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Inside Korea

Speakers: Hyun In-taek, President, Ilmin International Relations Institute, Korea University, and General Kim Tae-Young, Former Minister of Defense, Republic of Korea, 2009-2010
Presider: Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, President, Korea Economic Institute of America
June 20, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations

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CHARLES L. PRITCHARD: Well, ladies and gentlemen, let me welcome you here to the Council on Foreign Relations, to this general meeting.


I'm not doing an advertisement for Disney. I'm reminding you if you would please completely turn off your cellphones, BlackBerrys or whatnots, and that way it will not interfere with the sound system.

And just as a general reminder, this session is on the record.

It's my distinct pleasure to introduce to you two gentlemen that I've had the pleasure of knowing for a number of years and have a great deal of respect for. On my right is former Minister of Unification Hyun In-taek. Dr. Hyun is currently serving as the director of the Ilmin International Relations Institute at Korea University.

While you have the full bio in front of you, I won't spend a great deal of time, but just to remind that Minister Hyun served in the Lee Myung-bak administration from February 2009 until September of 2011. As minister, he was responsible all matters relating to national unification and inter-Korea affairs. He's also currently serving as special adviser to the president for unification policy.

On his left is General Kim Tae-young, and you may remember that he was minister of defense, the 42nd minister of defense, serving from September of 2009 until December 2010, and I think he had his hands full during that period of time. You'll remember that the North Koreans sank the South Korean patrol boat, the Cheonan, at that point in time. Before General Kim was the defense minister, he held several senior positions in the military. I think thus -- when I first met him, when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he also commanded a -- an infantry -- an infantry division, the Capital Defense Command, and the 1st Field Army. General Kim currently serves as a senior research adviser at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

Well, let me just explain how we're going to do today. I'm going to ask some alternating questions of our guests, and then hopefully, about halfway through, I'm going to turn to you, the audience, so you can pick up and ask particular questions.

But I would remind you when it's your turn please stand, identify yourself and wait for the microphone because this is being recorded as a live session.

The first question, if I may, to General Kim.

Thinking of the Cheonan and then later, in November of that year, the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 raised concerns not only in South Korea but also in the United States, and it created increased tension in Northeast Asia.

From your point of view, what was the most important aspects of military and security issues that the South Korean government faced while handling those incidents?

GENERAL KIM TAE-YOUNG: I think some of the recollections of key past events is in order because some time has elapsed already.

So it was the key to identify who was the culprit and who did it when it comes to the explosion of the Cheonan vessel. And because of the importance, Korea joined hands with the five nations, including the United States and U.K. -- and we had some input from our Korean experts. And we came up with a team of 150 experts, and they led a joint investigation. And it took us two months, and finally we came up with the result that it was in the hands of North Korea. And they hit us -- hit the ship at the rear end of the vessel.

As you know very well, during the past 60 years South Korea had to go through numerous provocations committed by North Korea. Some of the examples included -- (inaudible) -- attack that came all the way near the Blue House some time ago, and then to assassinate the South Korean president in -- (inaudible) -- and the explosion of the KAL airline. And on each and every occasion, South Korean leadership had to just debate and ponder about the right level of retaliation and possible escalation.

So our biggest concern back then was always how we can make sure that we can prevent escalation and come up with the right level of response so that North Korea can be stopped from any further military provocations.

Upon attack, there could be many different levels of retaliation on the military scale.

And the first level is retaliation commanded by the commanding officer on the field. And it was successfully achieved on the Korean side -- South Korean side.

And the next level takes a new decision regarding how to retaliate against the attack. It may take a few days or a few more months and it comes usually above the level of right on the spot.

So the biggest concern on the power of the South Korean president and myself was -- it was after -- two months after the identification of the one who was behind the attack of the Cheonan vessel. How can we come up with the right response?

And then finally, the Korean government came up with the stance first because two months have already passed and we couldn't identify or track down the submarine anymore. And if there is any counterattack, it may escalate or lead into unnecessary conflict. So we finally decided to appeal to the international community, including the United Nations, so that international community can come up -- can come up with some sanctions.

And the same standard was applied when there was the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island and there was a response by the commanding officer. And because of that, additional threat or provocation from the North Koreans was stopped. But the next day, we realized after some analysis about the scale of the shelling and the scale of the damage that was done to the South Korean military and the South Korean private sector, we came up with the conclusion that our initial response was insufficient. And that led us to a lot of soul-searching.

