Candidate Lee says he has less faith in Kim Jong-un
"Why does it matter whether or not you believe in the will of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to denuclearize?" Lee said in an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. "You shouldn't rely on it."
Lee was asked about Moon administration's policy, which is based on trust in Kim's commitment to denuclearization, which the president stated explicitly in early 2018.
The former Gyeonggi governor said he "neither trusts nor distrusts" Kim's intentions.
The interview was conducted at the DP's headquarters in Yeouido, western Seoul, on Monday, two months ahead of the March 9 presidential election.
"The important thing is that we have to denuclearize, and the concern is what kind of process we will have to undergo for this," Lee continued. "No matter what he [Kim Jong-un] thinks, it is important to denuclearize."
His remarks suggested that making progress in denuclearization is more important than deciphering North Korea's true intentions.
When asked if he has a "red line" for North Korea in regard to its nuclear and missile programs development, Lee replied, "I don't know if a red line is desirable in diplomatic relations."
If the other side hypothetically crosses such a red line, he said, "I would not be able do anything because I already said the words and only would be shackling myself and fall into self-contradiction."
Lee said that it is particularly "not easy" to set a red line on North Korea, and "while it could be set internally, announcing it is even more problematic."
In August 2017, marking his 100th day as president, Moon said, "I think the red line is when North Korea completes an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and weaponizes it by equipping it with a nuclear warhead."
Lee, a human rights lawyer and former Seongnam mayor known for his outspoken ways, has maintained that he is ready to "say anything to North Korea."
When asked if he had any response to North Korea's hypersonic missile launch last week, Lee replied, "It is not a matter for which I have authority over, but it is very regrettable."
He questioned whether North Korea's missile launches are "truly helpful to peace on the Korean Peninsula and the coexistence of the two Koreas."
Lee, however, was cautious when asked about the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) assessment last year that the Yongbyon nuclear complex seems to have resumed operation based on evidence from satellite imagery.
"There is no accurate information, and it is difficult to say hypothetically," said Lee. "Since inter-Korean relations need to be approached delicately, raising an issue by guesswork in itself has the potential to exacerbate it."
Lee discussed other foreign policy issues such as the diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Sino-U.S. rivalry and South Korea's deteriorated relations with Japan.
In early December, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games in protest of human rights abuses in China. While American athletes will be allowed to compete, U.S. officials will not attend. The South Korean government said it is not considering a boycott, especially taking into consideration its role as host of the preceding PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018.
Regarding a recent statement that it would be better not to participate in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, Lee said, "Rather than China's human rights issues, it is more important to be concerned with our economy and our people's lives."
He avoided a direct answer on whether he agrees with the United States and said, "As a member of the international community, it is necessary to make efforts to pursue democracy and human rights, but not so in a way that damages our national interests."
When asked if it is easier to withstand a backlash from the United States than from China, Lee said, "The United States has not asked us to joint the boycott, so why would we give an answer? I am aware the United States understands, and that's enough."
He added, "There is no need to be driven into a situation of being excluded by one side for choosing one side over the other. Even if the other side throws [such a choice at South Korea], we can offer a third option."
On the diplomatic boycott issue, the U.S. State Department said last month "the South Korean president's decision on their participation in the Olympics is theirs to make."
However, Jalina Porter, a State Department deputy spokesperson, said on Dec. 13, that the United States "consulted with our allies and partners before the White House announced our decision," indicating Washington would have wanted Seoul to join. Japan and other close U.S. allies have announced their participation in the diplomatic boycott.
Lee was asked about Korean Supreme Court decisions in 2018 ordering Japanese companies to compensate forced labor victims from World War II, a key issue in Seoul-Tokyo relations.
Japan's government has objected the rulings, claiming that if Japanese companies' assets in Korea are liquefied to compensate victims, bilateral relations would suffer badly.
Lee was asked whether the rulings should be enforced, or whether some breakthrough could be found through other support measures for the forced labor victims.
He said, "As a lawyer, I don't think the state can negotiate away an individual's right to claim compensation. Our court's decision was not wrong."
But he admitted, "It can't be said that there are no political problems at all."
Lee said if he becomes president, he would like to "meet and talk" with Japan's leader and "find a mutually beneficial path."
He noted, "Japan has a tendency of mixing issues of history with matters of socioeconomic cooperation because of the Supreme Court ruling, and we are trying to find a way to separate this and make it two-track in a mutually understandable way."
Lee called for a "third way," adding, "If trust is built through dialogue, both countries and victims can come up with a plan that both sides can agree on."
When asked if it means that there is another path than to just abiding by the court rulings — meaning there needs to be an agreement between the two countries first — Lee replied, "It should be consistent with public sentiments in both countries, and reasonable efforts for dialogue between the two governments will be required."
BY YOO JEE-HYE, SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]