The Future of the United States and the Korean Peninsula
(STL.News) It’s great to be back in Seoul and an honor to be here at the Asan Institute with so many distinguished experts on the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region. During my many visits to Seoul over the past two years, I have gained an even deeper respect for the Korean people, and I will end my tenure early next year with many friendships that will carry with me into the future.
I have a great admiration for Korea’s vibrant democracy, your rich history and culture, and—as every journalist in Seoul knows, your dakhanmari. My family has heard many stories of the warm hospitality of your government and the Korean people, and I look forward to bringing them to Korea on a personal visit after I return to life as a private citizen.
During my tenure as U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, I have been fortunate to have worked with some of Korea’s finest diplomats, as together we have sought to bring lasting peace to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, to rejuvenate the Alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea, and to combat and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
I want to thank Foreign Minister Kang, Director Suh, First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun, and before him First Vice Minister Cho Sei-young, and especially, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, Ambassador Lee Do-hoon. I have benefitted greatly from their close cooperation, as well as that of the many current Korean legislators and retired government officials, some of them in this room, and all of whom have generously shared their wisdom and counsel in working with me and my team as we sought to build a brighter future for the people of the United States and the Korean people—all the Korean people.
I also want to acknowledge the tireless efforts of President Moon Jae-in, who was kind enough to receive me on my first visit to Seoul more than two years ago. I have great admiration and respect for President Moon’s dedication to bringing lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula, a goal that he and President Trump share. The cooperation that has been built between our governments on Korean Peninsula issues, including through the U.S.-ROK Working Group, is a valued accomplishment that will continue to pay dividends for both of our countries in the coming years.
I am here today to discuss a matter on all of our minds: the future of U.S.-North Korea relations. Simply put, over the past two and half years, what the United States has sought to accomplish on the Korean Peninsula under President Trump’s leadership has been both ambitious and bold. In 2017, President Trump looked at the Korean Peninsula, unencumbered by the decades of distrust that bore so heavily on his predecessors, and concluded that the hostility of the past seven decades need not lead to hostility in the future.
When a pause in the growing tensions of that year led to a series of diplomatic engagements, the opportunity to try a radical new approach to diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula was born. Since then, what the United States has sought to achieve is nothing short of a complete recasting of relations between Washington and Pyongyang, a leader-driven reimagining that reflects the strategic landscape of the 21st century and the interests of both the United States and North Korea, with the goal of a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous Korean Peninsula for generations to come.
This ambition was captured in the joint statement that President Trump and Chairman Kim issued after their 2018 meeting in Singapore, which marked the first-ever, leader-level commitment to complete denuclearization between the United States and North Korea. The Singapore joint statement reflects President Trump’s view that we cannot fundamentally overcome the hostility of seven decades through incrementalism or an inordinate focus on small trades. Instead, the statement lays out a much larger vision of a fundamental reinvention of our relationship, one that requires big trades, big steps, and big decisions from both sides.
This vision was a bold one, and it made the many advocates of incrementalism uncomfortable. And, while it has yet to deliver the success we hoped for, it is worth taking a moment to outline the actions we were prepared to take in our discussions with North Korea after the Singapore Summit.
In every encounter with North Korea since, whether in Pyongyang, Stockholm, Hanoi, New York, Washington, or elsewhere, we have sought to make progress in parallel on all the elements of the Singapore joint statement: complete denuclearization; a lasting and stable peace; humanitarian efforts to heal the wounds of war; and the eventual, full normalization of relations between our two countries. In our discussions, we indicated our intent to engage in a mutually beneficial process to address all the core concerns of both North Korea and the United States, to include elements not explicitly listed in the Singapore Summit joint statement.
So, for example, our North Korean counterparts have long told us they are deeply concerned about guaranteeing their long-term security. We recognize that for North Korea to give up its ballistic missiles, its nuclear weapons, and its chemical and biological weapons, it will need to know it is joining an Indo-Pacific region where its security is assured. There are ways for us to do this, including pursuing diplomatic negotiations on a treaty to bring a permanent end to the Korean War, military confidence building measures, observers at military exercises, military exchanges, and even the establishment of diplomatic liaison offices in each other’s capitals toward the ultimate goal of normalization of relations.
We also continue to welcome mutually beneficial inter-Korean cooperation as an important tool to cultivate trust and build cooperation on the Korean Peninsula, and people-to-people exchanges in the fields of education, music, culture, and sports would be beneficial to all.
Our North Korean counterparts have also expressed interest in sanctions relief and opportunities for economic development. We could do this by exploring with other countries—including the Republic of Korea—the best ways to mobilize investment, develop infrastructure, enhance food security, and drive economic engagement and trade to facilitate the prosperity that Chairman Kim has promised his people.
We have made clear from the very beginning that security guarantees and sanctions relief were and are topics which could be advanced if North Korea is in turn ready to make progress on denuclearization. As I have said from the beginning, we do not expect North Korea to do everything before we do anything, nor should North Korea expect such an outcome from us. But, we must agree to lay out a roadmap for action, and we must agree on where that roadmap ultimately leads.
Through this process of finding a better way to engage with North Korea, we aspired to also find ways to improve the lives of the North Korean people, so that they too may one day live in the prosperity their brothers and sisters in the South enjoy. It remains our hope that progress on each of the pillars of the Singapore Summit can build trust sufficient to enable us to begin to address even the most sensitive issues, including human rights.
