The following is an abridged transcript of the interview with Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center and Daily NK columnist;
Daily NK: Do you expect the U.S.-Korean alliance to weaken because of budgetary constraints in Washington, as has been pointed out by some experts?
BK: Right now, defense officials feel there would be some pain, but that they can absorb the existing $400 billion cuts. If the supra-committee is unable to come up with more cuts, which seems unlikely, then you’ll have this automatic additional $400-$500 billion in defense cuts. That really is a bit of a doomsday scenario, because no one can guarantee what programs will or won’t be cut. It’s an automatic cut and there’s no real indication of how the cuts are made. And at that point, there are no guarantees. U.S. officials have testified and stated publicly that it would have a dramatically negative impact on the U.S. ability to fulfill its security obligations, which obviously would include Asia.
Daily NK: Do you expect that doomsday scenario to come to pass?
BK: In a way it’s hard to see it not occurring. You have a committee of twelve, the Congressional members, trying to do the job of what 535 of them should be doing and should have been doing for years. They’ve even moved up the deadline from late November to early November, and some republicans are calling for them to go beyond the $1.5 trillion in cuts that would be necessary, to go even bigger.
Daily NK: If the doomsday scenario came to pass, do you expect South Korea to be able to cope with whatever might come out of it?
BK: It depends on what the cuts would be. Right now, South Korea cannot stand on its own to deter, defend and defeat the North Korean military threat. It’s still heavily reliant on the U.S. military.
Daily NK: Kim Jong Eun officially emerged almost one year ago exactly. Do you think the U.S. is paying any attention to that issue when it decides on its dealings with North Korea?
BK: The U.S. government is clearly aware of the ongoing succession and is trying to get better information on Kim Jong Eun, what his decision making process and policies will likely be. There’s also concern about stability in North Korea during the succession. That said, I think there’s less concern now than when Kim Jong Il had a stroke in 2008, because now we have official succession policies in place, which was not the case before. Now there is a greater likelihood that the succession plan is in place and likely would work. There’s less nervousness than there was back in 2008. However, there’s very little, if any, perception that Kim Jong Eun would have any different kind of policies from his father and grandfather. Some people will hope, naively I believe, that because Kim Jong Eun was educated in Switzerland for a few years that he will be more amenable to Chinese style economic reform, political reform, or a less belligerent foreign policy. Yet many third world dictators have been educated in the West. Hence, there’s very little expectation that he would be anything other than a chip off the old block.
If you look at North Korea, he is a product of the system. There are absolutely no indications other than wishful thinking that he would pursue any kind of different policy. He’s made no statements, no policy utterances that indicate he will be anything other than a shadow of his father… And also because he will have a weaker grip on power than his father or grandfather, he has to be more concerned about maintaining the support of the other senior members of the policy community. This is why he will have to be looking over a shoulder at the others who see any change in policy as risking instability. All the indications from Pyongyang over the years have been the perception that opening up or reform risks the contagion of outside influences. Thus, he would be unlikely to open the country to outside engagement and, if anything, he may have to pursue an even more aggressive foreign policy.
Daily NK: Can the gas pipeline project be achieved in terms of security; indeed, can it be achieved at all?
BK: The announcement of the gas pipeline coming out of the Kim Jong Il-Russian summit was a surprise. But I didn’t have much hope that it would actually occur, because I would think that Seoul would be very nervous about being reliant on an energy delivering pipeline that goes across North Korea, which North Korea may have the potential for cutting off during a crisis. I’ve been even more surprised that the Lee Myung Bak government seems to be very accepting of this, and I believe even some trilateral agreements have been signed. That said, even though some terms and conditions may have been signed, given the complexity, the cost, the length of time required for this kind of project, I just can’t imagine it happening.
Daily NK: What about future prospects for Mt. Geumgang?
