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Heritage Foundation founder opines on summit

Biegun’s friend says Kumgang could reopen before Kaesong
Feb 21,2019
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Edwin J. Feulner, chairman of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, speaks to the JoongAng Ilbo at the Chey Institute of Advanced Studies on Feb. 14. [LIM HYUN-DONG]
Edwin J. Feulner is one of the most influential conservative voices in Washington, having founded The Heritage Foundation, one of the United States’ leading right-wing think tanks.

While the foundation played key roles in shaping the policy positions of the Reagan administration and subsequent Republican governments, perhaps has no president has been as receptive to the Heritage Foundation’s ideas as Donald J. Trump.

CNN once described the Heritage Foundation as “Trump’s think tank” due to its instrumental role in guiding the administration’s platform. In a review released January last year, Heritage itself said that the Trump administration had implemented nearly two-thirds of its ideas.

Foreign affairs constitute a central aspect of that influence. While he stepped down as the organization’s president early last year, Feulner currently serves as the chairman of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. Feulner prides himself on his close 25-year relationship with the current U.S. chief negotiator in talks with North Korea, Special Representative Stephen Biegun.

Possible insider knowledge from Biegun led many to believe his views are reflective of the Trump administration’s position on its denuclearization negotiations with North Korea ahead of a high-stakes second summit slated for Feb. 27-8 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Feulner came to Seoul last week to participate in the inaugural academic conference of the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies on Feb. 14. He gave a keynote speech and sat on a panel with Kurt Campbell, chairman of Asia Group, and Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University, to discuss the summit.

Like most experts in the conference, Feulner stressed the importance of concrete steps from North Korea. He also talked about the numerous economic possibilities that could follow in return, such as the establishment of an escrow account or reopening of the Mount Kumgang tour program with South Korea.

The JoongAng Ilbo sat down with Feulner on the sidelines of the conference to hear his views on the summit and its implications.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview.



Q. You said during the panel discussion that you are cautiously optimistic [about the summit]. What should be included in the Hanoi summit?

A
. There has to be achievements towards measurable steps forward in terms of the specific objective of denuclearization. The last summit was just eight months ago and as Kurt [Campbell] pointed out, there have been no external offensive actions by North Korea. There have been the [recovery of] remains of soldiers during the Korean War and other positive but small steps. I think we are now at the stage where I think that the presence of U.S. Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo and Ambassador Biegun going back and forward in a shuttle diplomacy to Pyongyang, I think they are on track to some very measurable specific achievements. Not only people in South Korea but I think people in the United States are expecting, too. One thing most Americans have learned, even if they don‘t like him, they have learned that Donald Trump does not like to waste time. He would not be going halfway around the world traveling for two days for a wasted meeting.



Will the Hanoi summit be different from the first one at Singapore last June?

Yes. Singapore was a “get to know you.” Hanoi is “here is where we go.” I think it would be more measurable and achievable.



Can you elaborate on the measurable steps? Biegun mentioned “beyond Yongbyon” while other experts like Robert Einhorn mentioned “nuclear facilities anywhere in North Korea.”

Yeah, I know they can put nuclear facilities anywhere [in North Korea]. We have the national technical means of measuring where they are and what has actually been done. So that if in fact they say they are going destroy this number of missiles, we know whether or not they actually do it. I don’t know what the numbers are or how it’s going to possibly be done, but there will be measurables.



Should the specifics be hammered out in a written form like a statement?

No. I think the principles of both on the U.S. and the DPRK [The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name] side and as well as the principles here at the Blue House and probably Beijing as well and maybe Tokyo, we’ll know what the measurables are. Whether it comes out in the final declaration, whether there will be three missiles in this class and four bombs in this category - I don’t know the depths. I don‘t think it‘s essential as long as we know, and they know that we know. If we both know what’s on the list [of actions to be taken] and the list isn‘t achieved, it will be worse I think for North Korea.

We can’t let just positive hopes and photo ops take over. There have to be real achievements, but how much of it has to be public [is debatable]. I know the media wants more public, but sometimes that isn‘t the best way to go. For example, one of the things I said during the panel discussion is that there have been some talks and a notion to put some funds from different countries in an escrow account [for North Korea in exchange for its denuclearization] and it might be something that in fact might work. Again, that is not something that necessarily has to come out in the final communique. But it can be a piece of it because that would obviously be one of the carrots to Pyongyang. But Steve Biegun told me that we also have sticks if we need to use the sticks.



What are those sticks? Sanctions?

Ah, well yes. I mean, I think one of the things I did not bring up publicly but is clear is that in fact China is not completely and strictly obeying the sanctions. They should be but they aren’t.



Will there be more discussions after Hanoi?

Oh, of course. I am sure there will be. We are now in a pattern. It does not have to be summits all the time. Next time it could be their foreign minister with Secretary Pompeo or their ambassador with our ambassador, in steps. After Hanoi, there will have to be follow up meetings, saying, “hey you said you will do this,” “we are not on time,” “where are the steps you promised to take,” etc.



What have you heard regarding Biegun’s visit to Pyongyang this month?

Nothing that I can discuss here now.



How would you describe Biegun as a negotiator?