Secretary Pompeo has spoken about how one of his most memorable accomplishments as Secretary of State was gaining the release of three American citizens detained in North Korea. But not all detained Americans made it home safely.
Last year, I had the privilege of meeting Fred and Cindy Warmbier, whose son Otto was tragically mistreated and unjustly imprisoned in North Korea. Otto did not return safely from North Korea. He would have celebrated his 26th birthday this Saturday. And the Warmbiers are not the only family whose suffering has been a defining element of the hostility on the Korean Peninsula. Tens of thousands of Koreans and Korean-Americans painfully feel time slipping away for them to ever again see relatives left in North Korea after the Peninsula was divided. And in Japan, Shigeru Yokota passed away earlier this year after decades of hoping to be reunited with his kidnapped daughter Megumi. In the United States, families of those who perished serving in the Korean War, like that of Ensign Jesse Brown, wait for the return of the remains of these heroes and for the closure that comes with a proper farewell.
The legacies of Otto, Shigeru, Jesse, and the hopes of those who still endure after seventy years of separation, underscore the urgency in our work to ensure no other family will ever again have to bear the pain the Warmbiers or the Yokotas feel. We must also recognize the suffering that has resulted for the North Korean people from these decades of hostility, isolation, and sanctions. This too can and should change. It is within our power, working together, to put all of this behind us and write a new chapter of history on the Korean Peninsula.
You might wonder if I am disappointed that we did not accomplish more over the past two years. I am. Over the past two and a half years, we have made clear to North Korea that the United States is ready to move past a seventy-year-old conflict to forge together a new relationship. Regrettably, much opportunity has been squandered by our North Korean counterparts over the past two years, who too often have devoted themselves to the search for obstacles to negotiations instead of seizing opportunities for engagement. Yet, remarkably, the potential of the Singapore Summit is still fully present, despite our failure to advance what was agreed.
But these moments can be fleeting, especially in democracies, which see elections and changes in government that make bold actions even more urgent.
Despite setbacks, disappointments, and missed opportunities over the past two years, I believe no less today than the day I first took on this responsibility that the vision President Trump and Chairman Kim have shared for the Peninsula is possible, and that we are not done.
This is not the end of our efforts, and it should not be. As we look to the future, I remain convinced that diplomacy remains the best course, indeed the only course, to solving our challenges with North Korea. Pyongyang has some pivotal events coming up, in particular the Eighth Party Congress in January. We strongly encourage North Korea to use the time between now and then to set a path for the resumption of diplomacy. We hope that North Korea and the United States can finally engage in the kind of serious diplomacy that requires sustained engagement and difficult tradeoffs, but has huge rewards. It is time for both our countries to move forward.
Many of us would like nothing more than to see a Korean Peninsula unshackled from the burdens of the past 70 years, with North Korea able to share in greater security and prosperity with its neighbors. This would also have a positive impact on the future of the Alliance between the United States and South Korea, the second topic I would like to touch upon today.
The Alliance has served an invaluable role as the guarantor of peace and security on the Peninsula and in the region for nearly seven decades, but I think many experts in this room would agree that an Alliance based on the strategic rationale from seven decades ago does not make sense for the next seven decades. Frank discussion should be undertaken between our two governments to produce a future-oriented strategic rationale for our Alliance that sits on the foundation of our shared values, and reflects our current, respective interests and capabilities.
Circumstances on the Peninsula have certainly changed over the past seven decades and the Alliance too must evolve. A rejuvenated U.S.-ROK Alliance that expands beyond a focus on defending the South from the North could have untold benefits for our two countries, including facilitating resolution on disagreements between our two governments on cost-sharing and wartime transfer of operational control. The Miracle on the Han River that made South Korea into a global economic powerhouse, a worldwide leader in cutting-edge technology, and a highly educated and militarily strong nation, serves as an undeniable example for all nations, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, on how democracies can grow and thrive.
Countries in Asia rightfully look up to South Korea as a standard bearer for freedom, opportunity, and independent resolve. The people of South Korea should be proud of all they have achieved over the past seventy years and should be confident that as we evolve and rejuvenate our Alliance, this generation of Americans will continue to seek to protect and project the values we share and have sacrificed so much to achieve.
The Alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea is and should continue to be a natural one that advances both of our countries’ interests and that we both join by our own sovereign choice and determination. Our two countries are democratic anchors in the Indo-Pacific region. We each have our own unique histories that steer our democratic paths, but we share common values as well as common interests that go well beyond a focus on North Korea, to a mutual interest in the rules-based international order and in advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region comprised of strong, sovereign states thriving and free of coercion. The U.S.-ROK Alliance could advance a Pax Indo-Pacifica, a region at peace, protected and made prosperous in equal measure by those who comprise the Indo-Pacific. This is our purpose, this is our interest, and with strong and visionary leadership, this will be our destiny.
Let me conclude with a final thought on North Korea. My time will soon end as the United States’ lead for North Korea. At least for now. A new team will soon be in place and I will fully share with them all of our experience, recommendations, and perhaps a little hard earned wisdom. And with that, it will be for them, and our counterparts in North Korea, to best advise the way forward on U.S.-North Korea relations.
Among the points I will convey to the new team is this: The war is over; the time for conflict has ended, and the time for peace has arrived. If we are to succeed, we must work together—the United States, the Republic of Korea, and the DPRK. And when we do, we will at long last be able to bring to this Peninsula the lasting peace and prosperity that all the Korean people so richly deserve.