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Speeches

K. Phillips: Address to World Summit 2022, Session 4

Address to World Summit
February 11-13, 2022

 

Note: World leaders were invited to World Summit 2022 but due to air travel restrictions, participated by submitting a video message. The following text is a transcription of the recording.

When I was asked to address this conference today and share professional reflections, I actually went back to the year 2000, almost 22 years ago, when I reported on South Korea scaling down it’s commemoration of the Korean War in light of renewed hopes of peace between Koreas.

From the CNN desk, I was telling the world about the recent summit between the presidents of North and South Korea and how it had made quite an impact on the way the Korean War was being remembered and that the war’s commemoration in Seoul went off that year with much less fanfare than originally planned.

I remember the images of cannons firing round after round as thousands of veterans gathered at Seoul’s war memorials, bowing their heads in tribute for the millions of people who lost their lives during the Korean War. This ceremony was marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean conflict. It was low key and very solemn. The emphasis was on honoring the veterans: South Korean as well as representatives of those from 21 nations who fought under the United Nations command.

I remember our correspondent on the ground interviewing a Korean War veteran, a U.S. soldier who had fought as an infantryman during the conflict. He described the last time he saw Seoul: it was destroyed, people were hungry, there were no lights. And then he described the Seoul he was looking at decades later, how it had rebounded, come alive. When he saw the capitol so many years later, it was such a different experience, a “wonderful experience,” he said.

Our correspondent also talked to a group of Korean vets who conducted guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines, many of whom lost their homes, left their families in the south, and saw more than one-third of their fellow fighters fall. They talked about paying so much for their freedom they have today, and that they can never forget how that freedom doesn’t come free.

That ceremony in 2000 was also impacted by the summit between South and North Korea that had happened just two weeks before. The Seoul government decided to drastically scale down the ceremonies in light of the new mood of peace and cooperation with the North, the very country these Korean War veterans fought against.

South Korea’s President Kim Dae-Jung had said he told the North Korean leader at that time, Kim Jong Il, that if another war broke out today, the entire peninsula would be decimated.

President Kim Dae-Jung stated, “The only road to national survival is through peaceful coexistence, peaceful exchanges and peaceful unification.”

Korea is best known for two things: it’s long-standing friendship with the United States, and for the so-called “Miracle on the Han River,” the stunning economic turnaround that has occurred, transforming Korea from a struggling nation into an economic and technological powerhouse.

From the moment that you touch down at Incheon airport, you get the sense that you are in a vibrant, prosperous nation with a tremendous amount of momentum for the future.

Korea truly is a jewel of East Asia, a nation with a remarkable history of emerging from the crushing devastation of war to become a shining light of what is possible when policies are directed toward economic development, a robust democracy and genuine concern for its people.

In my town, just outside of Washington, DC, there is a large Korean community, some of them first-generation immigrants, others whose parents emigrated to the United States.

They represent all walks of life—everyone from the owner of my local dry cleaner (who also brings me my favorite spicy Korean noodles!), to our family doctor, to the CIA analyst whose son is one of my son’s closest friends. From my experience, the Korean people are optimistic, with an exemplary work ethic and their “can do” attitude that have helped them, time and time again, achieve their American dream.

We also see the achievements of Korea’s growing prosperity in our daily life here in America.  Every morning, I turn on my Samsung television to begin my daily news digest. LG appliances are now one of the leading brands in the United States. The reason Tiger Woods is still alive today is likely due to the safety features of a Genesis GV80, and on my daily commute into and out of Washington, I see Kia, Kia, Kia. It really is quite remarkable.

Among all the Korean expats I know, there is a concern for the future of their homeland. Will there be another conflict with the North, or could the two nations one day achieve the dream of bringing the South and North back together in shared peace and prosperity?

It has long been thought that the Korean peninsula could be the flash point or the next major conflict. That sense has been tempered somewhat by recent developments around Ukraine and Russia and China’s increasing aggressive moves in the South China Sea and speculation about the possible forced reunification with Taiwan.

Still, the Korean peninsula is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world, and unless there is more progress toward ending the decades-long tensions between the North and South, it will remain so. Conflict between the two sides would be devastating for the South. Some 10 million people here in the capital of Seoul are within easy range of the 100,000 artillery pieces the North has arrayed along the border. While the North may not have the capability to push deeply into the South before being beaten back by air power, the initial phase of any conflict would bring catastrophic consequences for the South.