And in practicality, the concern was Yeonpyeong Island was such a tiny island, while the North Koreans' launching pad, if you will, was from the land. So they were in a position where they could just mobilize massive shooting force while our counterforce was quite limited because of the locality. So our concern became naturally whether we should call in the air force.

This indeed became the very, very serious matter because the entry of air force would easily escalate to all-out war, because it goes beyond the conventional rules of engagement. And it just engaged the -- not only the government officials but also the top military officers to think about how to properly respond.

PRITCHARD: Well, let me, if I may, just follow up on that. You raised some very interesting points, and you mentioned a couple times in terms of escalation and control.

We saw this past week in news reporting in Seoul that a suggestion that the next provocation would be met by Seoul by attacking command posts in North Korea in addition to the specific offending attackers in North Korea.

One, if I may ask your opinion of that, and whether or not it may lead to a rapid escalation?

KIM: In response to your question, I just want to go into the nervousness and the sort of -- sort of nervousness that was shown by the Korean populace in response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

The Korean people's psyche in general was that after so many repeated provocations on the military scale by North Korea we just tried to counter it by on the spot, and it turned out to be insufficient. And they said it is not a strong enough deterrence and we need to come up with a more thorough retaliation.

And the public opinion was strongly formed, that even international community's measure that surrounds -- or that sent us around the United Nations evolving to sanctions will not be that effective because North Korea by definition is a closed system.

So based on such strong public consensus, it became almost inevitable to consider not only the spot but also the commanding post to be included in our counterattack.

So in principle, our key goal and objective is to avoid any kind of unnecessary escalation. And I believe it is in the same vein that the current minister made a comment and it was broadcast in the media. And our posture is always that we got to not only military prepare and if necessary we will have to come up with a surgical strike that will just counterattack only the necessary persons so the repeated provocations can be stopped.

PRITCHARD: Thanks very much. Well, let me turn now to Mr. Hyun. We're talking about this period of time that was extremely tense. Most people describe it as an unprecedented set of provocative behavior by North Korea. How did that affect you in the policies and the inter-Korea relationship? How did you deal with that?

HYUN IN-TAEK: Thank you very much for your question. The thinking of the Cheonan and the holding the Yeonpyeong Island -- actually, they are very bad memories for me that I do not want to recall. But they are literally the turning point for inter-Korea relations in a very, very negative sense. There were tremendous challenges to inter-Korea relations after this instance inter-Korea relations were almost, you know, completely shut down.

But before the -- (inaudible) -- the mood was actually not quite that, actually. Both sides had been engaged in a dialogue, and around December 2009, we were together to agree one thing; that is, to send joint overseas security groups to see foreign industrial complexes in Thailand and Vietnam for the future of the so-called Kaesong Industrial Complex. And that was one of the major, major developments in inter-Korea relations at that time. So the -- so the mood was quite OK.

But then one year before the Cheonan instant, you know, the inter-Korea relations were very bad. As you know, in April 2009, North Korea launched the long-range missile. And one month later, in May 2009, they conducted a second nuclear test, and international society imposed sanctions against North Korea through U.N. Resolution 1874. And inter-Korea relations were forced to be deteriorated very, very, very severely.

And after that -- I mean, August 2009, former president Kim Dae-jung died and the North Koreans sent a delegation to the funeral headed by the two most important people related to inter-Korea relations. That is Kim Yang-gon, minister of the unification front. He's -- he was my counterpart, actually. And Mr. Kim Ki-nam, who is the party secretary. And I met them twice; face-to-face for the first time. And unfortunately that was the last one. We had a very, very meaningful conversation.

And after these meetings, we started engaging some kind of a half-conversation with them. And in the latter part of the 2009 -- so there were -- there was something, you know, conversation going on between the two sides. And the North also expressed its willingness and hope to rebuild our inter-Korea relations. And it was, you know, expressed in the new year in a joint editorial in 2010.

But in December 2009, North Korea started currency reform. But unfortunately for them, that was completely failed. And it brought about some fairly severe economic and social instability in North Korea. And around March of 2010 -- of course, and there was, you know, U.S.-Korea joint military exercises; but on March 26, 2010, as we know very well, they bluntly, suddenly attacked the Cheonan. So the inter-Korea relation completely, you know, were gone. And we couldn't do anything about inter-Korea relations up until several months passed.

But then -- (inaudible) -- was, you know, in domestic Korean politics about humanitarian kind of things, including the family reunion issue. But that was -- came up and we had to again get in a dialogue with the -- with the North. We started talking with them around October 2010. And finally, both sides agreed to have a Red Cross meeting on November 25, 2010. Two days before the Red Cross meeting, they bombarded the Yeonpyeong Island.

