South Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye, was supposed to visit United States President Barack Obama in Washington next week to discuss the growing threat from Kim Jong-un’s nuclear-armed North Korea and her country’s vexed relationship with Japan. But the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) and her falling poll numbers forced Park to cancel the trip. In this interview, she covers those issues and more. Excerpts:
Why did you cancel your trip? What can you do in South Korea to contain MERS?
PARK GEUN-HYE: My visit to the US was very important. The spread of Mers is being brought under control, but we still have a significant number of confirmed cases. So I resolved to put the safety of the Korean people first.
Seoul and Tokyo have historically had a very tense relationship over the interpretation of Second World War history — even though you have many common interests. How can you improve the relationship? Will you meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?
We have history issues that need to be dealt with. At the same time, Korea’s relationship with Japan and coordination on the security front should not be adversely impacted by those issues. As for Prime Minister Abe, I have had a chance to engage with him on a number of occasions. There has been considerable progress on the issue of ‘comfort women’ and we are in the final stage of our negotiations. So I think we can expect to look forward to a very meaningful 50th anniversary of the normalisation of our diplomatic ties.
You have always said that the issue of ‘comfort women’ — that is, Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during the War — has to be dealt with. Can you describe the progress?
Obviously, because these are behind-the-scenes discussions, I would be remiss to disclose the elements of the discussions.
Are you hoping that Abe may issue some kind of an apology?
Historians in Japan as well as those across the world have been calling on the Japanese leadership to come clean about what they have done in the past, so we can move forward. But denial and efforts to gloss over what happened have stymied our ability to make progress. As for the ‘comfort women’, we only have 52 surviving victims. It behoves Japan to bring healing to their wounds and to bring honour to them before another ‘comfort woman’ passes away.
How do you assess the situation in North Korea, with Kim Jong-un executing so many senior officials?
Since [he] took power three-and-a-half-years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror may work in the short term, in the mid-to-long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime.
Currently, North Korea is constantly upgrading and enhancing the sophistication of its nuclear weapons and developing and honing its missile capabilities as well. These represent a threat not just to the Korean Peninsula, but also to the international community. So it is extremely urgent that we achieve a denuclearisation of North Korea.
How can that be done when they don’t seem to care about the outside world?
The Korea-US alliance, as well as the international community and also five of the six parties engaged in talks, need to step up the pressure ... to bring them back to the negotiating table. We can instil in them the belief that possessing nuclear weapons is an exercise in futility.
How? By increasing sanctions?
We could step up pressure vis-a-vis North Korea.
Last week, the US government announced that there were “additional unidentified nuclear facilities” in North Korea. Does South Korea think that North Korea’s nuclear programme is larger than was previously believed?
The International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have not been able to go inside North Korea [in quite a while], so there is a probability that what you just said is true.
When you look at the Iranian sanctions regime, which resulted in denuclearisation talks, would you like to see a similar approach to North Korea?
Of course, things should turn out that way, but I believe in reality ... [in this part of the world] it might be more difficult.
You have a good relationship with China’s president, Xi Jinping. China is one of the last countries to have some influence over North Korea and it provides the country with much of its energy. Does Xi share your views? Would he cut off some of the energy China sends to North Korea?
I have had summit meetings with President Xi. In the past, we were not able to engage in in-depth discussions on the topic of unification or North Korean nuclear weapons. But now we have reached a point — between Xi and myself — where we can talk extensively about North Korea and about peaceful unification as well. Xi firmly adheres to the position that he will not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. From the Chinese perspective, on the one hand they say that it wouldn’t be wise to rattle the situation too much. On the other hand, [they also believe] that if we let the ongoing enhancement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons continue, eventually we will face a situation that will be beyond our control.
So China doesn’t want to cut off all the energy it sends to North Korea? China could bring about a collapse that way?
Yes, that would be a fair assessment.
Would you welcome a collapse? Or not welcome one?
My hope is to see a peaceful resolution ... without seeing a collapse scenario.
It sounds difficult to do anything with North Korea, much as you and others have tried. If it is as dangerous as you say, what is the next alternative? Shutting off banking flows?
We are engaged in a wide range of discussions with the US on how to deal with this situation. If we are to see a peaceful resolution, the North Koreans also have to step up. As you say in English, it takes two to tango.
Do you see any cracks in the regime in North Korea?
Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even Kim’s inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee.
Was he part of the inner circle?
No, he wouldn’t qualify as an inner-circle person. He was part of the cadre of the party.
You recently attended the testing of a South Korean missile that can reach all parts of North Korea.
The North Koreans continue to enhance the sophistication of their nuclear capabilities and also develop a wide range of missiles. So it is incumbent upon us to fashion a response. In the future, this missile will be a key element to our Korean Air and Missile Defence System.
The US reportedly favours deploying Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad), the US Army’s anti-ballistic-missile system, to South Korea. What will you say if the US requests this deployment in South Korea?
We would look at this together with the US, taking into consideration a variety of elements, including whether it serves our national security interest.
China has asked South Korea not to permit the deployment of Thaad. So China pressures you not to do it while the US pressures you to do it. Do you feel squeezed?
When it comes to security, it shouldn’t be about yes or no depending on the position of certain countries. The first priority should be how we can best safeguard the Korean people.
You have had tremendous success in improving South Korea’s relationship with China. You have visited China and Xi has visited your country. How do you see China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, where it has expanded its claims quite aggressively?
China is Korea’s largest trading partner, and China has a huge role to play in upholding peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula ... As for the South China Sea, the security and freedom of navigation are very important for South Korea. We are watching with concern the developments in that area. We hope that the situation does not deteriorate.
How do you see President Vladimir Putin of Russia?
It is important for Korea to maintain strong relations with Russia, because they are a member of the six-party talks with North Korea and they have been steadfast in their opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Your mother was killed when you were in your early 20s and then your father, former Korean president Park Chung-hee, was assassinated a few years later. How did you have the strength to survive that and to go into politics yourself?
Because of such tragedy and difficulties, people say, ‘How could you even think about going near the world of politics?’ As a child, I grew up embedded with the virtue of serving this country. When the foreign exchange crisis struck in 1997, I felt it necessary to do what I could to place our country on a strong footing, and that’s what prompted me to enter the realm of politics. As long as I feel the country is moving in the right direction — that the country is stable — I can rest. But in the absence of that belief, I cannot find rest.
I myself have been the victim of a terrorist attack and almost lost my life. I lost my parents — they suffered tragic deaths. I went through so many ordeals. In the course of enduring those challenges, I learned what is important is the essence. Whereas others may be chasing after the froth, the ostensible appearance, those experiences taught me to see through the froth and seek to grasp the essence.
— Washington Post