As we witnessed during the Trump administration, a diplomatic solution to the stalemate can be both promising and elusive. The first summit with Kim Jong Un in June 2018 appeared to build on the sense of goodwill that negotiations between the South and North had achieved. But words are one thing, real progress is quite another.

The subsequent Hanoi summit in February of 2019 once again proved the frustration of dealing with Kim. And while President Trump’s meeting with Kim at the DMZ in June of that year provided some historic images, progress, and peace, continue to be elusive.

So, how to break the impasse and move toward an ultimate solution to the fragile detente between the North and South? That, of course, is the million-dollar question. The regime in the North appears genuinely serious about the issue of reconciliation, but the formula for how to achieve it is a true Gordian knot.

Speaking to former Administration officials in the United States, the most thorny issue to resolve is what political system the peninsula would reunite under. Would it be the representative democracy of the South, or the dynastic totalitarian model of the North?

Surely, the 51 million people who live in the South would never agree to giving up their freedoms to a totalitarian regime with a long history of repression. At the same time, it’s hardly likely that Kim Jong Un would agree to give up the iron-fisted grip he has on the 25 million people he lords over.

The United States is in a unique position to push the process forward. In their first summit, former President Trump presented a now-famous video to Kim about the possibilities of economic prosperity that reunification could bring. Former Trump administration national security officials still believe that economic development for the North is the key.

The presentation was tantalizing. Could North Korea experience the same economic miracle the South was enjoying? There’s no reason to think it couldn’t. But Kim is worried first and foremost about his survival—and he believes his burgeoning nuclear arsenal is the best way to insure it. That is why his pledge in 2017 to denuclearize has gone literally nowhere.

Talks to bring about a resolution have historically involved representatives from the South and North, the United States and China. China, of course, has grave concerns about a reunified Korea that has strong ties to the United States right on its doorstep. The presence of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the South certainly does nothing to allay China’s concerns.

Any future talks toward unification could include other players. Among the possibilities are Japan, Australia and Singapore. While Japan has historically resisted reunification, fearing the competition of a new economic powerhouse emerging across the Sea of Japan, a denuclearized One Korea would remove an enormous security threat to Japan. Additionally, it could provide new opportunities for economic cooperation. Japan could also serve as a base for the redeployment of U.S. forces currently stationed in South Korea.

As a strong partner with South Korea, Australia could lend an authentic voice to the idea of a partnership with a unified Korea. Singapore was, of course, the site of the first summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. The site was chosen for two reasons: Singapore’s appearance of regional neutrality, and its status as a jewel of prosperity, designed to show Kim what is possible when a nation opens up to the promise of global cooperation and engagement. During that summit, Kim famously visited the Marina Bay Sands casino, with its incredible ship-shaped rooftop structure and swimming pool. Video of the event shows Kim genuinely enjoying himself.

The heady possibilities associated with reunification have been presented. But how to bridge the gap between how the two nations function? The two forms of governance appear irreconcilable.

Perhaps, in the initial stages of reunification, a form of hybrid existence might be possible. The two entities would not be immediately reunited, as in the case of West and East Germany, but would adopt the model of one nation, with two states, or provinces, that have different systems of governance.

The South would continue as a robust democracy, while the North remained an autocracy. Kim would be given assurances that his regime would not be threatened, even as increased economic and diplomatic cooperation progressed. Given Kim’s historic paranoia about the West gunning for him, it would be a difficult sell, but perhaps not impossible.

Some U.S. national security experts also believe the promise of reunification may ultimately lie with Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong. For all the talk of her reputation as the “dragon lady,” there is a sense among some former administration officials that she may be a more reasonable, and realistic, potential partner for peace than her older brother. Of course, the caveat in that is: as long as Kim Jong Un is around, that formula is unlikely to happen.

In closing, while current global events appear to have put the urgent drive toward reunification on the back burner, it ultimately remains one of the most important foreign policy issues. Kim Jong-Un continues to flex his muscles, firing off a number of missiles this year, and the South continues to live under the constant threat that the fragile detente could quickly come unraveled with horrific consequences.

Achieving reunification would be an extraordinary achievement. It’s finding the path to success that remains the challenge of our time.

 

 


To go to the World Summit 2022 Schedule page, click here.