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[New faces of Assembly] Architect behind ‘audacious initiative’ believes in denuclearized North Korea

By Kim Arin

Published : May 1, 2024 - 22:34

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In this series, The Korea Herald sits down with newcomers who were chosen by South Koreans to serve on the National Assembly for the next four years, to talk about their visions and takes on issues in Seoul and beyond. -- Ed.

Kim Gunn (right) poses for a photo with Takahiro Funakoshi of Japan (center) and Sung Kim of the US at a trilateral meeting on issues related to North Korea held in Karuizawa, Nagano prefecture, Japan on July 20, 2023. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Newsis) Kim Gunn (right) poses for a photo with Takahiro Funakoshi of Japan (center) and Sung Kim of the US at a trilateral meeting on issues related to North Korea held in Karuizawa, Nagano prefecture, Japan on July 20, 2023. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Newsis)

The complete denuclearization of North Korea is not only the ultimate goal but also a viable aim of the security efforts of South Korea and the US, according to Kim Gunn, who was until recently Seoul’s top nuclear envoy.

Kim, who was elected by proportional representation in the April election for the National Assembly, told The Korea Herald on Tuesday that nuclear arms were an ambition that North Korea could not sustain and that the door to denuclearizing the country was still open, despite its multiplying portfolio.

The lawmaker-elect helped architect the “audacious initiative” -- President Yoon Suk Yeol’s signature policy package to get North Korea to denuclearize --, which he said was the “sum of decades of efforts” to disarm the country.

“The defining characteristic of the audacious initiative is that it is all-encompassing and comprehensive -- on top of economic offers, it also addresses North Korea’s security concerns, which the regime blames as the reason for its weapons program,” he said.

Kim said it was “only a pipe dream” for North Korea to bet on becoming a nuclear weapons state.

“North Korea thinks it can emulate what it perceives as China’s success with ‘Two Bombs and One Satellite,’” he said, referring to the Beijing project for building nuclear bombs and an artificial satellite during the Cold War.

He said North Korea “seems to have bought the Chinese narrative” that China was able to earn a seat on the United Nations Security Council and restore relations with the US by scaling up its nuclear capacities, undeterred by international sanctions.

“North Korea is sticking to nuclear program because it thinks by becoming threatening enough, the international community will be forced to recognize it as a partner,” he said.

“What North Korea doesn’t understand is that the US pursued rapprochement with China at the time to keep the Soviet threats in check. But there are no strategic advantages the US could gain from accepting a nuclear North Korea.”

On the high support among South Koreans for getting nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, as suggested by some polls, he said the country’s “strategic experts and leaders can do a better job of assuring the public of the safety and security of our country.”

“We can do that by building people’s confidence in the measures we have put in place to create an environment where North Korea can’t dream of ever using nuclear weapons, including our fortified alliance with the US,” he said.

According to polls conducted this year and last, more than 70 percent of South Koreans said they supported the idea of arming the country with its own nuclear weapons.

Kim said a nuclear-armed South Korea -- which he was careful to stress “departs from mainstream thinking in both Seoul and Washington” -- would make North Korea far less likely to give up its nuclear ownership and increase the chances of a nuclear game of chicken unfolding between the Koreas.

On claims from the rival Democratic Party of Korea that Donald Trump returning to the White House would risk South Korea being sidelined in possible US negotiations with North Korea, he said he disagreed.

He said that he does not think the results of the US presidential election in November would “discontinue or disrupt” the nuclear deterrence efforts being undertaken together with the Joe Biden administration against North Korea.

“What the summits in Singapore and Vietnam showed is that no matter which administration is in power, the US stands firm in its commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea. That is the unchanging principle that North Korea can’t get around,” he said.

He pointed out that the summits with the US then happened after North Korea demonstrated some willingness to denuclearize. But North Korea is “a lot more adamant in its nuclear pursuits now,” and unlikely to be handed such opportunities “if it is intent on being as inflexible as it is.”

“If Trump takes office and North Korea says it is open to negotiate, then great. South Korea and the US governments will work closely and coordinate our responses to get the best possible results,” he said.

Kim said that Yoon’s push for closer relationships with allies, criticized by opponents as hurting ties with China and Russia, was increasingly the “choice South Korea has to make.”

“In the past, South Korea dreamed of being a ‘constructive facilitator’ and balancing among countries. That can be an effective approach when there aren’t clear sides,” he said. “Unlike then, there is a marked rivalry now and the mood is confrontational. The times call for picking a side.”

He said that “making a clear stance and being included in the herd of liberal democracies” was what will protect South Korea from “being bullied” by its authoritarian neighbors like China.

“We have to be able to clearly state when something is in our interest. For example, we shouldn’t be afraid to look China in the eye and say peace in the Taiwan Strait is important to us.”

As a member of the Assembly, he said he would continue the efforts he orchestrated as part of the government to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and enhance South Korea’s diplomatic standing.

While at the helm of Korean Peninsula peace initiatives, he said one of the main focuses was to cut off North Korea’s ability to source funds from hacking and other tactics on cyberspace.

“North Korea has turned to illegal cyber activities to finance its weapons development. Our government officials are working with their US counterparts to tackle these cyber threats,” he said. “There are things the Assembly can do to complement or accelerate these efforts.”

One of the items on his agenda would be to get the bill passed for building a centralized system for defending against cyber threats from adversaries, he said. The cyber security bill has been left pending in a committee for the last four years and unlikely to be considered before the Assembly term expires at the end of May.

Kim said that in the Assembly, where he is expected to serve on the foreign affairs committee, he wished to work for bipartisan cooperation in advancing such bills and other legislative efforts that “serve national interests.” “Politics must stop at water’s edge,” he said.

Kim, a lawmaker-elect with the ruling People Power Party, speaks with The Korea Herald in an office near the National Assembly in Yeouido, central Seoul, on Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Kim, a lawmaker-elect with the ruling People Power Party, speaks with The Korea Herald in an office near the National Assembly in Yeouido, central Seoul, on Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Kim Gunn is a seasoned diplomat who built his career around North Korean nuclear diplomacy and security issues affecting the Korean Peninsula. He was South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs for nearly two years before he left the post to run for a National Assembly seat in February. Since joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1989, he played key roles in Seoul’s nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. He served as a secretary at South Korea’s embassies in both the US and China, which are major players in North Korean nuclear affairs. He was also the ambassador to the UK and the deputy minister for political affairs.