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Welcome to BBC HARDtalk. I’m Stephen Sackur.
Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed ‘deal maker extraordinaire’ is finding the Korean Peninsula tough going. For all his claims of friendship with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang seems no closer to giving up its nuclear arsenal. America’s strategic partnership with South Korea is looking increasingly strained too.
Our Guest is South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. Her country is currently out of step with both the US and Japan. How vulnerable does that make South Korea?
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, in Beijing. Welcome to HARDtalk.
Q: Stephen Sackur
A: Kang Kyung-wha
Q: Foreign Minister, I think we have to start, because you are in Beijing, and you’ve had meetings with both Chinese, (and) Japanese Foreign Ministers, we have to start with your very troubled relationship with Japan. I’m gonna quote you the words of a Financial Times newspaper editorial, they say, ‘the world’s been fixated on Donald Trump’s tariffs on China, but a new trade war is emerging in Asia. This time, between Japan and South Korea.“ Is that the way you see it?
A: You know, I’ve seen that article and I have to say that this issue over trade with Japan has come quite unexpectedly, and I have to say, in a very unilateral and arbitrary manner on the part of Japan. We’re prepared to discuss what the issue is and keep this as a trade issue, but I think the steps that they have taken has caused a great deal of problems for our industries and I think you know we want very much to engage with them in the consultations so that we can take this back to pre-July 1 when they had taken these steps.
Q: But if I may say so, it’s not clear to me that you really want to lower the temperature. Because the Chinese Foreign Minister said to you both, that is to yourself and to the Japanese Foreign Minister, “Please resolve this issue quickly, get a dialogue going, lower the temperature.” And you, in the same news conference, chose to say, and I’m quoting you, “It is important to eliminate unilateral and arbitrary trade retaliatory steps.” Which was clearly a jab at your Japanese counterpart. So you’re not really trying to sort this out.
A: Well, we are, in fact. We have offered to engage on the trade issue. It is unilateral, it is arbitrary, and it is retaliatory. The Japanese rationale for introducing these trade-restrictive measures has shifted. Initially, they linked it to their dissatisfaction over how we were handling our high court judgment on the issue of forced labor, then they gave the rationale that they found problems with our export control measure and that some of these sensitive items may make their way to North Korea. They have clarified that is not the case but there have been “some inappropriate cases”, but they have not explained to us as yet what those inappropriate cases are. We have offered to meet between our trade authorities to talk through their issues and to see how we might address their concerns if their concerns are legitimate. We have not had any response from them.
Q: Let’s just be candid, Foreign Minister. This dispute, and we can go into some of the detail, but let’s... put in simple terms, it has revived some very old suspicions, even hatreds between Japanese and South Korean peoples. And We’ve even tragically seen two people setting themselves on fire in protest of Japan’s restrictive trade strategy. This is very, very damaging for what is supposed to be a crucial regional alliance for you.
A: It is. Our relations with Japan is extremely important, especially given our need for collaboration and coordination as we deal with the North Korean nuclear issue, of course in close consultation with the United States as well. But I think the reaction of the Korean public to these trade measures taken by Japan – you have to see it in the larger context of the relations between the two countries, as you know there has been a very painful past, and the past has drawn a very long shadow over the recent relations. My government has said, let’s deal with the past, difficult but let’s manage that, but let’s move on in these other areas in close collaboration, and Japan has so far in this government has not responded to that.
Q: What you just said is very important, but it doesn’t seem to square with what’s actually happening because your court in South Korea started in 2018 to revive the notion that individual South Koreans could seek compensation from the Japanese for wartime forced labor. That seemed to the Japanese to run entirely contrary to the treaty you signed with the Japanese going back to 1965, which said that all claims have been completely and finally settled. You can’t sign a legal document and then reopen the whole concept of compensation.
A: Well, first of all, the Japanese themselves have also indicated that individual rights to claim have not been extinguished - that has been their position through the 1990s. They have slightly changed tune in the recent years, but the ‘65 agreement is about claims on property rights, financial rights, debts and credits. What the recent court judgment has said that the treaty between the two countries stays, - we’re not saying we’re breaking that or asking them to renegotiate that. What the court judgment has said is that the context of illegal occupation in the colonial rule and the war of aggression, illegal acts directly connected to the context have not been covered by the ‘65 agreement.
Q: You really think it's healthy for you to encourage South Korean citizens, here in 2019, to seek compensation for the tragic and terrible things that happened during the Japanese colonial occupation? It is really worth reviving and digging through all of that, is it?
A: I think It’s not the government encouraging. These are individuals who are living, survivors who have lived through that terrible time and personally experienced the forced labor.
