Go to contents

Alex Wong sees slim chance for diplomatic solution to N. Korean issues

Alex Wong sees slim chance for diplomatic solution to N. Korean issues

Posted May. 11, 2021 07:24,   

Updated May. 12, 2021 09:31


Former U.S. Deputy Special Representative for North Korea Alex Wong expressed his disappointment, saying that the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea has been downgraded as a “grand bargain.” He also said that the former U.S. administration tried not only to seek a “grand bargain” but to take stepwise measures, to which Pyongyang did not respond. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has recently revealed its new North Korea policy to take a practical approach while staying unbiased between a “grand bargain” and “strategic patience.”

Doubling as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for North Korea, Mr. Wong played a key role in engaging in negotiations with North Korea under the Trump administration. He was second-in-command in charge of negotiating with Pyongyang under U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. Mr. Wong is currently responsible for research on Asian nations including North Korea at Hudson Institute – a Washington-based think tank.

In an interview with the Dong-A Ilbo on Friday (local time), Mr. Wong maintained that strategic negotiations with Pyongyang required great change in approach, which made it necessary for Washington to ensure a grand bargain. He elaborated the Trump administration’s North Korea policy that called on Pyongyang to scrap all kinds of not only nuclear weapons and facilities but also biochemical arms. He went on to say that Washington constantly considered taking simultaneous and parallel measures. Washington did not expect Pyongyang to step up preemptively before taking action, according to Mr. Wong. The following are questions and answers during the interview.

Q: The Joe Biden administration has recently disclosed its North Korea policy. How would you assess it?

“I can interpret that the the Biden team is at least contemplating and thinking about how to engage North Korea to begin a dialogue. But Washington cannot disclose its strategy details. There must be some issues that the Biden team is trying to keep within its administration. The former Donald Trump administration revealed less than half of full details of its agendas and real happenings to the media. It maintained confidentiality very carefully.”

“The Biden administration should consider deterrence most of all. When the North close its doors to dialogue, the North Korean weapons program is advancing, perfecting, and growing, which is threatening the U.S. and its allies. Therefore, the Biden administration must be reviewing joint military exercises with South Korea. There was a downscaling of our major joint military exercises, as long as President Trump determined that North Korea was in good faith by being engaged in a diplomatic process. At this point, however, it's getting harder and harder to say that the North Korea is in good faith in engaging. Given the responses coming from the North, it is evident that the Kim Jong Un regime is rejecting diplomatic engagement. Against this backdrop, now is the time to scale up those exercises.”

Q: The Biden administration reportedly will not appoint a special representative for North Korea until it resumes talks with North Korea.

“I think that's a very narrow and incorrect view. North Korea issue is one of the few issues around the world where I believe the Special Representative is warranted. The United States. doesn't have diplomatic relations with North Korea. It's a problem of immense importance. The other interested parties all have senior levels or special representatives. And the fact that the United States doesn't have one is in itself a message about where the policy is going and the priority of the United States places on it. One thing I noticed was that China recently appointed a special representative for North Korea.

“There's a lot of discussions the special representative office for North Korea have, obviously with South Korea and with the other traditional members of the sixth parties. There's a lot of discussion with the EU and other countries that have a role to play in supporting diplomacy, but also supporting the pressure campaign because maintenance of the pressure campaign to maintain enforcement pressure campaign is key to having successful negotiations towards denuclearization with the DPRK.”

Q: The Biden administration mentioned the Singapore agreement as the ground of its new North Korea policy.

“The Singapore agreement is important particularly in the North Korean system to have the leader in something that has more authority. The Singapore agreement was the beginning. We would not have signed if that was the end. The key is that we can get the working-level talks and can get to the right end point, but North Korea didn't respond for the further request. We didn't get there, but it doesn't mean we'll never get there. But it's going to take some more effort, and it's going to take the North Koreans, making a real decision, whether they're going to live up to the commandments of Singapore.”

Q: Did you expect the agreement of the Hanoi summit could break down?

