“The Conditions for Engaging North Korea” Asia Institute Seminar with Jon Huntsman

“The Conditions for Engaging North Korea”

Asia Institute Seminar with Jon Huntsman

Former Governor of Utah & Republican candidate for President

9th April 2012



Jon Huntsman

American politician, businessman, and diplomat

Former United States Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China

Former Governor of Utah

Former Republican candidate for the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary


Emanuel Pastreich


The Asia Institute

(Associate Professor, Kyung Hee University)

Emanuel Pastreich:

I wanted to ask you about the prospects for engagement with North Korea from your perspective as someone who has been intimately involved in the diplomatic debate concerning the future of North Korea. The question is not so much about the latest misdeed of North Korea, but rather about what the long-term prospects are. After all, if we want to solve the problem, we must move beyond the latest news cycle.

Many Koreans are confused because, on one hand there has been times of great efforts to engage with North Korea and these have been generally frustrated, and on the other hand there have been efforts to take a harder line towards North Korea at other times, and these efforts also, although they have been successful in some respects, haven’t resolved the problem either.  The question of what to do about North Korea has become a major issue in Korea today.  What do you think is the long term solution to this problem?

Jon Huntsman:

I am not sure we can find an easy answer when we are working with regime that is willing to put everything on the line in maintaining the status quo, in repressing its people with unprecedented cruelty and in saber rattling that sends tremors through the whole region.  I am one person who feels that nothing is going to happen in the short term with North Korea because we find ourselves in the middle of a transition right now and such political transitions always bring out unpredictable behavior from those in power.

And I believe that much of what we are seeing now, the attempted missile launch, the possible detonation of a nuclear device underground, all these actions are intimately tied to the domestic process of power transition going on within North Korea. It may be tied to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung this year.  So there is not much we are going to be able to achieve at the negotiating table.  If you do make a breakthrough, the chances are it will be short lived as many have been in recent history with North Korea.  So I don’t think there should me much effort wasted on North Korea today because anything they agree to is likely to be short lived. And that then leaves it to South Korea to maintain whatever dialogue or confidence building steps that they feel are important, but in terms of the US role or the 6th party process, I’m not sure it’s going to gain any traction for some time. For young Kim Jong Un, it is going to be many months before he can consolidate fully his power base whether it’s the North Korean military or his party and once he is in power, we might find that he sees North Korea’s interests as being slightly different and in terms of what their needs are in the long term. That may then present an opening at the negotiating table.  But I don’t anticipate that happening in quite some time.

Emanuel Pastreich:

In the specific case of say the rocket launch or the nuclear tests, what would be the proper response?

Jon Huntsman:

If they are in abrogation of certain UN Security Council measures then the full force of the UN Security Council ought to be brought to bring straight sanctions, isolating them further, but again, what leverage does North Korea have? North Korea has limited leverage, military activity is one of them.  They push the international community to the point of negotiating as they have a lever called missile testing and they have a lever called underground nuclear testing.  They use it and play the international community like a Stradivarius, and so you have got to identify the points of leverage that North Korea has. As long as they have the missile and the bomb, they have a voice and I believe that all of those are contained to some degree by the UN Security Council, if they abrogate those UN Security Council agreements than the full weight of the region and indeed the world should fall upon them.

Emanuel Pastreich:

It’s one of those issues which is always in the background out herein Korea and as this is an election year, I am sure it will once again be debated. The problem is, if you take for example the shelling of Yeonpyeong island there would be some in Korea who would say that this is a result of Korea not taking a hard enough stance. But there are also those in Korea who would say something like, it is precisely because South Korea took a strong stance that this incident took place. Would do you make out of this strange argument?

Jon Huntsman:

I take both the island shelling incident and the sinking of the Cheonan as part of the early transitional politics in North Korea. I think it was an attempt by young Kim Jong Un to flex his muscle. I think much of those decisions can be traced right back to him wanting to prove to the military and to the party that he had the strength when the transition was just beginning and what better way to show strength than to use your military levers, which he did. I am not sure that you can necessarily answer both those incidents based on South Koreas approach at the time, it had more to do with transitional politics going on than anything else. And that transition I believe will continue for many months to come and therefore there is not much that we can do unless you want to be pulled into the negotiating table for yet another round of fictitious negotiations with North Korea.  They have got to have a leader who will solemnly and confidently be in place before any talks that can occur that are meaningful. If even then you can trust the talks. There is not much that can be done in the short term in the 6th party process, or even in terms of China’s ability to impact change in North Korea. I think both the island incident and the sinking of the Cheonan are evidence of China’s limited ability to move against in the North when you have something as important as a leadership transition.  This is something you have to wait out and find a solution based upon where new leadership might see their interest lies.