Q: You heard the Chinese say, “Look, you guys, South Korean and Japan must get together and resolve this because it’s very bad for regional trade and it’s jeopardizing the hopes for the free trade agreement across the entire East Asia region. And the Japanese, of course, have put their restrictive export controls on some key goods that normally are exported from Japan to your country and we’ll talk about that, but you in your turn do seem to be getting very petty in this dispute. For example, your government just announced it’s going to double the amount of samples and the frequency of tests and inspections on radioactive substances coming in food and agricultural produces from Japan, a sort of throwback to the concerns we had after Fukushima in 2011, but this is 2019 - why are you suddenly reimposing, or putting on new, very tight controls on these Japanese agriculture and food products?
A: Well, there is still concern on the part of our public about the fisheries products and the agricultural products in the vicinities of the Fukushima plant, and I think, you know, we of course have to listen to the concerns of our public.
Q: It is only now that you’re in a bitter trade war with Japan that you’ve decided you suddenly need to impose these extra tests. You could have imposed them years ago but you didn’t. It doesn’t look good.
A: No, however it looks, I think we do our policy reviews and take steps in accordance with the public concern for their safety and health, and I’ve been given the release of a recent report on the possible releasing of contaminated wastewater into the sea. We have asked Japan for explanation about this. I think we will continue to engage them on this issue, but that has raised a lot of concern on our public and therefore I think it‘s government’s legitimate response.
Q: Just a couple of more quick ones on Japan before we get to the whole Korean peninsula strategic issue, if I may, in Japan, are you now saying to the Japanese that not only economic ties but security, intelligence, and strategic partnership ties are at stake?
A: We want to minimize the issues. I think given the Japanese rationale now, that trade control issues are really technical issues on the part of their export industries, we are saying, okay, fine, let’s discuss it at that level and work through the technical issues. We’ve not had response from the Japanese on that. Obviously, evidently, it is tied to their displeasure over our court judgment. This is the judgment of our highest court, we absolutely have to abide by that. No self-respecting democracy that abides by the rule of law and the independence of court would do otherwise. So that is the situation in my country. The Japanese position is that everything was settled by the 65, and so we’re trying to find a way forward that helps us to resolve this issue and we have thought through very seriously on all the options. We have offered a way that has not been even seriously considered by Japan. We remain committed to open discussion and consultations on all of these issues.
Q: Where does this aim then? Because if one looks at the economic battle that is playing out right now, to be honest, Japan is bigger, more powerful economy then yours, you depend on some key strategic tech components and materials for your biggest companies like Samsung that come from Japan. So frankly, outsiders would think that Japan holds more of the cards here than you do, particularly in that your export business is right now suffering already and this is going to hit them hard. The South Korean economy looks vulnerable, you look vulnerable in this battle with Japan.
A: Exactly. I think, you know, we depend on Japan. Our trade with Japan has always been in the minus for us and of all the export items we get from Japan, it has been those three critical items to our semi-conductor industry that they put restriction on. So, it is just, to think that a country that has so mutually interdependence, so much people-to-people exchanges and growing, that they would do this without prior notice, without prior consultations, very unilaterally, and just three days, mind you, after the G20 in Osaka committed the countries to free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, and predictable trade, to have this on us three days later. I think it is completely unacceptable so we are asking, through consultations, let’s find a way to roll things back to pre-July 1.
Q: You sound very angry.
A: We are, I think we are. There’s the blatant sense of injustice, because I think Japan has not fully come to terms with the past. So, that has meant that people, the living survivors in particular who have lived through those difficult days have deep-seated sense of injustice that they have not been given their due claims about the harms done to them.
Q: Let me stop you there, because your position on the sour relationship with Japan has become very clear in this interview, but there is something else very important I need to talk to you about, and that is the strategic, diplomatic position of your government, with regard to North Korea, and in particular Donald Trump’s continued effort to make what he has always described as the big, grand deal of denuclearizing North Korea. He describes Kim Jong-un, President of North Korea, as his friend, a man who writes him beautiful letters, and yet all of Trump’s diplomacy frankly, thus far, appears to have achieved nothing. Are you worried about Trump’s strategy?
A: I think that we’re in a bit of a low, I think the lack of agreement in Hanoi has been disappointing. The North Koreans have not been ready or prepared to come back to the negotiating table. The North Korean leader promised President Trump at their brief meeting in the DMZ in late June that they will come back to the negotiating table, They haven’t, but indications are that they by now perhaps may be ready. I think there is communication, contacts between the United States and North Korea to set the agenda, to set the date and the place for their working-level negotiations when they take place. So I think to say this has been a failure or disappointment, no progress has been... I think that when you look at things on a day-to-day basis, or week-to-week basis, month-to-month basis, things look different. But I think if you look at in the larger perspective, it’s a huge-step change from where we were two years ago.
