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H. Hawksley: Address to World Summit 2022, Plenary Session IV

Address to World Summit
February 11-13, 2022


Thank you. It's a privilege to be with you today, talking about such an important issue of which, as a BBC correspondent and an author, I've written about and reported on for many decades now.

I'd like to thank the Universal Peace Federation for inviting me, because it was through UPF—although it wasn't even called UPF then—that I first went to North Korea in the mid-1990s, when there was a serious threat of war with the United States, which I'll talk about in more detail later. I then witnessed firsthand how the predecessors of UPF worked around the clock to help defuse the crisis.

It came just a few years after the Reverend and Mrs. Moon met the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, in 1991, which led to a range of initiatives including the opening of a car factory in Nampo and a hotel and peace conference center, and the holding of a world peace conference. More recently there's been an initiative to set up a United Nations headquarters in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South. Drawing on experience of this long deadlock on Korean unification issues that create war and those that lead to peace, UPF is now active all over the world—although at the top of the wish list remains the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

I want to talk to you today of where that Korean conundrum, as I call it, sits geopolitically among the other global flashpoints, and how in the long-term unification might best be achieved without conflict—and if I go back to January 2017, and the handover from President Barack Obama to Donald Trump, when Obama warned that North Korea and its missiles would be his top national security threat.

Now North Korea's missile program first became a threat in the 1990s with reports, never confirmed, that it was being designed by rogue Soviet scientists. Later, after the collapse of communism, a Pakistani involvement, too, is well documented. It carried out more than twenty missile tests during 2017. North Korea claimed to have achieved its aim of designing a missile and nuclear warhead that could reach Washington, D.C.

American attempts to pressure China into stopping North Korea had yielded little during that period of heightened tensions, and North Korea appeared determined to keep going until it thought it had the nuclear deterrent it needed. And there were ripple effects from American and Western foreign policy that had been taking place elsewhere.

Analysts frequently cited the examples of Iraq, Libya and Ukraine as countries that had forfeited their embryonic nuclear weapons programs—only to be invaded by foreign powers. So why would North Korea ever contemplate doing that? As a short-term solution, back then in 2017 with the increased North Korean missile testing, South Korea deployed U.S. anti-missile defense systems designed to intercept and destroy missiles on their descent to target. This went some way to allay domestic fears about a missile strike, but it also caused friction with China, North Korea's ally, which viewed it as unnecessary and hostile.

If we think back to that time, President Trump had just taken office. He was about to launch his much wider anti-China policy about trade and the rest of it. And he had already ruffled feathers with his approach to Taiwan. The Korean challenge lay within that context.

By early 2018, the U.S. had drawn up detailed plans for Special Forces operations against nuclear facilities in North Korea, against the dystopian option of nuclear war and of the destruction of Seoul in the first house of any war. The Pentagon was beginning to accept that a forensic strike might be the least bad option. So at this stage, the crisis was strong in China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United States, and we were all reading about it as the headlines of our newspapers. In a near unprecedented deployment, three U.S. aircraft carrier groups were sent to the region. The U.N. imposed yet more sanctions on North Korea, backed by the nation’s traditional allies, China and Russia.

And Trump made the fight personal, jeering at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling him “Little Rocket Man” and warning that the United States would totally destroy his country. But he also chose to tackle the problem at source. He offered an olive branch, and there followed a series of one-on-one summits between the two leaders. Trump and Kim Jong Un met first in Singapore on June 12, 2018, and then in Vietnam on February 27 and 28, 2019. And again, on June 30, 2019, along the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea. Trump stepped across, becoming the first sitting American president to visit North Korea.

Now analysts are going to argue what was not achieved and the failures of this and that, but what Trump did was he succeeded in removing Obama's Korean crisis from the top of his threat list. In the conversations today, we hear far more about Russia, Ukraine, and China and Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Hong Kong. And right up there every day is the threat against Taiwan. The Korean Peninsula isn't much there, and this can only be a good thing.

The imminent threat of conflict might have diminished, but the underlying issues have not gone away. North Korea is controlled by an outdated, insular Stalinist-style family dynasty currently run by Kim Jong Un, who's only in his thirties. He inherited that mantle from his father, Kim Jong Il, who was the son of the country's revered and very canny founder, Kim Il Sung, who started the Korean War and met Reverend and Mrs. Moon in 1991. The paradox of the situation is that Kim knows if he ever did directly threaten Japan, South Korea or the United States, his family regime would be very unlikely to survive at all. The country is flanked to the north by its ally China, to the south by its enemy South Korea, and to the East North Korea shares a short border with Russia. The Kim family has maintained control over North Korea's 25 million people by repressing, threatening and isolating them—borders are kept closed, martial music and slogans and worship of the regime are embedded in the citizens from birth. Television, radio and the internet are highly restricted. Some 150,000 (although nobody really knows) labor-camp prisoners live in a Soviet-style gulag system, facing torture, execution. Threats of being sent to such a camp hang over every citizen. No one is exempt. After he inherited his presidency, Kim Jong Un executed his own uncle in 2014, together with an aunt and other relatives. Let me repeat—no one feels safe.

I have some personal experience of these tactics during a visit in 1994. I interviewed a deputy minister who handled energy and nuclear issues. I tried to contact him later and was told that he had moved jobs. I learned he had actually been executed by firing squad. By sealing itself off and instilling in people this idea that they lead perfect lives, the Kim family has created a bizarre social laboratory.