So both instances, I think, were very, very deliberate, well-planned, and very bad military provocations done by the North. And in these two instances, inter-Korea relations cannot be easily recovered since then.

PRITCHARD: Let me, if I may, just follow up with you, Minister Hyun. You have a chance now that you've stepped away from being the minister, and watching developments inside of North Korea -- obviously, Kim Jong-il died on the 17th of December of this past year. So over the past six months, what's your assessment of the stability of the new regime of Kim Jong-un. Is there some confusion in the background? What's your own --

HYUN: Well, looking at inside North Korea, that is a very, very challenge. Probably, we are dealing with the most difficult, you know, sort of Rubik's Cube. It's a really difficult issue for us. But I think the -- probably to be -- it would be premature to say a final word on the new Kim Jong-un regime is only stated, but --

Kim Jong-un became the first secretary of the worker's party two months ago. And she (sic; he) also became the first chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission -- the two most powerful positions that his father took before he died. And what happened in North Korea now, during the past six months, we don't know. But I think because he's not a genuine dictator, "Great Leader," -- somebody might think that he is a genuine dictator, "Great Leader," but I don't think that he's a genuine dictator, "Great Leader," because in terms of the decision-making or in terms of power continuation or power structure, he's not totally independent. He has to, for instance, you know, consult with the military first, and his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, and her husband, Jang Songtaek, et cetera, et cetera.

So you know, in this process, I think, you know, power struggle is inevitable. And so the primary goal, the best -- I mean, the first goal of Kim Jong-un is how to prove himself as a "Great Leader" like his father or like his grandfather. That's the -- his very, very challenging task for him. And the future of the Kim Jong-un regime I think will depend on the relationship between the "Great Leader" and the military.

Military now is exercising a powerful influence in every aspect of the North Korean politics. North Korea became the de facto military force nation. Military is now -- is now everywhere. And so when Kim Jong-un will try to consolidate substantially his own power, I think power struggle is likely to be deeper and deeper.

This is kind of a general kind of assessment of the current North Korean, you know, regime..

PRITCHARD: Thank you.

I'm reminded by Ambassador Sasser's presence that we probably ought to talk about China a little bit.

General Kim, when we talk about China, we've seen some rather strenuous objections by Beijing about U.S. and South Korean military exercises, particularly as it seems to be closer to China's areas of interest.

What's your sense in terms of the rising tension that might or might not involve China? Where do you think this fits?

KIM: To me, the key objective of our bilateral U.S.-Korea military alliance is to deter any military threat or provocation by North Korea. And even in the case when this deterrence doesn't work to annihilate the attack that comes from North.

So in this regard, whether joint operations take place in the West or anywhere else, whether it is the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Air Force that ends up being developed, the eventual objective is just to thwart the deterrence of any military threat or military provocations on the Korean Peninsula. It is not at all about giving any threat or provocations toward North Korea or China. It is rather entirely geared towards deterrence and bringing stability and peace in and around the Korean Peninsula.

So it is in this context of achieving peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia; all the -- just -- region of countries including China have all the reasons and stakes in working together for co-prosperity and co-development.

On the other end, North Korea is only a mischievous player just that comes up with nuclear threats and missile threats and military provocations, and they are have a threat to peace in the region.

Now, China extends as truly a global player, just literally as testified by its status as G-2 nation. So when it comes to development or joint operations, instead of trying to criticize our defense-related operations, they should rather go out of their way to stop North Korea from making unnecessary military provocations any longer.

So in response to your question, Mr. Ambassador, in case of any possible provocations by North Korea, our two militaries, and between our two nations will have to just strengthen our military alliance and have to perform some of the joint operations -- whether it is in the West or somewhere else -- and then may eventually result in some of the heightening of military tension.

And when it comes to how our two nations can jointly cooperate in eliciting help and support from China, I think we should just use diplomatic channels. And through oru military exercises, we should just elicit help and cooperation from Chinese authorities and we should send them a reminder of our purpose.

PRITCHARD: Well, let me -- before I turn this over to the audience, ask Minister Hyun to follow up a little bit on China.

I had a recent discussion with some Chinese diplomats who suggested that the potential for a counterpart relationship between Chinese President Hu Jintao and North Korean Leader Kin Jong-un, there's too much of a disparity there, and that it's unlikely that the Chinese would invite or entertain a visit by such a junior person anytime in the near future.

