'Let's Wait for Something Meaningful Before We Declare Progress' on the Korean Peninsula

Daniel Russel on BBC

Daniel Russel BBC Interview on Korean Peninsula

Daniel Russel, ASPI Vice President for International Security and Diplomacy, spoke with the BBC on August 15, the day in 1945 when the Korean Peninsula was liberated from Japan's 35-year-occupation.

BBC: How do you view where things stand right now?

Daniel Russel: The liberation day speeches by the South Korean President as well as the commemoration in the North,  were pretty conventional, frankly. On the South Korean side, it was awfully vague on denuclearization and awfully heavy on a peace regime or a peace treaty; and this points to part of the problem in the two months since the Singapore summit. North Korea would like to divert attention away from the real issue, the real problem, which is its nuclear and ballistic missile program, and instead talk about the U.S.-ROK alliance. What they call the hostile policy, the need for a peace treaty, is very much a red herring, because the threat to peace in Northeast Asia doesn’t come from a 60-year-old armistice agreement which works, it comes from North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, which, unfortunately, is moving ahead apace, it’s unabated by the short piece of paper that the North Korean leader and President Trump signed.

BBC: Do you feel that the hopes, the optimism, from Singapore is slowly fading?

Russel: The optimism [after the Singapore Summit] was unilateral, it was on the part of President Trump, and for officials like Secretary of State Pompeo, it’s a pretty tough challenge when your leader has already declared victory before the kick off even and it’s going to end up in rapidly moving goalposts. The fact of the matter is that what North Korea has in mind by denuclearization is much closer to what we would call arms control. They want to be treated as a peer nuclear power and they’re willing, in principle, to discuss overall mutual reduction. That’s a far cry from living up to the mandatory requirements of U.N. Security Council Resolutions. 

BBC: Hasn't President Trump, with his unconventional methods, achieved in a few months far more than President Obama achieved in two terms as President?

Russel: It remains to be seen what President Trump has achieved. North Korean leaders from Kim Il-sung on always wanted to be treated as a peer of the President of the United States, they always wanted to meet with the U.S. President. But, until now, no U.S. President was willing to accept North Korea’s terms, was prepared to give North Korea the validation, the legitimization, the endorsement of a meeting, without North Korea doing meaningful things to come into compliance with its international obligations. There have been a few token and symbolic gestures by North Korea: the return of what may be remains from the Korean War; the dismantling of a defunct and probably [inaudible] nuclear site, but the nuclear program continues apace, and the ballistic missile program continues apace and the limited test freeze, which doesn’t apply to ballistic missiles that could hit South Korea or Japan, is instantly and easily reversible, so, let’s look for something meaningful before we declare progress.