The first thing you notice about America’s key diplomat on North Korea is that he has a nice smile and a quick wit, attributes that help lighten the mood in tense times.
It’s not that the questions he faced from a group of American news editors this week were tougher than those others are asking about the war of words between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — and the potential for this exchange to escalate into World War III.
Still, it was a delightful surprise that Joseph Yun agreed to an on-the-record interview Wednesday at the State Department’s annual briefing for opinion page editors — and that he opened with a laugh line.
“I understand you’ve been here since 9 o’clock and you’ve just had your lunch, so feel free to take a nap. We completely understand,” said Yun, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs.
No one had sleep on their minds, of course. We were eager to talk to the man who describes his job as “our country’s designated engager for North Korea, the guy whose job it is to talk to North Korea and see what they want and where they want to go.”
Just two weeks ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged for the first time that we are in direct communication with the North Korean government over its missile and nuclear bomb tests, and a possible way forward.
President Trump tweeted at the time that Tillerson was wasting his time. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
Five hours later, the President tweeted again: “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now?”
Special Representative for North Korea Policy at The State Department Joseph Yun (left)
And he didn’t stop there. ”Sorry, but only one thing will work!” What does that mean? “You’ll figure that out pretty soon,” Trump said.
It was Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea that the Koreans took as a “declaration of war.” Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Wednesday that Trump had “lit the wick of a war against us. We need to settle the final score, only with a hail of fire, not words.”
At the center of this maelstrom is Yun, a soft-spoken native of South Korea who’s been with the State Department for 33 years, most recently as ambassador to Malaysia. “It was a nice life. Next to a golf course. Very nice.”
You could feel the punchline coming.
“They thought I was getting very lazy,” he said. “So exactly a year ago, they asked me to come over to take this job … And I feel that what I owed in my 31 years before, I have paid back now.”
Before getting down to the nitty gritty, this instantly likable man offered one more quip. “I took this job in the Obama administration,” he said. “I am one of the few, I would say, ‘holdovers’ left. I think mostly because they don’t know I’m here. That’s off the record!”
Humility aside, Yun is undoubtedly well known to President Trump and Secretary Tillerson because as State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert also made clear that day, North Korea is the President’s top foreign policy issue. “That is the number one issue the President has asked Secretary Tillerson to engage in.”
Yun described how it’s going.
When he began his assignment, the North Koreans wouldn’t talk to him. They wanted nothing to do with anyone from the Obama administration. “They said they believed that the Obama administration was interested in a policy goal of regime change … ‘Why would we want to talk to anyone that represents an administration that believes in regime change?’”
Things changed after President Trump’s inauguration. “After January. 20, I would say things improved and really, we got underway with what we call ‘North Korea policy review.’ And in the review, we came up very clearly that we’re going to increase pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. But at the same time, we would leave room for engagement.”
To be clear, when Yun says “denuclearize,” he means North Korea must rid itself of all nuclear capabilities. Personally, I hadn’t realized that was the starting point for talks.
The policy, called “maximum pressure and engagement,” grew from North Korea’s failure to stop testing its missiles and nuclear devices. “In fact, in six years under the current leader, Kim Jong Un, they tested 80 times — over 80 times. Compare that with the previous six years, under his father, (Kim Jong Il,) who tested less than 20 times. So this was getting very much accelerated.”
To begin a dialogue, Yun invited his North Korean counterparts to New York in late February. But in early February, the North Koreans killed Kim Jong Nam, their leader’s half-brother, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital.
“Not only did they kill him, they killed him using VX nerve agent, which is classified as WMD by the United Nations. There was such an outcry that it was not possible for me to see them and of course we had to say, ‘Now is not the time for talks.’
“At the same time, we had three American prisoners in North Korea. So both President Trump and Secretary Tillerson, it’s their very high priority to get American prisoners out. So I told (the North Koreans,) ‘Can we discuss getting the prisoners out and maybe from there we can build a dialogue?’ So that’s when I went to Pyongyang.”