HYUN: Well -- (chuckles) -- that's a very difficult question for me, but -- (laughter).

PRITCHARD: I'm asking you in your current capacity at Korea University. (Laughter.)

HYUN: Well, you know, Kim Jong-un is now 28 years old. I mean, even though North Korea claims that he is 30. (Laughter.) It is not a big difference, anyhow.

But President Hu Jintao will not meet Kim Jong-un because Kim Jong-un is too young. It's so we have to ask, you know, for how long he has to wait? (Laughter.) Five more years? Ten more years?

So I think, if President Hu Jintao will not meet Kim Jong-un, that is because there's some kind of -- you know, politics is involved. Otherwise, you know, the political circumstances is not right at this time. China has its own political interests in China. And so the way China sees with -- regarding North Korea, and North Korea's regime is a very, very young regime. It's only six months. And the -- we don't know the regime's stability yet. And we don't know what's going on in North Korea. I mean, the first one months or two months, right after the Kim Jong-un regime took place, even Chinese high officers couldn't meet the leaders of the new regime.

So in other words, China too doesn't know much about what's going on in North Korea. And that, I think, you know, is affecting China's decision-making to invite the new leader or not.

PRITCHARD: OK. Well, thanks very much to both of you for this opening round of questions. And now we'll get to the more interesting questions from the audience here.

When I call you, please wait for the microphone; stand up, tell us who you are and your affiliation.

The lady right there, please? There you go.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Marisa Lino, from Northrop Grumman Corporation.

I would be most interested in the perspective of the distinguished gentlemen on how they view the Obama administration's, quote-unquote, pivot to Asia.

(Off-side conversation.)

KIM: I don't think it is entirely proper or correct for me individually to comment on the U.S. president's policy. But personally, Europe is already on a long path toward stability, while we can see huge potential for economic development in Asia. So personally, I think it is the right approach to just give more focus to Asia.

HYUN: And one thing I want to answer to your question is that under my administration, the Korea-U.S. relationship is the best relationship that I ever had in the last 10 years or so. So whatever President Obama is pushing, I welcome. (Laughter.)

PRITCHARD: Patrick?

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. Patrick Cronin; the Center for New American Security Ministers. Thank you very much for your comments. I wonder if I could ask you about the influence of the Burma example; I just returned from Myanmar.

And one of the things I think I learned in Myanmar was that Senior General Than Shwe hatched this exit strategy some years ago; it didn't happen all of a sudden. This is his way to sort of have a soft landing.

So is it possible, especially given Minister Hyun's comment about the influence of the military in North Korea, to create channels of dialogue with senior military leaders in North Korea so that over time you might persuade them to take a different exit strategy?

HYUN: Well, during the last, you know, maybe 10 years or so, we've been trying to persuade North Korea to open its economy and its society. That's the only way for North Korea to survive. The outcome was unfortunately not very good, and North Korea military didn't follow the line of China or Vietnam or whatever, I mean -- you know, Burma -- Myanmar.

So it is very difficult for us to persuade the military in the North. They tried to protest the dangerous weapons, nuclear weapons. They try not to open its economy, not to reform its society. And, you know, people are sort of starting -- in the last 10 years or so, we have given them a lot of humanitarian aid, but still the situation is not quite better.

And, you know, they are developing the relationship in China but they do not want to follow the Chinese model. China, as you know very well, I mean, was a very closed society some, you know, 30 years ago. Now it's the most dynamic, you know, economic country in the world. And Burma, for instance, Burma is changing very much. Vietnam, no question about it.

So the only direction that North Korea should go is two. First, they neutralize this nuclear weapons program. Second, you know, reforming -- open its society and its economy. That's the only way for North Korea to survive. But, you know, again -- I mean, what are they doing? They are doing the third civil military succession. First -- I mean, the first I know in history -- since 1945. No -- in other countries we can see that kind of example, that we can see in North Korea. But it's a very much closed society. And we don't know how to handle this problem, politically speaking.

KIM: Allow me to add a few more comments. Burma and North Korea do show a significant difference. When it comes to Burma, as clearly shown by the example of Aung San Suu Kyi, they had substantial experience in democracy or democratization at least. Of course, there was a period where there was a military regime but it ended in the form of soft landing. But North Korea is a totally different example.

On the contrary, 1945 saw the end of Japanese rule over the Korean Peninsula. But right afterwards -- (inaudible) -- gained the regime and they had no experience whatsoever over democracy. And for us to expect history to be repeated, what was -- what happened in Burma to be repeated in North Korea may be a far-fetched idea or at least it would take a very long time to happen.