Q: With the huge-step change Donald Trump has given all sorts of diplomatic prizes to Kim Jong-un, but he appears to have gotten very little in return. In particular, you in South Korea appears to have been cut out of the entire Korean diplomacy. North Koreans the other day said that they will never talk to you again. They said that the idea that they can have meaningful talks with you would make “the boiled head of a dead cow laugh,“ so they are not interested in talking to you, and Donald Trump doesn’t seem to want to talk to you very much either, he’s much keen to talk to Kim Jong-un direct, so you seem irrelevant now.
A: I wouldn’t say so. I think our collaboration with the United States at all levels is extremely close. And I think that North Korean challenge has in fact brought us even closer. It may not be visible, but I think the number of meetings that my president and Mr. Trump have had, the phone conversation, my own interactions with Mr. Pompeo has been extremely frequent and very close. So we do think based upon a very close US-South Korea coordination, so for the North Koreans to think that they can cut us out of this is a bit ludicrous, I don’t think they understand the reality. We also know that North Korea’s diplomatic behavior is very unique to put it mildly, and some of it is quite unacceptable, given the diplomatic norms...
Q: Sorry to interrupt again. This is a very difficult line. But Kim Jong-un has Donald Trump precisely where he wants him. He doesn’t need South Korea coming in and complicating that relationship. So the North Korea's message to you guys is quite simple. Unless you are prepared to ease economic sanctions and offer economic assistance to North Korea, and unless you are prepared to end your strategic, military partnership with the United States, North Korea has no interest in talking to Seoul. So over to you, are you prepared to consider North Korea’s requests of you?
A: I don’t think, you know, our strategic alliance with the United States is something for the North Koreans to demand anything of or comment on. We’re absolutely confident about the strength of the alliance and the strength of the day-to-day coordination. I think you also have to distinguish between North Korea’s rhetoric and what their internal calculations are. And I think in all of these matters, we share the analysis, the information very frequently with the United States. So in fact, I think in many ways, the alliance is stronger than ever.
Q: I wonder whether your words about the strength of your partnership with Washington will convince anybody around world when we look at the reality of Donald Trump in recent days, questioning the point of joint military exercises with your forces in South Korea, saying I don’t like paying for them. We should be reimbursed for them, and I’ve told the South Koreans that. Then he went on to say that South Korea has agreed to pay substantially more money to the US in order to defend itself from North Korea, something which you then said actually hasn’t been settled yet. So what’s the truth here? Is there a big dispute with the United States about how much you’re prepared to pay to have the US help defend you?
A: Well, this is not a dispute. This is an issue that we’ll work through in the spirit of the alliance. We've worked through the ten rounds of this cost-sharing agreement and we will work through the next round. I think President Trump, we know his style, his tweets, we read them been very carefully, but we also look that in the long term in the larger policy context of the United States...
Q: You're being very diplomatic, Minister. I understand that. That is your job. How did you feel when Donald Trump first of all mimicked in a rather offensive way the South Korean accent in a private meeting, and then he was reported as saying, jokingly, it was easier to get a billion dollars from South Korea than to get a few hundred dollars from a rental apartment in Brooklyn. This is the man that you want as a strategic partner?
A: You’re trying to instigate me but I won’t fall for that and I will not comment either way on the words or the actions of President Trump and I think in the overall, his determination and his political will has been instrumental, together with my President, to bring us this far on the engagement with North Korea. But that I think is also supported by the policy establishment of the United States as represented in the State Department, in the Defense Department, and the National Security Council.
Q: But you can only take diplomacy so far when John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, suggested that in the future, South Korea should pay all 5 billion US dollars cost of the 28,000 US troops sitting in South Korea. How do you feel about that?
A: As we have not yet started serious negotiations, that’s for sure. We have their team, I think in Korea for the first round of initial sounding out, but serious negotiations will begin in September. So we have yet to see where this leads to but we will certainly go to the negotiating table on the cost-sharing based upon our position of arriving at a reasonable level that is acceptable to us, that we can handle, and that we can pass through our National Assembly.
Q: Can you ever remember a time in the recent past when South Korea looked more economically and politically vulnerable? We’ve talked about the impact of the trade dispute with Japan on your economy, but frankly, strategically, you’re in dispute with Japan, the North Koreans won’t talk to you, your relationship with Trump is, shall we say, troubled to say the least, you’ve got China and Russia which have ambitions in your region which don’t necessarily match yours. South Korea is in a lot of trouble.
A: We have lots of challenges but I wouldn't call our relations with the United States troubled. I think We have our disagreements. All relationships do. But we are in alliance of 65 years and we have been able to work through difficult issues in the past in the spirit of the alliance. We have our challenges with Japan, we have our issues with China and Russia. But one fundamental goal we share is that the Korean peninsula must be wholly denuclearized and that we must find lasting peace on the Korean peninsula. So we very much have that goal in our eyesight* and we deal with daily challenges as they come.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, I thank you very much indeed for joining me in Beijing.