Experts on North Korea diverged over whether a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is achievable through negotiations between the Trump administration and Kim Jong Un’s government in a debate on Monday night.
Facing off in the debate were Soo-Hyuck Lee, former head of South Korea’s delegation to nuclear negotiations and Sue Mi Terry, a longtime East Asian intelligence official in the U.S. government.
Lee expressed an optimistic view of recent developments, calling them “extremely dynamic and remarkable.” He explained that his optimism stems from the fact that, in his view, Kim Jong Un has made a tactical shift, agreeing to suspend his nuclear program in return for concessions from the United States.
“As a person who has dealt with the nuclear issue since 1992, I maintain that there is no other option but to negotiate. I see the current situation as ripe for negotiations,” Lee said.
Lee also cited Kim’s Western education as a reason to believe that he is more modern and open-minded than his predecessors.
Terry, on the other hand, did not view Western education as a valid indicator of the modernity or innocence of a leader.
“I would hesitate to conclude that Kim simply ate a lot of Swiss cheese during his time abroad,” expressing her belief that the North Korean leader was not as innocent as many make him out to be.
“Let me remind the crowd that [Former Cambodian Prime Minister] Pol Pot and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad were also educated in the West,” she added.
Lee hopes that the summit will lead to a joint statement from North and South Korea, which will “pave the road for successful nuclear talks with the Trump administration and the international community.”
Terry, on the other hand, warned people “not to bank on Kim Jong Un being a transformative leader.”
“I too believe that the U.S.-North Korea meeting will produce a deal. However, that deal will be superficial, allowing Trump to declare it a historic success and Kim to wait the Trump administration out,” Terry said.
Terry explained that what Trump seeks is a “CNN Effect” — that he only wants to claim victory and make television headlines — and that Kim Jong Un is willing to give it to him in order to stall. Once the next president of the United States takes office, the North Korean leader will simply declare any previous deal null and void, she said.
“Call me a cynic, but I don’t see true denuclearization,” Terry said.
The two speakers agreed, however, that diplomatic engagement with North Korea is absolutely necessary and that there is no viable military solution. They also concurred that a deal to manage North Korean nuclear proliferation is better than no deal at all.
“We must work towards denuclearization. Without it, the threat of war will persist,” Lee said.
Prof. Hirokazu Miyazaki, anthropology, director of the Einaudi Center and the John S. Knight professor of international studies, moderated the debate. “Which of the two leaders is more unstable?” Miyazaki asked at the beginning of the event. “I am joking, we won’t start there.”
In response to an audience question about if Trump will withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal prior to entering into negotiations with North Korea, Lee and Terry agreed that it would adversely affect the position of the United States if it does happen.
The speakers, responding to another question from the audience, also sparred over whether the topic of alleged human rights violations by North Korea should be brought up by the United States during negotiations about nuclear weapons.
Lee argued that the issue should eventually be discussed, but “for the time being, it is very difficult to do so.”
Terry, in response, insisted that it “should be on the table.” However, she predicted that due to its high sensitivity the “human rights issue will likely be shelved.”
Lee called renewed talks between North Korea and the superpowers “season two,” with the 2003 six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program being “season one.”
“I hope that for the sake of peace, ‘season two’ takes steps toward a denuclearized North Korea and ultimately reunification between the North and South,” Lee concluded.
Terry, on the other hand, expressed doubt on whether a meaningful resolution to this conflict exists at all.
“If the last 25 years have demonstrated anything, it is that the North Korean issue cannot be solved but only managed,” Terry said. “Who knows, maybe Trump and Kim will hit it off. They seem to have a certain chemistry. We will have to wait and see.”