Emanuel Pastreich:

You have a very valuable perspective, although in Korea, which as a country is always in an enormous rush, it is very difficult for people to take that perspective. They want to see an immediate response or resolution to these difficult challenges.

Jon Huntsman:

But South Korea is on the border and the reality is different when you are minutes away as opposed to the regional perspective or even the international perspective. The local South Korean perspective is going to have to be driven first and foremost by security concerns and secondly by longer term policies that will settle out the peninsula and leave a more stable environment and economic growth. Those have got to be the two over arching priorities and they will obviously see the issue based on more immediacy than the region or the international community. So I would be hard pressed to answer this question on what South Korea should be doing at this moment, other than first and foremost, looking out for its people’s security.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Maybe I could ask you in a slightly broader sense about America’s role.  Obviously America plays a very important role in North East Asia, and in a certain sense all the players want America to be there, but America’s role is also evolving over time.   How do you see America’s role in all aspects like in terms of security, diplomacy, economic development.  How is it evolving in North East Asia?

Jon Huntsman:

I think that is one region in the world where you will see a stepped up American role. I say that because our trade and investment pattern suggest that North East Asia is one of the premiere economic centers of the world, I think over the next 20-25 years, 20-25% of the world’s GDP will reside in North East Asia.  It is a region of upgaining influence and because of that America’s forward deployed presence, which is how we spend our presence as a stabilizing force, will continue.  If anything the region, from a security standpoint and from a military standpoint, will see stepped up attention.   As Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the rest of the 21st century will actually be focused on the Asia-Pacific region because that’s where two thirds of the economy will be and that’s where our trade patterns will reside. It’s true to all of Asia and specifically North East Asia.  It’s also where problematic potential disputes might lie.  So America’s presence in the region has always been a significant center piece from a security stand point and I don’t see any reason to think that will change.  If anything it will be stepped up.

Emanuel Pastreich:

When you say stepped up, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the tensions would increase, or does it?  Do you think it is inevitable that tensions will increase in the region?

Jon Huntsman:

 No.  When I say stepped up I am not only talking about the military stand point, I am talking from a trade, commercial and diplomatic stand point. You would have to see which regions of the world are likely to be part of your future from an economic development point.  With so much of our focus on the United States on economic downtrend, where is that going to come from?  Much of it is going to come from stronger alliances with North East Asia.  When you look at Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan and the role that these economies are likely to play over the next 25 – 50 years.  By stepped up, I would suggest a stepped up posture in all areas of power and influence that the United States projects.

Emanuel Pastreich:

As you know there is a new free trade agreement with South Korea and it certainly has created a greater awareness of the United states over the last few months and a large part of it I would say is positive.  There was much dispute about the Free Trade agreement and what that would mean, but I have seen a positive response so far.


Jon Huntsman:

 Trade is a currency of peace typically and as you are brought closer together by an economic stand point it generally yields dividends from a diplomatic stand point as well. Whether you look at Singapore, Australia, Jordan, Israel, two or three nation states in Central and South America, you can see where closer economic links have brought diplomatic dividends as well. I had every belief that it would occur with South Korea as well.

Emanuel Pastreich:

At the same time, there are people in South Korea who are very concerned about things like agriculture, protecting smaller businesses and other issues like this and there is some piece of this which is not totally baseless.  How would you address these issues the citizens in Korea express in terms of their concerns about this increased trade?

Jon Huntsman:

 Even in our closest diplomatic relationships, whether that be with Canada or Mexico or South Korea, these are massively, significant and complicated trading relationships. I haven’t seen trade issues as emotionally difficult and technically thorny as the Softwood lumber with Canada for example or subsidies for air parts in Europe, yet these are our closest friends.  You work out issues over time, that’s the way it is, but you also have a foundation of trust going into these discussions based upon a level of trade and investment and diplomatic cooperation.  That allows for problem solving, as opposed to ongoing conflict, which are typically as a result of relationships that are honest and sure, as you would find between the United states and South Korea for example.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Korea is playing a remarkably broad role in terms of trade these days.  They are pursuing trade agreements and free trade agreements on a large scale in terms of the number of negotiations that are going on at present. Overall they have embraced this as a foundation of a Korean policy.

It’s been an interesting experience. I work for a Korean university here and in some ways that is part of the process to actually have Americans as faculty members and engaged not just in English teaching but in administration and planning of things. It is evolving quite quickly in Korea.

Jon Huntsman:

That must be a valuable experience for you.

Emanuel Pastreich:

It has been and I thank you for saying that. There is a lot to do in Asia and I feel very strongly as you do for the importance of America to be engaged in East Asia and in the very specifics of what’s happening on the ground here. I really appreciate the time you have taken for this interview and wish you the best for your future activities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: