NEW YORK—The contrast between the North and South Korean missions to the United Nations could hardly be greater. When I contacted the North Korean mission for an interview, the call was answered by a woman with very limited English who put down the phone as I was talking.
After numerous calls, I was eventually put through to a press officer who said that the mission does not do any interviews. He sounded hassled and nervous—somewhat unsurprising considering the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who have been locked up in labor camps for actions perceived to be hostile to the regime.
The North Korean Mission is just a small walk away from the South Korean Mission, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, which features a pyramid roof that lets in a huge arc of light to the central reception area, where Ambassador Choi Young-jin was waiting to conduct his interview with The Washington Diplomat.
He is, of course, fluent in English and easily offered answers, a refreshing change from the North Korean Mission.
Much has been made in the U.S. press of the differences between South Korea and the United States on how to best handle North Korea. The South has followed a “sunshine policy” since 1998, engaging in talks with North Korea and greatly encouraging international dialogue.
The Bush administration has favored a much more aggressive policy toward North Korea, pressing for an end to its nuclear program and seeking international support for tough sanctions, if required.
Ambassador Choi does not believe there is any contradiction between the U.S. and South Korean policies, but rather a “difference in emphasis”—the United States offering the necessary military might to back up South Korea’s own defenses, while the South Korean government urges North Korean reform.
Although former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won the Noble Prize for developing the sunshine policy, some prominent U.S. analysts believe it may be prolonging North Korea’s Stalinist regime.
Ambassador Choi, who has visited North Korea several times, rejects the belief that putting increased military and economic pressure on the country will inevitably lead to regime collapse. Not only would there be a humanitarian crisis, he argues, it would also be a mistake to think that the North Korean regime will simply allow itself to disappear.
“Given the specific nature of the North Korean regime, it may be very difficult to induce its collapse. The more they are threatened with collapse, the more that they will try to ensure internal cohesion. This control is so isolated that the outside world has very little leverage,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “[The international community] cannot induce the regime change or collapse of North Korea. If it happens, it will be by the North Korean people’s own way, so we must not forget that. To ask why we do not end it presupposes that we can end it. We cannot. It’s up to North Koreans themselves.”
An analyst recently quipped that a war between North and South Korea would end as soon as North Korean troops glimpsed a South Korean supermarket and realized that their government had sold them a massive lie. Choi said it’s difficult to assess what the North Koreans may know about the South given their lack of outside communication.
“Undoubtedly it’s a very controlled society and very sealed off from outside influence. They may or may not know [about South Korea’s prosperity], but they are not allowed to talk. It is a very limited society as a whole. Their knowledge or their ability to act is very, very limited.”
The ambassador spoke to The Washington Diplomat at a historic time for his country. After a surprisingly brief flurry of diplomatic engagement, the South Korean foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, was elected to become the new secretary-general of the United Nations (see November 2006 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
It was a momentous victory for South Korea. Some analysts even speculated that North Korea may have deliberately planned its nuclear tests to coincide with Ban’s appointment.
Asked what Ban’s new role will mean for South Korea given that the United Nations forbids any secretary-general from involvement in the affairs of his home country, Choi is quick to point out that once Ban takes over, the South Korean government understands there will be a strict delineation.
“From that moment forward, he is working for the United Nations, not for South Korea, and we accept that principle fully,” he said, but added that there is an inevitable cultural tie that allows Ban a greater insight into the Korean Peninsula.
Ban has said that he wants to visit North Korea as secretary-general, but Choi explained that such a move would be because of global concern, given North Korea’s nuclear testing, and should not be seen as an internal Korean affair.
He also quickly dismissed suggestions that South Korea deliberately increased its foreign aid budget to win over developing countries in favor of Ban’s appointment. Some critics, however, questioned the sudden million in education funding for Tanzania, a member of the Security Council, in addition to South Korea’s dramatic increase in overall spending in Africa and in funding an African Union summit.
“There is some coincidence about our efforts to increase funding to developing countries, especially Africa,” Choi acknowledged, but said, “It was in the pipeline for a long time because Korea has become the world’s 11th largest economy, and we have climbed the ladder very quickly from developing to developed country. South Korea is one of the few countries that has transformed itself from recipient to donor.”
He noted that his country has worked hard to break the mentality of: “We are lagging behind, we are still a poor country, how can we give so large an amount to a developing country?” Now, with a strong economy and strong foreign reserves, it was time to take a lead on Africa—and it was not connected to Ban’s appointment, he said.
Unbeknownst to many, South Korea has the third largest military deployment in Iraq, with 3,800 troops, by Choi’s current estimates. The issue has been of enormous contention in South Korea, especially after Iraqi insurgents killed a Korean translator.
The “overwhelming majority” of the country is still very much committed to helping Iraq, but the country might face troop withdrawals in the future, said Choi, who served as assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations at the United Nations in 1998 and 1999, overseeing 17 peacekeeping missions, including Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Congo.
“They feel proud to make a contribution in the region and proud they are making a contribution to the stability of Iraq,” Choi said of the Korean military’s morale given the deteriorating situation in Iraq. “But in general there is a feeling internationally that troop reduction may be inevitable in Iraq. So South Korea is maybe moving that way. We will stay on with additional troops but maybe leave the situation in the future. Beyond that it is too early to tell.”
On the domestic front, South Korea enjoys a very prosperous economy. A recent U.N. survey found that it had .77 percent of the world’s population but 2 percent of the world’s wealth elite. This has left the country with a difficult situation though—the population is reaching stagnant growth as young married couples are less and less inclined to have children. In response, the government has sponsored fertility clinics and even matchmaking services to encourage couples to have children.
But according to the United Nations, global overpopulation is also a major source of environmental degradation, so is a declining population and more space for the Korean people and for the natural world necessarily a bad thing? “You cannot impose any uniform principle to each country because each country has individual problems,” responded Choi. “Korea is suffering from the most severe problem with population growth. We have the lowest population growth in the whole world and we suffer from effects of an aging society. Projections show that by 2020, the actual population will diminish, actually have a minus growth. This is a serious problem for the whole nation so it is only natural that we try to improve this.”
As a political appointee, Choi bypassed the Foreign Ministry bureaucracy to become U.N. ambassador. He was brought in to the United Nations at this critical time because of his competence and experience, having served as vice foreign minister from 2004 to 2005 and chancellor of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2003 to 2004. In addition, from 1995 to 1997, he held the post of deputy executive director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in New York, where he oversaw the billion construction of two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea, leading extensive negotiations with the North and within KEDO.
Choi has no set plans on what he intends to do when his three-year cycle at the United Nations ends in 2008. “I don’t know, it’s up to Seoul,” he said with a smile. “Whatever is coming next, I’m just willing to accept.”
About the Author
Sean O’Driscoll is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.