On North Korea and Beyond With Our Asia Correspondent: ‘Sages of the Sun’ (Episode #4)
Asia correspondent Donald Kirk discusses the latest in the long-standing tensions between North and South Korea.
In this episode of “Sages of the Sun,” we sit down with our Asia correspondent, Donald Kirk. Mr. Kirk is a veteran reporter and noted author on conflict and crisis from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Northeast Asia. He has covered wars from Vietnam to Iraq, focusing on political, diplomatic, economic, and social issues.
He is also known for his reporting on North Korea, including the nuclear crisis, human rights, and payoffs from South to North Korea preceding the June 2000 inter-Korean summit. Mr. Kirk earned his bachelor’s degree at Princeton University and a master’s in international relations from the University of Chicago.
Caroline Vik: Mr. Kirk, thank you for joining us today. Let’s get started. So you live in Seoul most of the year, is that correct?
Donald Kirk: That’s right. I would say maybe more than half of the year. I’m going back in a few weeks.
Vik: How long have you been living there?
Kirk: Well, I’ve been off and on in Korea, very much off and on. I first went there in 1972. The issue then was that North and South Korea had agreed to Red Cross talks at the offices of the Red Cross organizations of both Koreas. There was the usual tremendous optimism and outpouring of publicity surrounding those talks. And of course great statements and much hope which is the way it’s always been with talks between North and South Korea, between North Korea, the US, and others. Then it was followed by disappointment. One great difference between those initial talks in 1972 and what we have now is the nuclear issue was not on the table. No one was worried about North Korea’s nukes. Of course Kim Il-sung, who was still very much in power, had initiated a nuclear program but it was just very much not a factor in negotiations. And then they agreed on such wonderful things such as family visits, mail, even some commerce, and all that. None of which came to happen except for one much publicized family visit around that time. That was about it.
Vik: What was that one very publicized visit?
Kirk: There was one visit. Some families reunited and there were great pictures in the papers and all that kind of thing. That was it. They didn’t agree on regular family visits until the Inter-Korean Summit in June 2000 between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. Both of whom are no longer with us.
Vik: What’s kept you in Korea all these years?
Kirk: That’s a good question. I went to Korea with the Chicago Tribune. Initially I was based in Tokyo. That’s why I went to Korea, and then someone asked me why don’t you write a book about the Hyundai Empire? I don’t know what kind of book they expected. I think they expected a book about how great the Koreans were doing in manufacturing cars and chips and so forth. Well I got all that, but I spent an awful long time on that book. I got a lot of stuff on labor problems and family disputes among members of the owning family — the family of Chung Ju Yung — all kinds of stuff. It took me several years, over a period of six years to write that book. It was not in any way supported or subsidized by Hyundai. Although I will say they gave me interviews so I actually got quite a lot of interesting information. The name of the book, if I may publicize it slightly, is “Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung.” It came out in 1994.
Vik: Very interesting.
Kirk: From there I went on to filing for other papers. I got a gig with the International Herald Tribune and then Christian Science Monitor.
Vik: I loved the International Herald Tribune.
Kirk: Yes, I did too. It was a shame that it went out.
Vik: It was such a highlight. Everytime I went to Europe it was like “Yes! This is what I get to read now.”
Kirk: Right, right. Well, the New York Times really big-footed the whole operation. First the New York Times and the Washington Post co-owned it. Then the New York Times kicked out the Washington Post, or bought out, but basically kicked them out. Then the New York Times decided “Well let’s call it the New York Times.” So now it’s the New York Times International Edition. But one great distinction about that paper is that they still have comic strips which you don’t find in the New York New York Times. My favorite comic strip “Dilbert” runs every day.
Vik: So as someone who knows Korea very well, what should interested observers in the US know and understand about Korean politics, how they see the world, how they see the region, how they see their partnership with the United States?
Kirk: Over the years I’ve talked to innumerable politicians and analysts, their think tanks, and so forth. People will talk to you there. We’ve got a set of contacts and foundations, that is the Sejong Institute, a government funded foundation which always goes the way of the government. A few years ago when Park Geun-hye was president, Sejong was quite conservative. Then under Moon Jae-in, the outgoing liberal president, Sejong Institute turned liberal. They got an adviser there named “Moon Chung-in” who’s a big fan of all kinds of reconciliation and appeasement with North Korea. He was an adviser to, and probably still is, an adviser to Moon Jae-in. He’s chairman but under the new president, Yoon Seok-youl, I suspect Sejong Institute will start veering the way he wants to go. That’s one foundation. Then there’s ASAN Foundation and others which are quite helpful. So there’s plenty of sources in Seoul and you can even talk to people on the street and get their opinions which are often quite jaded and cynical.
Vik: So what’s the mood now?
Kirk: The mood, I think, is sort of high hopes for the new administration. Actually, I read somewhere that the popularity polls are showing that the incoming president, Yoon Seok-youl, is not so popular among a lot of people. But he won by an eyelash. He won by 0.73 percent of the votes over the liberal or even leftist, Lee Jae-myung. I think there will be a honeymoon period in which they more or less give him a break in which he is going to appoint some interesting people to his cabinet. By the way, the new foreign minister, the gentleman named “Park Jin” — whom I’ve actually met a number of times over the years. He speaks well. He’s got a doctorate from Oxford. He lectured at Newcastle. He’s quite a genial person. He’s also quite conservative — he was just in Washington for a week. It’s going to be interesting to see what Park Jin does. I actually have his phone number. I called him up while I was in Washington, but I have to tell you wouldn’t talk to me. He was very pleasant. He said, “I can’t talk. I’m sorry. I’m not giving interviews.”
Vik: What would you say is the state of the relationship between the US and South Korea today?
Kirk: They became rather strained under the outgoing president Moon Jae-in. There’s disagreements on how hard-line or how serious to get in negotiation with North Korea. President Moon Jae-in really wanted to leave, as his legacy, a deal with North Korea. First he was talking about an end of war agreement in which all sides declared the Korean War is over and we can take it from there. That would’ve, of course, led to a peace treaty. However, [inaudible] toward even an end of war agreement showed [inaudible] interest but never showed much interest in an end of war agreement and nor did China. China, which was the signatory of the Korean War armistice, would also have to subscribe to an end of war agreement. They weren’t particularly interested. They wanted the US to drop sanctions against North Korea. They wanted some terms of their own before the agreement was even signed. And so that end of war agreement became the topic of much discussion and much back and forth. But the US had ways of avoiding it without saying “No, that’s a ridiculous idea.” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was always extremely polite as was Secretary of State Blinken, but particularly Sullivan. He made some quite diplomatic verbal sleights of hand I would say in avoiding the topic or making clear, you know, there are certain things we should do first and all that. And so they got out of the end of war agreement. Now there’s still pressure for an end of war agreement.
Vik: Pressure from who?
Kirk: From a couple of sides. There’s a big pro-North movement in the US which has gained some ground in Congress. They’ve got a bunch of congressmen signing on to a bill that hasn’t gotten into committee, much less out of committee, much less on the floor. There’s a bunch of congressmen, about 20 or 30 of them by now…
Seth Lipsky: Who are the congressmen?
Kirk: There’s a California congressman, who’s quite a liberal if not a leftist, who’s one of the main promoters. There’s a couple of California congressmen — I’m sorry I don’t have [the names] right as we speak. I’ll probably get them right after we finish talking — but there’s a bunch of congressmen behind this bill, but it hasn’t gotten anywhere. It hasn’t even gone into a committee discussion much less on the floor of Congress. Nonetheless, there is this pressure and it’s not going to go away. There is a pressure from what might be called the “pro-North” movement in the US. There’s also a considerable pro-North movement in South Korea. There’s a lot of support for Lee Jae-myung and the outgoing president, Moon Jae-in. Remember as I said before, the margin of victory for the conservative Yoon Seok-youl was only 0.73 percent. It was incredible.
Vik: So when you say “pro-North movement,” what does the pro-North movement sound like?
Kirk: They make just about any excuse for anything North Korea does. They don’t like to talk about human rights. Then they say “Where’s our human rights?” Our record is worse. They say there’s no proof, or it’s all propaganda. They somehow turn aside the question. Whataboutism is a favorite way for turning aside questions about North Korea’s human rights record. What about your record? How can you talk? That kind of thing. I learned the term “whataboutism” by continually seeing examples of whataboutism in some of the comments of people in what we call “the pro-North movement.” By the way, the pro-North movement hates the term “pro-North.” They’ve got quite an aggressive following. A bunch of them went to Pyongyang in 2013 I think it was. I covered their return to South Korea when they were at the border. As women by the way, they call themselves “Women Cross DMZ.” Gloria Steinem was there and two women Nobel Prize winners were on board. They’re still aggressive. The organization keeps going under the name “Women Cross DMZ.”
