- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2017

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

President Trump has broken with his predecessors in making North Korea’s nuclear programs a priority from the first day of his administration, improving the prospects for a negotiated solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula despite the angry rhetoric and provocative moves from both Washington and Pyongyang, the head of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party said in an interview.

Choo Mi-ae, an ally of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, stressed the need for a “peaceful resolution” to the standoff with the North, which in addition to its growing nuclear stockpile has a full arsenal of conventional weapons capable of hitting Seoul and other major South Korean population centers.



Despite Mr. Trump’s belittling of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocketman” and his vows to rain down “fire and fury” on the North after a series of nuclear and missile tests rocked the region, Ms. Choo said in an interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Times that there was now a “broad consensus” between Seoul and Washington that a tough line can open the way for a diplomatic end to the crisis.

“In the past, we had the U.S. talking of ‘strategic patience’ and sometimes shutting an eye to the North’s provocations,” said Ms. Choo, speaking through an interpreter.

“But the circumstances have clearly changed, with the North making much quicker progress on its nuclear programs than many expected,” she said. “It has been clear from the outset [of his presidency] that President Trump is willing to do what it takes to bring the North Koreans to the negotiating table.”

Ms. Choo said Mr. Trump has also broken with past U.S. practice by placing a top priority on the Korean crisis at the very beginning of his administration rather than waiting like past administrations for the final years in power, when U.S. negotiating leverage and the ability to make long-term deals were more limited.

Accelerated timetable

That accelerated timetable was on display again Tuesday as the Treasury Department designated six North Korean shipping and trading companies and 20 vessels for economic sanctions as part of its efforts to disrupt funding for the rogue nation’s nuclear and missile programs.

The United States also issued sanctions on four Chinese trading companies and a Chinese national said to have conducted hundreds of millions of dollars in business with the Kim regime.

The Treasury Department acted a day after Mr. Trump officially restored North Korea to the official list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Moon government imposed its own sanctions on 18 North Korean officials Nov. 5, and U.S. officials said Tuesday that the economic noose is tightening around Pyongyang.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement that the U.S. strategy is to “maximize pressure” to isolate North Korea. Those sanctioned are barred from holding U.S. assets or doing business with Americans.

There was some concern that Ms. Choo’s Democratic Party, which has backed a policy of engaging with the North in this spring’s presidential campaign, would clash with the more hawkish approach of the Trump administration, but the party leader said fears are receding that the U.S. and other major powers in the region will “skip South Korea” in settling the nuclear crisis once and for all.

She said she believes Mr. Trump has a better appreciation for the precarious position of South Korea with a rogue nuclear state for a neighbor. She cited the speech the U.S. president gave to the Korean National Assembly and his curtailed trip to the tense Demilitarized Zone while visiting South Korea on his recent 12-day Asian tour.

“We know President Trump has often said all options are on the table in dealing with the North, but before the visit I think it was the military option that was being emphasized,” she said. “Now it seems that the option of forcing the North to engage at the bargaining table is being emphasized. One real product of the trip was that the president made clear there will be no ‘skipping’ of South Korea, which I think is very much appreciated by the South Korean people.”

Trade fight

On the issue of trade, Ms. Choo walked a diplomatic line, suggesting that Mr. Trump’s loud and frequent complaints about the 2012 U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement are based on a lack of understanding of what is in the deal. Mr. Trump has repeatedly denounced the “horrible” deal as the model for free trade agreements that hurt U.S. producers while running up American trade deficits.

“If President Trump could have the opportunity to study the free trade agreement in detail, maybe he would form a different opinion about what’s in it,” said Ms. Choo, citing what she said were declining South Korean bilateral trade surpluses in recent years.

According to the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea last year totaled $17 billion, although the U.S. had a $10.7 billion surplus in trade services last year, up 2.6 percent from 2015.

Ms. Choo also cautioned that other East Asian nations are watching closely as Seoul and Washington consider a renegotiation of the 5-year-old accord, particularly in light of Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the broader regional Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in the first days of his presidency.

“If the U.S. does walk out on the [South Korea free trade agreement], then that would be translated as the U.S. administration returning to a protectionist position,” she said.

Seoul, which was not an original party to the TPP, would inevitably turn to the TPP nations and to other markets in East Asia if the U.S. free trade agreement collapses, she said, and Mr. Trump’s stated hope of negotiating one-on-one bilateral trade deals instead of the multilateral pacts such as TPP and the North American Free Trade Agreement would take a hit if the “model” South Korean deal fell apart.

While favoring a diplomatic end to the crisis, Ms. Choo took a hard line on the longer term. Any unification of the two hostile Koreas, she said, will require as a precondition that the Kim regime completely give up its nuclear programs.

“It’s a huge stumbling block,” she said. The North’s nuclear arsenal must be destroyed “before any thoughts of unification can even begin.”

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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