“Even­tu­ally we will face a sit­u­a­tion that will be be­yond our con­trol,” says South Korea’s pres­i­dent.

The Post’s Lally Wey­mouth in­ter­views Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Lal­lyWey­mouth Lally Wey­mouth is a se­nior as­so­ciate edi­tor for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

South Korea’s pres­i­dent, Park Ge­un­hye, was sup­posed to visit Pres­i­dent Obama in Wash­ing­ton this com­ing week to dis­cuss the grow­ing threat from Kim Jong Un’s nu­clear-armed North Korea and her coun­try’s vexed re­la­tion­ship with Ja­pan. But with the spread of Mid­dle East re­s­pi­ra­tory syn­drome (MERS) and her fall­ing poll num­bers, Park can­celled the trip. She talked with The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Lally Wey­mouth. Edited ex­cerpts fol­low.

Why did you cancel your trip? What can you do here to con­tain MERS?

My visit to the U.S. was very im­por­tant. The spread of MERS is be­ing brought un­der con­trol, but we still have a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of con­firmed cases, so I re­solved to put the safety of the Korean peo­ple first.

Seoul and Tokyo have his­tor­i­cally had a very tense re­la­tion­ship over the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of World War II his­tory — even though you have many com­mon in­ter­ests. How can you im­prove the re­la­tion­ship? Will you meet with Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe?

We have his­tory is­sues that need to be dealt with. At the same time, Korea’s re­la­tion­ship with Ja­pan and co­or­di­na­tion on the se­cu­rity front should not be ad­versely im­pacted by those is­sues. As for Prime Min­is­ter Abe, I have had a chance to en­gage with him on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions. There has been con­sid­er­able progress on the is­sue of the com­fort women, and we are in the fi­nal stage of our ne­go­ti­a­tions. So I think we can ex­pect to look for­ward to a very mean­ing­ful 50th an­niver­sary of the nor­mal­iza­tion of our diplo­matic ties.

You have al­ways said that the is­sue of com­fort women — that is, Korean women forced into sex­ual slav­ery by the Ja­panese dur­ing the war — has to be dealt with. Can you de­scribe the progress?

Ob­vi­ously, be­cause th­ese are be­hind-thescenes dis­cus­sions, I would be re­miss to dis­close the el­e­ments of the dis­cus­sions.

Are you hop­ing that Prime Min­is­ter Abe might make some kind of apol­ogy?

His­to­ri­ans in Ja­pan as well as his­to­ri­ans across the world have been call­ing on the Ja­panese lead­er­ship to come clean about what they have done in the past so we can move for­ward. But de­nial and ef­forts to gloss over what hap­pened have stymied our abil­ity to make progress. As for the com­fort women, we only have 52 sur­viv­ing vic­tims. It be­hooves Ja­pan to bring heal­ing to their wounds and to bring honor to them be­fore an­other com­fort woman passes away.

How do you as­sess the sit­u­a­tion in North Korea, with Kim Jong Un ex­e­cut­ing so­many se­nior of­fi­cials?

Since [he] took power 31/2 years ago, he has ex­e­cuted some 90 of­fi­cials. In­deed, the reign of ter­ror con­tin­ues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of ter­ror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is ac­tu­ally sow­ing and am­pli­fy­ing the seeds of in­sta­bil­ity for the regime.

Cur­rently, North Korea is con­stantly up­grad­ing and en­hanc­ing the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of its nu­clear weapons, and de­vel­op­ing and hon­ing its mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties as well. Th­ese rep­re­sent a threat not just to the Korean Penin­sula but also to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. So it is ex­tremely ur­gent that we achieve a de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of North Korea.

How can that be done when they don’t seem to care about the out­side world?

The Korea-U.S. al­liance re­la­tion­ship, as well as the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity and also five of the six par­ties en­gaged in talks, need to step up the pres­sure . . . to bring them back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. We can in­still in them the be­lief that pos­sess­ing nu­clear weapons is an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity.

How? By in­creas­ing sanc­tions?

We could step up pres­sure vis-a-vis North Korea.

Last week, the United States gov­ern­ment an­nounced that there were “ad­di­tional uniden­ti­fied nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties” in North Korea. Does South Korea think that North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram is larger than was pre­vi­ously be­lieved?

The In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency in­spec­tors have not been able to go in­side North Korea [in quite a while], so there is a prob­a­bil­ity that what you just said is true.

When you look at the Ira­nian sanc­tions regime, which re­sulted in de­nu­cle­ariza­tion talks, would you like to see a sim­i­lar ap­proach to North Korea?

Of course things should turn out that way, but I be­lieve in re­al­ity [in this part of the world] it might be more dif­fi­cult.

You have a good re­la­tion­ship with China’s pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping. China is one of the last coun­tries to have some in­flu­ence over North Korea, and it pro­vides the coun­try with much of its en­ergy. Does Xi share your views? Would he cut off some of the en­ergy China sends to North Korea?