Thoughtful, principled and committed. He was in business at Ford. He knows how to operate big facilities and big production. Forward looking, again, knowing what his objectives are and sticking to the script, and the script is not just his but also him plus people inside the administration and people who have worked with these issues for many years. I was a little surprised that Kurt Campbell implied that the experts were not being called on [by the Trump administration]. I think that’s wrong. I think there are experts inside the administration and inside Washington that are called on very intensively.



How would you respond to concerns that President Trump might compromise with the North Koreans by handing them a favorable deal because of the domestic pressures he faces at home?

(After slight hesitation) He does not need to compromise on domestic issues. The domestic economy is going so strong. Putting aside his minor problems with Pelosi, those can be handled.



What about the possibilities of a “small deal,” as described by the press, in which the United States might first demand the dismantlement of ICBMs from North Korea rather than its entire nuclear program.

Oh yes. I‘ve heard about that but didn’t know it is described as a small deal. Look, the United States knows what full denuclearization means, and yes it‘s a step by step process, so if in fact that is the first step, that is how it starts but that’s not where it ends up. I would not worry about that.



Do you agree with some analysts that the United States is likely to relieve sanctions on North Korea?

If there is a significant enough deal being made, I think that would clearly a part of where we might end up, and as I’ve mentioned, there could be an escrow account and it can be a piece of the package. I don’t know, but there are those things that have been talked about very seriously that could be out there.



How about allowing the North to resume its inter-Korean exchanges with the South at Mount Kumgang?

Could be.



How about reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex?

Well, probably a little further along. Part of the problem is that Kaesong is kind of like North Korean workers overseas - it‘s a major source of cash and foreign investment or foreign reserves coming in and bailing out the government. So, unless there’s a significant piece of an agreement, I don’t think reopening of Kaesong can be [possible].



But Kumgang is different?

Yes. It‘s more of a humanitarian indication and the money is not as big as Kaesong and it‘s more people to people. You know it’s not a big business.



What about a liaison office between the United States and North Korea?

The liaison office I guess is a possibility, I mean we have enough travel back and forth now over several administrations with senior people. Maybe it is time to do that, but that would again have to be a small piece of a package.



Yes. Step by step.

Step by step is a way to go, but again, in Hanoi, if there are five steps that are verifiable and there are five counters then from the United States, at this point the sanctions will be lifted or Kumgang might come up and further down Kaesong, but that doesn’t mean that Trump and Kim will go to maybe Honolulu or somewhere and have a nice weekend.



How do you think the U.S.-China talks on trade will affect the summit with North Korea?

Knowing Donald Trump, he separates them. If he is going to buy a building on Park Avenue and sell a building on Fifth Avenue, they don’t have to be together. Sometimes he can put them together, but he knows how to negotiate. Read [Trump’s book] “The Art of the Deal.”



Compared to previous U.S. administrations you’ve worked with, how would you describe President Trump, as well as Chairman Kim?

Trump is a disrupter in his negotiations. He expands the range of options and he goes outside of the options. I know George W. Bush reasonably well, better than I know Trump, I guess, and the notion of him sitting with Kim Jong-un or his father, or George H.W. Bush sitting down with Kim Il Sung, that would be unthinkable. But Donald Trump, when he is talking about different ways doing things, that’s why I think there can be some breakthroughs. But yet again, that‘s why I am an optimist in Washington.



People talk about the “Trump risk,” that he might make an inadequate agreement for public relations purposes. What can you say about that?

I don’t think so. No, no. He knows how much is riding on this, not only in terms of a bilateral U.S.-North Korea relationship but in terms of the region. I think Kurt Campbell and the Chinese professor were right in that all of these are fitted together.



But we’ve seen Trump come up with unseen numbers with regard to striking a new cost sharing agreement with South Korea on the stationing of U.S. troops here. Tell us more about that.

I think the fact that United States and ROK [Republic of Korea, the official name of South Korea] negotiators came together on the $1 billion, more or less, number for one year and then we can reopen the negotiations beyond that one year, [is good]. One of the ideas that I remind all friends in the administration at every level possible is that there are 28,000 troops here and if somehow we pull them out and put them in Kentucky or some place, we have to pay a lot there anyway.

Also, how can we bring them back here when we need them here? Settle down guys, be happy that we are getting a billion dollars on cost sharing and in the meantime [push] our lacking friends in Europe like the Germans in terms of real cost sharing. I know that Germany is not doing what it should and we have a long way to go there. I think the deal done here was a very good one and I’m glad Korea and the United States came together on this.



Do you think North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is genuine in terms of committing to denuclearization?

His back is up against it. He understands the positives, the disincentives and where he could go on the upside. So I think he is as sincere as a communist dictator could be. A young communist dictator trained in Switzerland (laughs).



What do you think is the role of South Korea in this process?

The role of the South Korean government is absolutely indispensable in terms of standing side by side with their American allies and in terms of a united front. What we are doing with regard to North Korea is primarily to benefit our friends here. Yeah, they talk about ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], but if that were actually a threat, the United States could come over to take care of that in six hours. We are worried about what happens here in the peninsula and we have to be side by side with Seoul.

BY CHUN SU-JIN, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]