Where are the Korea experts?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In July 2014, a U.S. Senate hearing discussed the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. There, the vice president of Ford Motor represented American industry. He criticized the South Korean government for introducing non-tariff barriers on American cars after the FTA removed restrictions on U.S. car imports two years earlier. Whenever disputes about automobiles occurred, he always attacked South Korea. In 2011, he demanded that the U.S. government use forcible measures to let South Korea understand the principles of free trade.
Who was he? He is Stephen Biegun, who was appointed the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea last month. For 14 years, he criticized South Korea and other foreign governments on Ford’s behalf. While he dealt with foreign affairs in the Congress and the U.S. government, he is basically a Russia expert with little association with Korean Peninsula affairs.
His predecessors — Joseph Yun, Sung Kim, Glyn Davies and Stephen Bosworth — were all experts in Korean Peninsula issues. So criticisms that say Biegun is unfit for the position have arisen.
Earlier this year, North Korea expert and Georgetown Professor Victor Cha was considered for the job of U.S. Ambassador to Korea, but the former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Harry Harris took the position. It feels like people who don’t know much about peninsular affairs are coming.
Last month, Foreign Affairs published a surprising article entitled “North Korea’s Nuclear Program Isn’t Going Anywhere.” It claimed that North Korea should be made a responsible nuclear state like India. A similar column ran in the Washington Post in July, arguing that Trump should learn to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
You should not laugh off this alarming position. It shows that acknowledging North Korea as a nuclear state is garnering attention in mainstream America.
Many progressive scholars assure us that North Korea would not use nuclear weapons, especially not on South Korea, where its fellow Koreans live. Those scholars contend that North Korean nuclear weapons are targeting the United States, pointing to its ICBM development as proof. This is exactly what North Korea insists. Considering public sentiment, that’s not a far-fetched claim. In a Gallup survey from October, 59 percent of South Koreans responded that North Korea would not use nuclear weapons.
But some experts believe otherwise. I met former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho at a lecture and asked him if Kim Jong-un was likely to launch nuclear missiles on South Korea.
Thae, who defected to South Korea in 2016, said the possibility is considerable. If a democratic movement aimed at overturning the North Korean regime begins in the North and South Korea aids it, Kim Jong-un will likely use nuclear weapons, he said. “As Kim is cruel enough to kill his uncle, why would he die easily?”
At the current pace, North Korea is likely to be recognized as a nuclear state, as Pyongyang wished. The United States has changed its tone from “no declaration to end the war without specific denuclearization measures” to a “willingness to consider a declaration of the end of the war if Pyongyang promises to submit a list of its nuclear weapons and a timetable for denuclearization.”
The risk of the Trump administration leaving the Korean Peninsula is growing. Its key diplomatic posts are increasingly occupied by people who know little about North Korea and focus on U.S. interests. Concerns grow over how Biegun would deal with veteran North Korean representatives down the road. Under such volatile circumstances, the Moon Jae-in administration is eager to expand exchanges with North Korea despite dissuasion by Uncle Sam. All the signs show that the denuclearization of North Korea is growing more distant.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 4, Page 30