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Q&A: Minister Han Sung-Joo on Korea’s Constitutional Crisis & President Trump

January 18, 2017

By Dylan Davis

DrHanSouth Korea’s former Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo, who was recently decorated by Japanese Emperor Akihito with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, the top civilian medal of honor in Japan, for his distinguished achievements in promoting Seoul-Tokyo relations and friendship, spoke with The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea, Dylan Davis, on U.S.-Japan relations, Korea’s constitutional crisis, domestic challenges, and prospects for Korea-U.S. relations under a new Trump administration. On January 19, Minister Han will deliver opening remarks at the Seoul rollout of The Asia Foundation’s signature foreign policy report, Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance.

As a seasoned diplomat dedicated to promoting Korea-Japan relations for over two decades, where do you see relations moving forward, particularly in light of recent confrontations over issues surrounding wartime sexual slavery and Japan’s announcement that it would recall its ambassador from Korea?

Over the past 50 years since normalization, Korea-Japan relations have gone through a pendulum-like movement, good and bad, and up and down. Both sides have complaints about the other’s attitude and behavior. The governments, even as they might prefer to restore and maintain good relations, are hamstrung by domestic politics. Very often provocative actions invite excessive reactions, starting a chain of events that amount to a vicious circle. The current situation is no exception.

I think the Japanese government, instead of pushing the Korean government too hard, should take into account the extraordinary political difficulties South Korea is currently experiencing.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court is expected to decide soon on whether to remove President Park Geun-hye over charges brought against her by the National Assembly. Her removal would trigger a presidential election. What is your reaction to this?

The best and only way to deal with the situation is to let the legal process take its course. Whether the Constitutional Court validates the impeachment vote of the parliament or not, it is most likely that the presidential election will be held sometime during the next few months. If the court decides to approve the impeachment, the presidency will become vacant, making it necessary to hold the election within two months of the court decision. Even if it doesn’t, it may still be wise for President Park to leave the office on her own to prevent further and more explosive political turmoil. It is highly unlikely that a constitutional reform, necessary as it is, can take place before the presidential election is held.

At the same time, Korea is facing a number of serious domestic challenges, including the highest household debt level in recorded history, high youth unemployment, a rapidly aging society, and an alarmingly low birthrate. What do you think can be done to pull Korea out of this malaise?

All the potential presidential candidates are calling for economic and financial reforms, the creation of jobs for the younger generation, and greater equity among the various sectors of the society. There is no panacea or silver bullet for the malaise. It requires finding a consensus among the political parties and factions that we face problems and challenges and that we need to be united to deal with them.

According to the PEW Research Center, roughly two in every three people in Korea hold favorable views of the United States, and many Asian countries view the United States as a counterbalance to China. Where do you see prospects for Korea-U.S. relations under a new Trump administration?

Whether Koreans like it or not, the American voters and their electoral system have chosen a president with whom South Korea has to work with. They have no choice but to maintain a strong alliance with the United States. Keeping the alliance strong is also in the vital interest of the United States. It is essential to maintain balance, stability, and peace in Northeast Asia; constrain and ultimately remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons and programs; and promote economic relations including trade and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

Unpredictable as President-elect Trump is, since his election in November, he and his prospective administration seem to be moving gradually toward accepting or at least “reinventing” President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy. It seems that the Trump administration’s policy toward Asia, and particularly toward Korea, will not diverge too much from its predecessor administration although there will be adjustments and greater emphasis on “better” trade deals and a “fairer” share of defense cost by the Asian allies. The Korean government, regardless of which party wins in the forthcoming presidential election, will choose to work closely with the United States.

One of the most urgent issues continuing to face Korea and the entire Northeast Asia region is North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Despite strenuous international diplomatic efforts over the past two and a half decades, the situation has grown worse. What do you see as a way forward on this global crisis?

All the major actors in the region, South Korea, Japan, and even China and the United States, are seriously threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. It is important that the two major powers—the United States and China—agree that it is in their vital interest to stop North Korea’s nuclear program and to go all-out to denuclearize North Korea. Other countries, including South Korea and Japan, will surely go along with such an effort. Short of using force, the only viable way now seems to be continuing and tightening the noose of economic sanctions—just as the P5+1 did in the case of Iran before the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. China would be remiss to go only half-way in putting pressure on North Korea. The United States should be prudent in the use of force in dealing with North Korean nuclear weapons.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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