In late April VOA Korean Service chief Dong Hyuk Lee spoke with South Korea’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol in Yoon's office in Seoul.
VOA: I would like to ask about the South Korea-U.S. alliance. This year marks the 69th anniversary of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. The Biden administration is emphasizing an alliance based on shared values. How do you envision the direction of the South Korea-U.S. alliance?
Yoon: The Mutual Defense Treaty was signed between the U.S. and South Korea during the Korean War in 1953. Now, military security is not the only important aspect of the alliance, but economic security and technology security and even human security are [important aspects of the alliance] being discussed.
An alliance is a system of relationships between countries that mutually benefit each other in the best way possible when each other’s security is at risk. I believe the concept of security in the South Korea-U.S. alliance has to go beyond military security now to include security in the areas of economy, advanced technologies and supply networks as well as global issues surrounding climate change and health care so that the relationship could be expanded and upgraded to a comprehensive alliance.
VOA: A plan for your summit with President Joe Biden is under preparation. What are some outcomes you would like to achieve?
Yoon: I would like to add to what was missing in an agreement that President Moon Jae-in and President Biden made verbally last year.
When the two met last year, they discussed only the topic of [a COVID-19] vaccine, but I believe the discussion needs to be expanded to include broadening the scope of a [joint] working group’s [cooperation and] participation on the QUAD, cutting-edge technology and climate change.
Right now, military security relies heavily on science and technology, advanced technology, so South Korea and the U.S. need to cooperate more closely on the state-of-art technology. South Korea needs do more than [merely] expressing that we agree with U.S. policies or that we will stand with the U.S., and [actually] labor over global issues together. I think we need to play a leading role in the areas that require our part.
VOA: I would like to ask a question pertaining to a pending issue between South Korea and the U.S. It is about the wartime operational control transfer. Both countries are planning on the transfer premised on a "conditions based" transfer. Some in South Korea think the OPCON transition should be done as soon as possible. What’s your position on this?
Yoon: Having the control of wartime operational command means having the command over conducting joint military operation if a war breaks out.
The transfer involves moving the wartime command authority from the U.S. to South Korea. To begin with, the most important thing in commanding a wartime operation is intelligence, intelligence about an adversary.
If a war breaks out, a considerable number of strategic assets from the U.S. would be placed or deployed on the Korean Peninsula. So first, we need to secure a reasonable level of intelligence capabilities for conducting surveillance and reconnaissance operations that will allow conducting a joint wartime operation.
Although intelligence-gathering capabilities could not be as encompassing as the capabilities of the U.S., South Korea needs to obtain more surveillance and reconnaissance assets. I think we are lacking sufficient readiness to operate intelligence assets.
In respect to North Korea’s projectiles delivery methods, I also believe it is essential for us to upgrade defense systems that could respond to missile attacks [from North Korea]. When we focus our preparation in these two areas, I believe the U.S. would not oppose too much to transfer the wartime operational control.
[The timing of] the OPCON transfer needs to depend on considering factors that are the most effective in winning a war.
VOA: Do you mean the wartime operational control doesn’t need to be transferred sooner?
Yoon: If we want to transfer sooner, we have to prepare more [and faster]. The issue of returning the wartime operational control [to South Korea] should depend on factors that are most effective in winning a war. I don’t think it is a matter that needs to be decided based on certain pretexts or ideologies.
VOA: You mentioned the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are the biggest obstacle in the inter-Korean relations and the U.S.-North Korea relation. What are your thoughts on resolving the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons?
Yoon: It is a very difficult issue. Currently, the entire world, the majority of the world agrees on the NPT, the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and accepts it as a norm.
As a way to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons, an emphasis has been placed on extended deterrence. We must certainly participate in having more intimate and in-depth communications with the U.S. about extended deterrence.
Also, the government or academia of South Korea or the U.S. needs to ask whether South Koreans who are living under the U.S. nuclear umbrella should completely rely on extended deterrence.
In that respect, discussions are taking place on whether the U.S. should share its nuclear weapons and whether strategic nuclear assets should be redeployed in the case of South Korea.
But I respect the nuclear nonproliferation regime and place more emphasis on strengthening extended deterrence, advancing South Korea’s missile defense system, and maintaining the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions on North Korea.
Dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons requires sending a consistent signal and message that should not be changed from time to time out of convenience.
If North Korea gives up nuclear weapons, accepts nuclear inspections, or carries out irreversible denuclearization, then programs that will significantly improve North Korea’s economic situations will be examined and prepared [to be offered to North Korea].
VOA: Since the breakdown of the Hanoi summit between the U.S. and North Korea, negotiations with North Korea remain stalled. Do you have any willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in order to ease the current standoff and resume dialogue with North Korea?
Yoon: There is no particular reason to avoid a summit.
But it should follow mutual agreements made at working-level talks.
The summit should be able to show the people of South Korea and North Korea and foreign countries the conclusion and concrete outcomes of talks.
But if the summit ends in “showoff displays" with no concrete outcomes or substantial results made on denuclearization or providing economic support to North Korea, then it will not help advance inter-Korean relations and denuclearizing North Korea.
However, because we certainly are one nation, I have some thoughts on whether we should actively pursue cultural and sports exchange programs.
VOA: Do you have any preconditions that North Korea needs to meet before having a possible summit? Are there any conditions that North Korea should meet?
Yoon: Well, I think we would know more after having working-level discussions.
VOA: What role should the government of South Korea play to improve the human rights situation of North Korea?
Yoon: Human rights are universal rights. If human rights pertain to only certain people but not to other people, then it is not human rights.
Even politically, it would not be human rights if I boundlessly respect the human rights of people who share my political views but ignore the rights of people who stand on the opposite side of the political spectrum. That’s not human rights.
Historically, the international community has responded continually to North Korea or similar societies that collectively violate human rights. As a free democratic country, South Korea must participate in supporting human rights that the entire world has been supporting.
Rather than limiting the response [of South Korea] to North Korea’s human rights violations, when there is a collective abuse of human rights in the world and when abuses are done by a government authority or political force, then …the international community must cooperate and respond so that international order based on norms can be honored.
VOA: This is the last question. The U.S. Congress views sending broadcasting programs to North Korea or outside information to North Korea as essential to improving North Korea’s human rights situation. Congress is supporting such activities. Does the South Korean government have similar plan.
Yoon: Well, the current South Korean government legally banned broadcasting or sending information to North Korea.
I believe that is wrong unless the ban is absolutely necessary to protect the safety of South Koreans living near the North Korean border.
But before considering the issue at the governmental level …
I don’t think it is appropriate for a government to forcibly regulate nongovernmental organizations’ human rights activities toward North Korea out of fear how those activities would offend North Korea.
VOA: Thank you very much.