South Korean President Says North Facing 'Last Chance'

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the Council on Foreign Relations on Sept. 21, 2009. (Council on Foreign Relations)

NEW YORK, September 21, 2009 – North Korea will be able to rejoin the international community and start on a path to economic development if it agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, said South Korean president Lee Myung-bak.

“North Korea must not throw away what may be its last chance,” Lee said. Speaking at an Asia Society co-sponsored event at the Council on Foreign Relations, Lee said Pyongyang must trade its nuclear arsenal for economic aid: “We must achieve the complete dismantling of North Korean nuclear weapons. Then we can proceed with international assistance, and that is what we mean by ‘grand bargain’.”

Moving away from the “Sunshine Policy” advocated by the two previous South Korean presidents, Lee said the international community must deal more firmly with the North.

“North Korea makes pledges only to rescind them. We compensated them for not keeping promises, and we must not go back to making the mistakes of the past twenty years,” he said.

Lee said Washington agreed that China must take on a larger role in negotiating with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s regime, within the six-party talk framework that also include the two Koreas, Japan, the United States and Russia. “President Obama and I share the same view” on how to deal with Pyongyang, said Lee.  

Speaking at the Asia Society co-sponsored event, moderated by CFR co-chairman Robert Rubin, Lee said the United States remains a key ally, but one that should do more to promote free trade. He said the US should not fear the rise of East:  “Asia is no longer a region of collisions. We must now cooperate within the region, but at the same time the strategic role of the US is more important than ever in Korea.”

That role would grow if Washington moved quickly to ratify a trade agreement signed two years ago, Lee said. South Korea, an economy heavily dependent on exports, wants to see the 2007 Korean-US free trade agreement approved by Congress as soon as possible. “Trade has been faltering a bit,” Lee said. The United States, once South Korea’s largest trading partner, has now slipped into fifth place.

Approval of the KORUS FTA, as the agreement is known, would boost “the relatively slow pace of growth” in Korean-US trade and help the partnership between Seoul and Washington become a “comprehensive strategic alliance, beyond the security alliance” that was formed after the Korean War in 1954,  said Lee.  

“We will work together on climate change, the fight against terrorism, and fighting drugs and the spread of disease,” the South Korean president said, adding that his nation “will seek closer cooperation with the US on green technology.”

Climate change “is the global issue that concerns us the most,” said Lee, who is in New York for the 64th United Nations General Assembly. That’s the issue South Korea will press for when it takes the rotating presidency of the G20 group of industrialized nations, next year.

Another issue for the G20 is the worldwide economic downturn, said Lee, especially “the imbalance of global growth” that may trigger another crisis in the future. The South Korean president thinks it "is more important to prepare for the post-crisis, and the G20 is an important forum for that discussion, including reform of the International Monetary Fund.”  

Asia has been faring better than other areas after the global economic crisis struck last year. In Lee’s view, “Asian economies have recovered fairly well from the crisis. For instance, Japan expects its economy to grow in the fourth quarter.” The resilience of East Asian economies shows the region is ready to take on a bigger global role: “As the influence of East Asian countries grows, so I believe will their responsibility,” Lee said.

South Korea’s president was careful to note, however, that this new assertiveness does not come at the expense of the United States. Remembering the Korean War, and the alliance between the US and South Korea that followed it, Lee said “the United States was the stepping stone that made possible our ascent to prosperity. And that’s what makes our alliance persistent and enduring.”

This event was co-sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Reported by Alberto Riva, Asia Society Online