BK: Mt Geumgang and Kaesong should be looked at together. Both of them were initiatives largely for political purposes, stemming from the idea that you could moderate North Korean behavior by offering them economic inducements. Clearly, Mt Geumgang and Kaesong did not prevent the Cheonan, Yeonpyeong Island or the nuclear and missiles tests from happening. So the purposes for those projects have really been undermined. Mt Geumgang tourism was stopped because of the tragic shooting (of Park Wang Ja in 2008), and I think Kaesong should have been cut after the Cheonan incident, too. When President Lee made his statements on May 20th of last year as punishment for North Korea’s involvement in Cheonan, he said they would cut off all South Korean economic engagement with North Korea except for Kaesong. But I don’t see a reason for separating out Kaesong. Most of the companies there are there because they can’t make it in the South. They need the guarantees and subsidies from the South Korean government. It still is the flagship for the Sunshine Policy, but it’s already on the rocks and I think it’d be better for South Korea to sink it itself, rather than allowing North Korea to continue jerking South Korea around on its own leash.
Kaesong certainly has not progressed along the initial predictions. It was going to be billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of workers and right now you still have perhaps only fifty thousand workers I believe. The amount is small; the benefits to South Korea are negligible, if any. It allows North Korea to continue to hold a project and the citizens there as hostages. As we saw a year or two ago, when they cut off the border and held hundreds of South Korean workers hostage in order to try to rewrite the contracts, I think for all the reasons that Lee Myung Bak cut off other economic engagement in response to the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, I don’t think he should have exempted Kaesong… However I don’t think the South Korean president will cease South Korea’s involvement, certainly not now. If he did it, it would have been at a time of great anger, either after the Cheonan or Yeonpyeong Island incidents. After the Yeonpyeong Island attack would have been the time to cut it, if not on May 20th. So right now it’s unlikely that it will happen.
Daily NK: You’re in Seoul to deal with defense reform, and you’ve just been in Tokyo. What have you taken away from that?
BK: Back during the time of Prime Minister Koizumi and President Roh Moo Hyun, Japan was seen as the good ally while South Korea was seen as the undependable or troublesome ally. Now under the Lee Myung Bak administration, the U.S.-Korea relationship is much stronger. Most U.S. alliance managers say it’s as strong as it’s ever been. The relationship between Washington and Seoul improved probably ten minutes after Lee Myung Bak was elected. You had a president who stated his first foreign policy priority was to improve and repair the relationship as opposed to Roh Moo Hyun who said, “What’s wrong with being anti-American?” And so President George Bush and Lee Myung Bak took up not only a very strong presidential relationship, but even a personal relationship with a great deal of respect back and forth.
When Barack Obama came into office there was a concern that a liberal US president and a conservative South Korean president wouldn’t get along, or would have different policies. Barack Obama, for all his claims during the campaign of adopting a policy different from George W. Bush, was going to continue the Bush approach of largely accommodating North Korea. But after the provocations in early 2009, Obama reversed himself 180 degrees, and he in essence became more neo-conservative than George Bush. Once Obama adopted a two-track policy of pressure and engagement, he was in fact adopting Lee Myung Bak’s policy. So that removed a possible irritant in the bilateral relationship. Right now, you can privately hear U.S. officials very favorably comparing South Korea as an ally to Japan.
Daily NK: How do you see the dynamic between Washington and Seoul going forward? Is it just going to be a happy relationship, until the next election at least?
BK: I think so. Right now there are really no issues coming up that will be a bump in the road in the relationship between Washington and Seoul. The KORUS FTA, if it’s not passed by Congress, could cause some strains but hopefully that will not be the case. If the U.S. passes it, then it’s likely to be passed by the National Assembly. We won’t have the same protests here as during the beef demonstrations; the Democratic Party will have a lot of sound and fury protests within the National Assembly building, they may storm out, but the consensus at the end of the day is that the Grand National Party (GNP) will be able to pass it. Of course there is the question of whether the GNP will be afraid of ramming through as would be depicted by the opposition… Whether the DP will walk out or will be actively resist it in the National Assembly remains to be seen, but one can only hope that for the good of both our countries, that both of our legislatures pass the FTA.