In a weird way, it mirrors the South. They are, after all, all Koreans. South Korea has dazzled the world with its soft-power influence, whether with automobiles, televisions, Gangnam-style dancing, its successful transition to democracy or the addictive Netflix series Squid Games. North Korea has equally dazzled with its ability to defy global trends, keep its sanction-laden dictatorship alive, while also becoming a nuclear power and a training ground for some of the world's most skilled cyberhackers, and so on.

North Koreans are motivated and disciplined; they have to be, to outfox the regime and to survive. Those I've met are funny, clever, quick thinking. You can get yourselves into really wacky situations. There was a time—I don't know if it still exists now—that North Koreans were told that the Beatles had not broken up because they were coming to play for the Great Leader and that no man had ever walked on the moon because North Korea was going to get there first.

The North and the South might share a language, but it will take a long time to mesh the two current mindsets, as the South has found when resettling those who have escaped. So, what to do when, after over seven decades and three generations of family dictators, the core of the North Korean regime stands unchanged? There is no easy way to bring it into the modern world. And thank goodness, the American people have now learned, through the blood and horror of Afghanistan, that democracy does not come with the raising of a new flag and the holding of an election. The South Koreans know from their experience that it's a lot harder than that.

As I mentioned at the beginning, North Korea has brought the world to the brink of war before, most seriously in 1994, when President Bill Clinton drew up detailed strike plans and, with input from a forebear of UPF, negotiated the Agreed Framework. That was before North Korea had nuclear weapons. There was an idea then that if the U.S. in the international community could guarantee North Korean energy supplies, it could, like China, reform and come in from the cold.

That dream ended in 2002. The U.S. accused North Korea of violating the agreement. President George W. Bush condemned the country as being part of the “Axis of Evil.” This was in those grim, heady days after 9-11 and before the Iraq invasion, when the defense secretary, the late Donald Rumsfeld, famously said the U.S. was capable of fighting wars on two fronts, Iraq and North Korea. He was wrong.

There are comparisons here with the current treaty around Iran's nuclear program, and a lesson. If we want to end the threat of a rogue state, we need to hold our nerve and stay the course. The U.S., as leader of the international community, cannot sign an agreement with one administration and pull out with the other. It's devastating for world leadership. Yes, North Korea was violating that Agreed Framework, but we should have worked around that, persuaded, coaxed, cajoled and stayed in the game of peace. Why? Because four years after tearing it up, North Korea carried out its first nuclear test.

While Americans could intervene in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran—the rest of it—similar action in North Korea would be fraught with danger. And we should dash any thought of thinking or hoping for the disintegration of the regime—that word, or phrase, “regime change.” None of the major regional powers have been able to agree on how to handle it.

Remember Iraq again. When we believe Britain, the United States and others had drawn up a plan on how to rebuild Iraq, bring democracy, and we had not anticipated those scenarios of looting, lawlessness and insurgency that should not have caught everyone by surprise, but they hadn’t planned for it. Yes, Trump could carry out his threat to destroy the regime, but what then?

I'll tell you a little bit of what's been discovered. Any strike on North Korea could be met with a barrage on Seoul, hundreds of artillery guns across North Korea—I mean, thirty miles from the border. Estimates on their firing ability—half a million shells in an hour, destroying the city. There would also be the risk of those shells carrying chemical nerve agents, VX and Sarin, of which North Korea has plentiful supplies.

Another scenario outlined in a Rand Corporation report looked at what might happen if Kim Jong Un were assassinated. Division of the North Korean leadership into factions might lead to a civil war. A collapse of the government could develop into a humanitarian disaster. Refugees would head both north and south. Humanitarian aid would have to be delivered swiftly and in plentiful supply throughout the country. South Korea, China and the United States would need to intervene.

Beijing would insist on a buffer zone inside North Korea's northern border, perhaps as deep as thirty  miles, in which it would put its troops and weapons. South Korea views the North as its Korean sovereign territory. So, would it agree? And finally—everything's important; maybe this is the most important—North Korea's weapons of mass destruction would have to be secured very quickly to prevent them falling into the hands of terrorists or a North Korean faction that might use it in the civil war.

The governments involved had not agreed upon a formula of how to contain any collapse, and a war game found that it would take 90,000 troops fifty-six days to secure those nuclear materials. So, what to do with no good scenario? My suggestion: I'm an author and a reporter. I would say give it time. Don't think that you can unify like Germany, in months or years. Look at a fifty-year plan.

You have to make sure that the North Korean elite do not feel in danger of that transition that's going to take place, and that is a very difficult and unpalatable thought to have, when you think of the human rights abuses that will be exposed. 

The only way to bring this about in a peaceful way is if North Korea reforms like China did—under the mentorship, I suspect, of China—so that its economy and its education system grow, and gradually, by bringing in that economic reform, it opens up. China began in 1979, say, so we are looking at forty years to where China is now.

And it's not a democracy. So let's forget about this democracy element. The South and the North must merge in the unification so that on both sides of the border, the day that it happens, everybody is going to wake up and go to work as if nothing much has changed.

None of that scenario sits well with Western democracies. Because, as I explained at the beginning, one administration thinks this, there is an election; another administration thinks that. So there needs to be a general acceptance and agreement within those Western democracies that this is how this situation is going to unfold.

I'll finish on the biggest conundrum at the moment: How can North Korea be opened up, reform its economy, spread that wealth, while it is under sanctions? That's going to be the tricky one. That is the first hurdle to overcome. How are we going to open it up, improve the lives of North Koreans, spread that wealth, change the mindsets? That's the conundrum. Thank you, Universal Peace Federation, so much for inviting me. And thank you all for listening.



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