The late Otto Warmbier and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
Among the prisoners was Otto Warmbier, an Ohio college student held for more than a year for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from a North Korean hotel. Yun saw that Warmbier was not well. His parents later told Fox & Friends that when their unconscious son arrived home, he was blind and deaf, had a nasal feeding tube, was jerking violently and howling involuntarily, and that it looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth.
“So what could have been a very positive story turned out quite negative because not only was he unconscious, he came back home and he died in less than a week. As you can see, the public opinion in the U.S. was very much against that. And then, of course, North Koreans, as they rightly should, got the blame. And as a result, we have now restricted travel of all Americans to North Korea.”
Meanwhile, North Korea continued to violate world norms and test its missiles and nuclear bombs. In early September, it tested a device that “was probably 150 kilotons, which is, I think, about ten times bigger than the bomb that went off in Nagasaki. And of course they also tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that are capable of hitting Hawaii, hitting Guam and possibly the West Coast.
“So this is why you’re seeing the tensions heightened. There is a realization among the American public that there is a genuine homeland security threat. … And this is why you’re seeing open debate on: do we pressure them, do we seek a diplomatic path or do we seek a pressure path? And that, I think, is the really big issue of the day.
“I’m a diplomat. I work in the State Department. We have always said we should pursue pressure as well as a diplomatic path. And that is not an easy thing to suggest — to pressure someone at the same time to coax them to dialogue and diplomatic path. That is the challenge we face.”
On diplomacy, Yun highlights the Trump administration’s recent success at the United Nations Security Council in securing unanimous resolutions to strengthen global sanctions that limit North Korea’s coal exports, oil imports and overseas workers forced to send “loyalty payments” home.
“These guest workers are essentially slave labor,” spokeswoman Nauert later added. “They don’t get to keep their own money. That money goes back to the Kim Jong Un regime … That doesn’t go to feed his own people, to provide medical care to his own people. He uses it to fund extremely expensive weapons programs. We believe that with the sanctions, we could remove money going to those programs.”
It’s impressive to see the growing list of nations severing ties with North Korea and expelling its ambassadors. Since mid-September, they include Peru, Mexico, Italy, Spain, Kuwait, Egypt, the Philippines and on Thursday, the United Arab Emirates.
China remains the biggest holdout. And since China accounts for over 90 percent of trade with North Korea, “it’s crucial that China does its part in sanctions,” Yun says.
On the other end of the spectrum, South Korea and Japan, our close allies, “have been very solid in being with us in all aspects of sanction policy as well as diplomatic policy,” he added.
“So that’s where we are. And obviously this thing hasn’t yet run its course. I would pose to you that this is a difficult problem that’s been with us for many decades. Their nuclear program probably started in the ‘60s. The first nuclear agreement we reached with them was in ’94. …The second nuclear agreement we reached with them was in six-party talks that went from about 2003 to 2008. So we’ve seen many generations of this and this is a serious problem that’s become even more serious because of the homeland threat.”
With that, Yun took questions.
What about former President Jimmy Carter’s call to send a high-level delegation to Pyongyang for peace talks or to convene an international conference that includes North and South Korea, the United States and China?
“Clearly we’re open to any approach, but let me be frank with you. … The North Koreans have made it clear to me, as well as to the world, that they want to talk to the U.S. They’re not that interested in talking to anyone else, that this is a problem between North Korea and the United States. So I’m not sure internationalizing it, that they would accept that. … North Korea has said they don’t want six-party talks. What they want to do is talk to us.”
Do we want to talk to them?
“I think we are very much open to talking to them. You’ve seen Secretary Tillerson say that. We want to talk to them. But we also do believe at the same time, they have got to come to talks with some degree of credibility and seriousness. They have agreed many times in the past that denuclearization is also their goal. But they have recently removed that. They said they would not denuclearize. And so that’s a problem for us. If you come to talks and say you’re not going to denuclearize, I’m not sure really what the future of those talks are.”
Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, recently said that as long as North Korea has thousands of rockets trained on Seoul, there’s no credible military option that doesn’t result in the deaths of millions of South Koreans as well as thousands of U.S. troops stationed there. Is he correct?
“You’ll have to ask my colleagues in (Department of Defense.) My main job is diplomacy. It’s not to pull triggers. This is outside, really, my lane.”
Why do we expect sanctions to change North Korea’s behavior when they haven’t for decades? And if North Korea doesn’t commit to denuclearization, are we saying we won’t go to the table to talk?
“I would say sanctions can be effective if implemented fully and properly. As I have alluded, China has about 90 percent of trade, so the burden does fall on China. It’s very different, by the way, than Iran, where there were many trading partners. In this case, it is China. So really, when you say sanctions have not worked, I think it is because sanctions have not been fully implemented by China. Why? That is a question we’re always trying to come to grips with.
“I think the common view among the analysts is that China fears the collapse of North Korea more than it fears a nuclear North Korea. They fear if North Korea were to collapse, then U.S. troops might move in along with South Koreans … And if you remember from the Korean War, that is also when the Chinese got into it, when it looked like (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur was driving U.S. troops and South Korea troops up there. So that’s their principle concern.
“This is why we’ve said to them, to reassure them, Secretary Tillerson has said our policy has four no’s. Number one, it is not about regime change. Number two, it is not about bringing on regime collapse. Number three, it is not about forcing reunification of the Korean Peninsula. And number four, it’s not about stationing American troops north of the DMZ. That was to reassure not just the North Koreans, but the Chinese that this is not about us pushing up beyond DMZ, but rather, it’s about denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula.
“Denuclearization is the end goal of U.S. government policy, and it has been for the past three decades. You can ask questions about why it failed, but you’d have to give me another two hours.”
There it was. A small chuckle, in a conversation that had grown tense.
North Korea has looked at what happened in a denuclearized Libya, and America’s doubtful adherence to the Iran nuclear agreement. Is it realistic to expect Kim to follow a similar path? If he doesn’t, are we looking at South Korea and Japan getting nuclear weapons, or is that threat simply a way to get China’s attention?
“This is, of course, what China fears. But if this situation continues, I can predict to you that South Korea and Japan will want stronger and stronger weapons, defensive weapons, or even offensive weapons to counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons … So you are staring at what looks like an arms race. And what is the logical conclusion to that?
“Already, we are seeing South Koreans, conservative South Koreans, wanting indigenous nuclear weapons. And if we have that, if we have South Korea go nuclear, and Japan go nuclear, that will be practically the end of NPT (the landmark 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty on nuclear weapons.)
“And NPT, in my view, certainly has been one of the most successful, post-Second World War treaties we’ve had, limiting the number of countries with nuclear weapons. The P-5 — Russia, U.S., United Kingdom, France and China — and there’s only a handful of others, Pakistan, Israel and India. So really, if you imagined in the ‘60s that nuclear weapons would be limited to these few countries, people would have thought you were dreaming. South Korea actually gave up nuclear weapons in the ‘70s because we asked them. So you can imagine if this goes down the path, the logical conclusion. … It will be a nuclear Northeast Asia.”
Why do you think South Korea is less concerned by recent events? And what do you think when you hear the trash talking — the “Rocket Man.” Does that make your job more difficult?
That’s also outside my lane. (Crowd chuckles.) What was that first question?
Are we facing World War III tomorrow or more years of diplomacy?
South Koreans in general have become inured to threats from North Korea. Remember, they are facing all these thousands of artillery just across the DMZ, which is about 35 to 40 miles away from Seoul, the center of population. So they have become fairly inured to threats from Pyongyang. In my view, I think for Americans, this is a threat that was somewhat unexpected, even though those who have followed North Korea issues have been predicting it for a while.
“I do think this is a serious issue. I do welcome the public joining the debate on how to deal with this. What is the right strategy? What does it mean to sanction a country and why are we doing it? Why do we have such a difficult partner or are we being difficult? These are all questions that are worth asking.