I have had sum­mit meet­ings with Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. In the past, we were not able to en­gage in in-depth dis­cus­sions on the topic of uni­fi­ca­tion or North Korean nu­clear weapons. But now we have reached a point — be­tween Pres­i­dent Xi and my­self — where we can talk ex­ten­sively about North Korea and about peace­ful uni­fi­ca­tion as well. Pres­i­dent Xi firmly ad­heres to the po­si­tion that he will not ac­cept a nu­clear-armed North Korea. From the Chi­nese per­spec­tive, on the one hand they say that it wouldn’t be wise to rat­tle the sit­u­a­tion too much. On the other hand, [they also be­lieve] that if we let the on­go­ing en­hance­ment of North Korea’s nu­clear weapons con­tinue, even­tu­ally we will face a sit­u­a­tion that will be be­yond our con­trol.

So China doesn’t want to cut off all the en­ergy it sends to North Korea? China could bring about a col­lapse that­way?

Yes, that would be a fair as­sess­ment.

Would you wel­come a col­lapse? Or not wel­come one?

My hope is to see a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion ... with­out see­ing a col­lapse sce­nario.

It sounds dif­fi­cult to do any­thing with North Korea, much as you and oth­ers have tried. If it is as danger­ous as you say, what is the next al­ter­na­tive? Shut­ting off bank­ing flows?

We are en­gaged in a wide range of dis­cus­sions with the United States on how to deal with this sit­u­a­tion. If we are to see a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion, the North Kore­ans also have to step up. As you say in English, it takes two to tango.

Do you see any cracks in the regime in North Korea?

Re­cently, a se­nior North Korean de­fected and con­fessed to us that be­cause of the on­go­ing and wide­spread ex­e­cu­tions that in­clude even his in­ner cir­cle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee.

Was he part of the in­ner cir­cle?

No, he wouldn’t qual­ify as an in­ner-cir­cle per­son. He was part of the cadre of the party.

You re­cently at­tended the testing of a South Korean mis­sile that can reach all parts of North Korea.

The North Kore­ans con­tinue to en­hance the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of their nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties and also de­velop a wide range of mis­siles. So it is in­cum­bent upon us to fash­ion a re­sponse. In the fu­ture, this mis­sile will be a key el­e­ment to our Korean Air and Mis­sile De­fense Sys­tem.

The U.S. re­port­edly fa­vors de­ploy­ing Ter­mi­nal High Altitude Area De­fense (THAAD), the Army’s anti-bal­lis­tic-mis­sile sys­tem, to South Korea. What will you say if the U.S. re­quests this de­ploy­ment here?

We would look at this to­gether with the U.S., tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion a va­ri­ety of el­e­ments, in­clud­ing whether it serves our na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­est.

China has asked South Korea not to per­mit the de­ploy­ment of THAAD. So China pres­sures you not to do it while the U.S. pres­sures you to do it. Do you feel squeezed?

When it comes to se­cu­rity, it shouldn’t be about yes or no depend­ing on the po­si­tion of cer­tain coun­tries. The first pri­or­ity should be how can we best safe­guard the Korean peo­ple.

You have had tremen­dous suc­cess in im­prov­ing South Korea’s re­la­tion­ship with China. You have vis­ited China, and Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has vis­ited your coun­try. How do you see China’s be­hav­ior in the South China Sea, where it has ex­panded its claims quite ag­gres­sively?

China is Korea’s largest trad­ing part­ner, and China has a huge role to play in up­hold­ing peace and sta­bil­ity on the Korean Penin­sula. . . . As for the South China Sea, the se­cu­rity and free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion are very im­por­tant for South Korea. We are watch­ing with con­cern the de­vel­op­ments in that area. We hope that the sit­u­a­tion does not de­te­ri­o­rate.

How do you see Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin of Rus­sia?

It is im­por­tant for Korea to main­tain strong re­la­tions with Rus­sia, be­cause they are a mem­ber of the six-party talks with North Korea, and they have been stead­fast in their op­po­si­tion to North Korea’s nu­clear weapons.

Your mother was killed when you were in your early 20s, and then your fa­ther, for­mer Korean pres­i­dent Park Chung-hee, was as­sas­si­nated a few years later. How did you have the strength to sur­vive that and to go into pol­i­tics your­self?

Be­cause of such tragedy and dif­fi­cul­ties, peo­ple say, “How could you even think about go­ing near the world of pol­i­tics?” As a child, I grew up em­bed­ded with the virtue of serv­ing this coun­try. When the for­eign ex­change cri­sis struck in 1997, I felt it nec­es­sary to do what I could to place our coun­try on a strong foot­ing, and that’s what prompted me to en­ter the realm of pol­i­tics. As long as I feel the coun­try is mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion — that the coun­try is sta­ble — I can rest. But in the ab­sence of that be­lief, I can­not find rest.

I my­self have been the vic­tim of a ter­ror­ist attack and al­most lost my life. I lost my par­ents — they suf­fered tragic deaths. I went through so many or­deals. In the course of en­dur­ing those chal­lenges, I learned what is im­por­tant is the essence. Whereas oth­ers may be chas­ing af­ter the froth, the os­ten­si­ble ap­pear­ance, those ex­pe­ri­ences taught me to see through the froth and seek to grasp the essence.


South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye, left, with Ja­panese PrimeMin­is­ter Shinzo Abe. Their coun­tries have a con­tentious re­la­tion­ship.

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