PRITCHARD: Good. Thank you. Let me go -- Bruce?

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Bruce Lemkin. My relevant experience includes having been the chief negotiator for KEDO. That worked out well. (Laughter.)

Mr. Minister and General Kim, thank you very much for being here and sharing your insights with us. It's a real privilege.

In my experience, the only thing that works in dealing with North Korea is toughness. And I contend that that toughness has not consistently if at all been demonstrated; certainly not of late by any of us.

So I would like to just explore what General Kim talked about, and our response to provocations. And in my view -- and this is what I'd like you to comment on -- we must prepare in advance for how we might react to the list of feasible provocations, because as you said, General, we take so long to determine how we will respond. And by then it's obsolete and not worthwhile proceeding.

The example I will give you is preparing on how we would respond to a missile launch that includes overflight of another country's sovereign territory -- including, perhaps, intercepting that missile.

KIM: Thank you so much for your excellent question. That indeed comes from years' long experience and expertise that dealt with North Korea maybe heavier than my own personal experience. Thank you so much.

When it comes to toughness in response to military provocations by North Korea, our major recourse is the top response by the commanding officer on the spot. And it has been established by giving them the rules of engagement.

Of course, the problem is bound to happen when it takes a long time for us to identify who initiated the attack or realize that our initial response was insufficient, and it would take more thorough preparation down the line.

You know, you may recall the operation that happened in 1976. As you remember clearly, in the midst of the DMZ in Korean Peninsula, the JSA had to suffer this two U.S. military personnel were assassinated by North Korea by axes. And the decision was made three days later, to cut down the tree. And of course, just politically speaking, it takes only a couple of days to just cut down the tree.

But in actuality, as you know very well, not only B-52s, but so many airplanes from the U.S. and ROK air force and ground forces and special forces had to stand ready. Not only that, all the South Korea and U.S. military bases surrounding Northeast Asia were on the highest alert. And there was a showcase of overwhelming power and capability by both our militaries, and there was an absolute unwavering will and support from the Korean population and the Korean military. And there was strong display of the power and resolution of our two nations' alliance.

And as a result, North Korea couldn't do anything in response to our strong posture. And eventually they had to come out with a statement of apology. And I think this shows a clear example how we can just do our best to deter any war or escalation and come up with a proper response as a measure of retaliation.

And I wholeheartedly agree with you on your point about we should be thoroughly prepared in terms of a possible missile strike by North Korea, too. More than anything else, in the case of the missile attack, whether it is in the period or before or afterwards, we should have enough capability to launch an attack into the launching site whether it is from the U.S. side or the Korean side. And through close cooperation between the U.S. and the ROK military, we've got to beef up the capability to intercept any flying rockets.

And it has already been one-and-a-half years since I left the field as the commanding officer, so I cannot give you the most updated view but my personal understanding is there is already ongoing strong collaboration between our two militaries. I hope that answered your question.

PRITCHARD: Thank you.

We have time for one final question. But before we go to that, let me just remind you that this is on the record. So, if you've got a concise -- all right, gentleman in the back, please.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. (Inaudible) -- with China Review News Agency.

I have a follow-up question about the joint military exercise. As we know, the U.S.-Korea-Japan triangle naval exercise will be held on the day after tomorrow. And General Kim, you mentioned that the Korean-U.S. alliance should send a message to China. And I just wonder -- what kinds of reminders here? It will remind China should be more influential on North Korea? Or it will remind China that a U.S. and South Korea will be an alliance that could -- (inaudible) -- of rising China. Thank you.

KIM: There are two aspects that are really necessary in understanding the situation. Whether it is a joint operation between South Korea, United States and Japan or bilateral joint operations between U.S. and Korea, or development of U.S. military forces in that region, there should be no misunderstanding on our Chinese counterparts because it has nothing to do with placing any threat to China or infringing its sovereignty or being a threat to North Korea at all.

And another key aspect is that -- since I just tried to explain to you -- that all this is really geared towards strengthening peace and stability in Northeast Asia. I really hope that China will have the same mindset and join this collective effort to stop North Korea from being -- continuing to be a problem in China anymore.

PRITCHARD: Thanks very much. Well, before we close out the session, the council is pleased to announce a meeting over lunch tomorrow: "Foreign Affairs Live," featuring U.S. Army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno. For more information, you can look at the inset in your program.

If you would, please join me in thanking our two speakers for an excellent program today. Thank you. (Applause.)

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