“In the end, I am again from diplomacy school and I would like to think there is a path out there. I would like to think there’s a path that could deliver: number one, lower tensions; number two, try to meet minimum requirements of each other; and number three, build some kind of relationship, build a little bit more trust in each other. I would like to think that is possible, but again it remains to be seen.
“Meanwhile, since this poses such a threat, we also have to believe we have to put all options on the table and that would have to include a military option. This is not an empty threat. If your homeland is under such a scrutiny and threat, I do believe you have to put all options on the table.”
What about those other American prisoners? What can you tell us about your conversations with them?
“We raise this at every opportunity. Protection of our prisoners overseas is an incredibly important mission for the State Department, so that really takes priority over anything else. I don’t want to go into too much detail about what kind of conversation we had. They were rather restricted because we were not just the two of us. We had a representative from their government there as well.”
“There are actually three remaining detainees in North Korea. I did see them when I was there in June, but nobody has seen them since then. I assume they are still alive. We have an arrangement with the Swedish Embassy, where the Swedes look after our consular cases. And the Swedes have not seen them, either, since June.”
After spending about 40 minutes with our nation’s key diplomat on North Korea, I came away thinking we were lucky to have him. But I grapple with our policy of not holding talks unless the North Koreans first agree to give up their nuclear capabilities.
Why would Kim do that, I asked my colleagues. He would lose face. It could spell his end. And if you back someone into a corner, there’s only one way out — straight at you.
My colleagues countered: We’re asking Iran to forego nuclear weapons. Besides, his people remain incredibly repressed. They wouldn’t rise up like the Arab Spring.
As to the policy of making North Korea give up its nuclear capabilities altogether, spokeswoman Nauert said there’s no other choice.
“If North Korea were to become a fully nuclear-capable country with weapons that are able to hit folks around the world, we know that North Korea would not contain itself,” she said. “We know that North Korea would sell those weapons and sell its technology. So the idea of containment may sound nice and rosy, but in reality, there’s no one out there who believes that North Korea could be contained.”
The best way to force Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal — as Trump, Tillerson and Yun have all made clear — is for China to end trade and oil shipments if he doesn’t. Without these, Kim’s nation cannot survive.
On reflection, I began to see some value in Trump’s tweets. Not because they are helping to de-escalate tensions with North Korea, which they’re not, but because they are putting new pressure on China.
Another high-placed diplomatic friend, speaking off-the-record, offered me that perspective.
“China hates to be humiliated. China despises the fact that they’re going to be bullied. But they’re looking at Washington and going, ‘This guy is pretty crazy, right? Actually, he could be a real threat.’ And China cannot afford under any circumstance to have conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The last battle on the Korean Peninsula put China back 50 years in developing the One-China policy to their satisfaction.
“So now, it is quite clear that China wants to help — for the first time — in North Korea. All of a sudden, everyone understands the stakes and for the first time, China is reacting. Not at the suggestion of bullying by the U.S., but because Trump has been able, to some degree, to pull back with his public belligerence against China. But privately, (our diplomats) believe that China believes it has to try to get a solution here. And that is a positive development that President Obama and his predecessors couldn’t deliver.
“Conventional wisdom hasn’t worked. And the unconventional activity is making a difference.”
It’s not that “Rocket Man” is working. Bullying words distract.
But there’s a reason President Trump has maximized pressure on North Korea and gotten China to agree to a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization on the peninsula.
North Korea is close, very close, to being able to rain nuclear hell on its neighbors and our homeland.
And while China might not have once cared if North Korea had nuclear weapons, recent provocations have changed the equation.
More than anything, China doesn’t want South Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons, something Trump once suggested as a way to cut America’s defense costs in the region.
Neither does the world want to see more countries acquire nuclear bombs capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people in horrific ways.
As Yun says, “It’s crucial that China does its part in sanctions.”
And that’s no joke.
Reach Sun Sentinel Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RosemaryOhara14.