summits?
A. I think North Koreans have done a very good job of coming out and having all these summit meetings - two with South Korean President [Moon Jae-in], three with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and then, of course, the unprecedented one with the American president. They have done a very good diplomatic job of … giving the appearance they have changed direction. And so now we see Kim Jong-un as a more than a caricature, someone who’s a real regional leader … You are seeing him in a different light.
Everyone is puzzled, what does he mean? I think everyone hopes it means good things. I think that way, North Koreans and Kim Jong-un are doing a very good job of messaging. For us, the fundamental question remains: Is he serious about denuclearization? And so far, there is no evidence. But at least now, you have communications at a very high level, leaders willing to work together. That means something. So let’s hope that he does mean to change and that he is willing to denuclearize. That’s where we are - that’s where certainly Washington is, although there is skepticism. But at least the tensions, the likelihood of a military strike, the likelihood of war, likelihood of military miscalculation are way, way down.
Isn’t this wishful thinking?
No, it’s not wishful thinking because it is genuine that tensions have gone down, right? We are better off now than we were last year. But you have to ask: Is the better off just for show, or is there something to it? And that is the job of diplomacy, to make sure that the better off is sustainable and that there are concrete gains that make it worthwhile.
You mentioned that provisions related to CVID should have been included in the joint declaration in Singapore but weren’t.
I think it should have been included, and I would say that the Singapore joint statement should have been stronger, including CVID, including some concrete measures toward denuclearization, as well as concrete measures toward addressing their security concerns.
Some two weeks have passed since the Singapore U.S.-North summit. What do you think of there being no signs of a next round of nuclear dialogue between the United States and the North Korea?
Well I think in the Singapore summit, both sides agreed to have a process, so I would imagine the process should begin soon. It’s only been 15 days, so I think we need to wait for that process to begin; and my understanding is that they are preparing certainly from Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said he hopes to see some progress in the days and weeks ahead. What constitutes meaningful progress?
There are two aspects to the Singapore joint statement: one is what to do about denuclearization and second is what to do about security guarantees. Those are twin issues. So I would imagine on denuclearization they would have to have a process in which they agree, step by step, what’s going to happen, similarly on security issues. Do they actually say, for example, that the war has ended, like an end of war declaration, and then go onto begin a peace treaty negotiation? Those are the two major issues that the Singapore joint statement will kick off.
Is there a timetable for denuclearization?
I don’t know about a timetable, but certainly you need the steps. For example, when do you introduce inspections, when do you introduce verification [and] when do you introduce the declaration of the fissile materials? And then, there is a big unknown on what’s going to happen on the missile track.
I think asking for a timetable and asking for steps are kind of similar. You need to negotiate to get there. The big question is: Should they have negotiated that before the Singapore summit? Typically that would be the case, that you would negotiate at least big steps so that you kind of have something concrete in summit.
But this time, the agreement for a summit came out before an agreement on steps … which is why we are waiting for the process, or steps, to catch up with the leaders. The leaders have made a joint statement - said they’re willing to do something - and now working-level people - like what I used to do - have to work out what those steps are.
Is a timetable necessary?
A timetable is necessary after you decide what to do. You know, there’s a lot of debate on how long denuclearization will take. Someone like Siegfried Hecker (a Stanford University professor and former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico) said recently that it could take 10 to 15 years, even with a willing country. I tend to think that’s a long time.
What are the most important issues?
I think for denuclearization, the most important issue is for the North Korean side to give a complete account, a complete list of all the nuclear and missile sites and material. Without knowing what they have, it is very difficult to decide what to do. For example, we know they have an enriched uranium facility in Yongbyon, but they probably have other secret facilities. CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement) starts with C - that means complete. We don’t have complete information. How can you completely denuclearize when you don’t know what they have? For me it’s always been very important that a next real step has to be giving a list of what they have.
Is there a possibility for North Korea to cheat?
Of course there is a possibility of cheating. This is why this is a process. This is why you need verification. After getting the list, then you must be allowed to verify it, and that’s what CVID has always been about.
Would this mean the United States or others may require the ability to check out the facilities? But North Korea said this is a violation of their sovereign rights.
We cannot prejudge those negotiations; they all have to be negotiated, and ultimately, you’ll come to an agreement or you don’t come to agreement as it was the case during the six-party talks, when we couldn’t come to an agreement on declaration and verification. Same with the Agreed Framework [between North Korea and the United States in 1994]. It was the suspicion that they had an enriched uranium site that ended the agreed framework.
What do you think of current Chinese policies toward the North’s denuclearization? Do you think the Chinese government will be helpful on the matter?
If North Korea wants to be friendly with China, and China with North Korea, I don’t think it’s seriously a concern for the United States unless [China is] not enforcing sanctions. The reality is, they have been best friends since the Korean War.
Recently, the U.S. government announced that it will suspend joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States. Is that a reasonable decision?
The justification for that is that the White House, President Trump, really wanted to show North Korea that there is no hostile intent, which has always been the complaint of North Korea. So he listened to them and said okay, since you have stopped testing, we will at least suspend joint military exercise. That’s the official justification. I think for me, anything that hurts the U.S.-ROK alliance is not a good thing, and anything that affects the U.S.-ROK alliance should be done in consultation with the South Koreans.
Some say biggest concern for Trump in terms of the withdrawal of U.S. troops is the money.
I think U.S. troops in South Korea play a very important strategic role that stabilizes the region. For me, it’s not a matter of money.
The South Korean government is eager to promote inter-Korean projects. Do you believe that such policy is desirable?
When I was in the government, I always wanted to promote that myself because I felt that between the United States and North Korea, there was just no relationship. So I wanted to promote civil society, humanitarian assistance, something to build confidence, to get to know each other a little bit. I’m all for cultural exchanges, sports exchanges. These are all good ideas. North Korea has been isolated for so long, so I think you ought to do that.
Of course you have sanctions to worry about. The big issue is if you do things such as [reopening the] Kaesong Industrial Complex, tourism, does it give money to the North Korean government, which then goes onto build their nuclear and missiles? But other linkages such as humanitarian assistance, family meetings, cultural exchanges, I don’t see why we should try to stop them.
Do you have any regrets that you retired from the U.S. State Department in March at a pivotal moment in history?
No, I have no regrets. I left because I felt that, at the time that I left, my own agency, the State Department, was not playing the role it should have been playing.
BY SARAH KIM, NAM JEONG-HO [firstname.lastname@example.org]