“To walk away at the negotiation table was always an option. If the other side remains stuck in an unreasonable demand and doesn't show any flexibility, and the situation is not right to come to an agreement, you have to be prepared to walk away. If the other side knows that you're not willing to walk away, they have already won the negotiation. People like to say that the Hanoi summit failed, because it didn't come up with an agreement, but that's the wrong way to think about it. Sometimes you need to send a message that you're willing to walk away in order to set the table for the next time. I don’t want a bad deal. I know that's hard to do for many people like me who want to see a resolution to be solved, but when you're in any negotiation, you have the ability to walk away.”

Q: In 2019, there was a New York Times report that there was some reports about nuclear freeze. Can you tell now how serious about it?

“I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea of a freeze, as a part of a roadmap towards denuclearization. To find the end stage and agree to a roadmap in simultaneous and parallel steps, freeze would have to be part of that. I think we were pretty open with our strategy.”

Q: Do you think that Biden administration would review nuclear freeze?

“The Biden team should be wary of falling into an arms control framework, an arms control trap. There's been a lot of discussion in the North Korea watcher community, both in Seoul and within Washington, about accepting arms control as a framework for an agreement with the DPRK. They say denuclearization is a ‘pipe dream.’ We should be realistic and practical and accept that the North is going to have some nuclear capability, while we should diminish the North’s nuclear capability in some way or freeze it or having it give some sanctions relief. However, it will let North Korea maintain the nuclear capability, while also getting sanctions relief and normalization, and essentially legitimization of the program that offends the entire non-proliferation system. It will ruin and take away the incentive for countries not to pursue nuclear weapons. and I would highly recommend to the Biden team to resist that temptation to resist that trap.”

Q: Biden’s diplomatic and security team seems more sarcastic and negative about North Korea. The Democratic Party had a lot of bad experiences.

“That is not the only case of the Democratic Party-led administrations. The United States had a lot of bad experiences with North Korea for nearly 30 years since the 1994 Geneva agreement. We have a vision that we share with many of our partners and allies in the region. We'd like to call it the free and open Indo-Pacific, where nations are sovereign and strong in trade and travel, have good relations, shared security, continue to rise of Asia, and its prosperity. If we can't come to an agreement with North Korea, it will be always remained a dark power in the region.”

“I don’t agree with those who claim Washington and Seoul are limited by time because of election cycle. I always thought it was the North Koreans that suffered from a time issue. Even if Kim Jong Un wanted to set his country on a path where they are dependent on nuclear weapons, Americans and South Koreans will be okay. The people will be continuing to be prosperous, they will be free, they will be legitimate, and they will continue to rise and prestige. But North Korea will not be okay. Under the international sanctions, its economy is getting worse.”

Q: You've been to North Korea two times, one of which was the third visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I want to know more about your experiences in North Korea. What was the impression you had.

“I went there with a sense of heavy responsibility to work with our team to try to get the best outcome. People that we were negotiating with were quite capable and quite smart. But the most difficult part was their lack of authority. They're quite capable, but they were of limited authority. Their task was to deflect and delay and filibuster to not get to the core of the issue, which is what are the concrete steps towards denuclearization. It was frustrating for us clearly.”

Q: Let's say the romance between Trump and Kim Jong Un. Did it work effectively for talks?

“I think it helped during the talks. Kim Jong Un was very careful. Despite his dissatisfaction and frustrations, Kim never criticized Trump directly and he never launched a long range missile test or a nuclear test. We didn't have another nuclear crisis or major missile crisis after Singapore. It's because both leaders had a connection. One key factor, which is undeniable, was that he did not want to give up in relationship with the President of the United States.”

Q: How did the Trump administration assess President Moon’s North Korea policy?

“North Korea was quite lucky as it had Trump and Moon together who were willing to take that risk, which shocked the world. That was a chance It was a limited window for Kim Jong Un.”

Q: Washington cared about Seoul that tried to get sanctions relief for the inter-Korean relationship while saying, “We need to go lockstep and go together for nuclear talks. How did the Trump administration assess the Moon administration’s inter-Korean economic cooperation?

“The desire of the Moon government to cooperate in an inter-Korean cooperation was not a problem. If we can get the cooperation of Pyongyang, inter-Korean cooperation and denuclearization are mutually reinforcing processes. But Seoul had to coordinate with Washington, and prevent Pyongyang from driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington on the processes.”

워싱턴=이정은 특파원 lightee@donga.com