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Mrs. Kang goes to Manila

The Asean Regional Forum will be the foreign minister’s first test of diplomatic caliber.
July 29,2017
“Tell him that I am here.” “I” refers U.S. State Secretary Colin Powell, and “him” is North Korean Foreign Minister Paik Nam-soon. “Here” was the meeting hall lounge of the Asean Regional Forum in Brunei.

On July 31, 2002, Secretary Powell “arranged” the 15-minute encounter with Minister Paik through Edward Dong, the State Department’s director for Korean affairs. It was a meeting with North Korea, which U.S. President George W. Bush had defined as part of the “axis of evil” six months earlier.

The meeting was possible because North Korea had made some positive moves in the days prior, expressing regret for its provocation in the West Sea on June 29. After the encounter, a U.S. envoy visited Pyongyang, which seemed to be a breakthrough for U.S.-North relations. But the situation quickly stiffened after North Korea acknowledged it had a plan to develop uranium. Fifteen years have passed since.

This year’s Asean forum is to be held in Manila, the Philippines, on Aug. 7. The forum is a multilateral security dialogue led by the 10 Asean nations, South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, Russia and North Korea. It is highlighted as a diplomatic battleground between the U.S. and China over the North Korean nuclear program and South China Sea disputes.

The United States is biding its time for the Manila meeting since North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. It will surely impose secondary sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with North Korea and make the Asean forum a chance to set an example by isolating North Korea in the international community. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported on July 7 that the U.S. unofficially asked the Philippines and other members not to allow North Korea to attend the forum.

While North Korea is the very party that makes nuclear provocations, it has ironically been treated as a “special guest” at the Asean forum. In the diplomatic thawing after the June 15 inter-Korean summit in 2000, North Korea attended the forum in Bangkok, followed by the first inter-Korean foreign ministerial meeting between Lee Jeong-bin and Paik Nam-soon.

The attendance of a North Korean foreign minister at such a meeting garnered the spotlight at the conference, at least for the Korean media, and they were indicators of the Asean forum’s success. North Korea used the event to publicize its justification for nuclear development. If North Korea’s current foreign minister, Lee Yong-ho, attends, the show will be repeated this year.

In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo last month, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said “I would like to positively review the possibility” when asked about whether she would meet with her North Korean counterpart. “As it doesn’t look good if Pyongyang declines Seoul’s offer, I will approach it cautiously and naturally,” she said. Her prudence reminds me of Powell’s encounter. It corresponds with Seoul’s continued efforts to talk with Pyongyang, as seen in President Moon Jae-in’s many overtures.

However, this year’s Asean forum is different. North Korea’s nuclear and missile development is accelerating, and East Asia’s dynamics and structure are changing by the moment. Sanctions from Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow — each with different calculations — will surely intensify.

North Korea’s foreign minister is familiar with Western culture, having attended nearly all the Asean forums since 2000. He might shake hands and greet Minister Kang, but that could be enough. Seoul has already expressed a will to talk to Pyongyang many times, but North Korea is not likely to engage in meaningful dialogue, and certainly isn’t giving up its cherished nuclear program or provocations.

The Asean forum is highlighted as the first test of Kang’s diplomatic caliber. I hope she will make a historic speech urging North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and missiles program and emphasize that a new world will open up when Pyongyang does so.

While covering the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 2005, I met Kang when she was director general for international organizations. She was straightforward and clear. She would not beat around the bush to avoid current issues. She explained them clearly and asked for cooperation when needed.

Kang was considered better than her male colleagues. Her colleagues say she has better insight on the essence of the North Korean nuclear crisis better than anyone. I look forward to her Manila performance.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 28, Page 28

*The author is a senior writer on foreign affairs and security at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Su-jeong