Vik: So if they hate the moniker “pro-North,” what would they call themselves? “Pro-Peace” or something else?
Kirk: Definitely pro-peace, but the first thing they’d say is “Get the US out of South Korea. Get those soldiers home. Stop warming up for a war against North Korea.” Everything the US does, everything the Americans do and that the American Military does, is viewed by them as that aggressive move against North Korea. That is really the most striking characteristic. That and their absolute denial, or avoidance perhaps would be a better word, their avoidance of the horrendous human rights situation in North Korea. Of course they blame the US for instigating these missile tests that Kim Jong-un has ordered. There’s even a possibility of a seventh nuclear test. Now how strong of a possibility that is I wouldn’t dare to say, but the last nuclear tests conducted by North Korea was in September of 2017. It was in 2018 that there were a series of summits. South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in had his summit with Kim Jong-un. President Trump had his meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un in 2018 after the Pyongyang Summer Olympics. I went down there incidentally. Not that I got any great exclusive stories. I just got a lot of atmosphere and a lot of comments.
Lipsky: Don, in reviewing this kind of period, how do you think President Trump did? Start with the “little rocket man” speech at the UN, probably the most aggressive speech anyone has ever made. The next thing you know the two are meeting together, hugging and kissing in Singapore. So how do you assess all that?
Kirk: Remember during his campaign, Donald Trump said that he’d like to sit down and have a hamburger with Kim Jong-un, implying they could just be buddy-buddy and solve all their problems. The second thing is that I really think that Trump had, and probably still has, a fixation on dictators. I don’t know whether you would agree, but seeing his fraternal relationship with Mr. Putin and seeing his meetings with Xi Jinping of China and seeing his relationship with Kim Jong-un and with other dictatorial leaders, he seems to think that we can all be pals and solve the problem. Maybe Trump identifies with them. Maybe he’d like to be a dictator himself, which I’m not saying. I didn’t say that, but maybe identifies somehow with these people and he thinks that all we have to do is shake hands, and chat, and hug, and so forth, and he said he loved it. Him and Kim Jong-un fell in love during their meeting in Singapore. They fell out of love, of course, during the Hanoi Summit of February 2019, the next year, which broke up without a statement. In fact, I was there too. I didn’t see the summit. You don’t see these people in the flesh when you’re there, but I did visit the hotel where they were meeting beforehand, the Metropole hotel — a famous old hotel remodeled and no longer decrepit or antique as it was the first time I saw it.
Lipsky: You’re talking about North Vietnam?
Kirk: Well, I’m talking about Hanoi. I saw the table set for their great meeting. Can you imagine not having lunch? Too bad. That’s how it broke up. Without them having lunch. That great feast they were going to have had gone to waste. I assumed that other people dined well on it. It’s just amazing that that summit broke up like that. I was in the press room when word came out that they’re breaking up the summit. I spoke to some US officials and they said it looks like nothing’s coming. You know, a great story in my view. Much more of an interesting story than what I thoroughly expected, namely a proforma palsy-palsy type of statement.
Lipsky: Was the Trump presidency positive or negative in advancing any kind of progress on the Korean front?
Kirk: Trump was always positive. Even though that summit broke up, they met again the following June when Trump went to South Korea and said he would like to see Kim Jong-un if he could make it down to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone. Kim Jong-un came down and they had a meeting for 45 minutes to an hour. It wasn’t a formal summit. They didn’t come out with any great statement, but they did try to come out, the American side did try to come out with an understanding that talks would go on. They tried to fulfill some of the promises of the Singapore Summit, which if you recall would up with a curiously flat and bland statement in which both of them, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, signed, I think it was four sentences, vowing to work for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, not of North Korea but of the Korean Peninsula as if there were nukes in South Korea, which there are not incidentally from everything we’ve heard. That’s another issue. South Korea may want to become a nuclear power. That’s a matter of another debate. But nonetheless they didn’t come out with any statement like that from Hanoi which I had expected. They didn’t come out with any statement from their more or less impromptu meeting at the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom in June of 2019. That kind of ended the whole process between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Trump still insists that he really made progress. Trump went to all these meetings, but I wouldn’t blame Trump. Over the years there have been six-party talks, four-party talks and nothing really gets anywhere.
Lipsky: You know, Don, when I visited Kim Dae-jung when he was under house arrest, he had a picture of Lincoln and John F. Kennedy on his wall. What political tradition do you think the outgoing president of South Korea and the incoming president of South Korea fit in American terms? Is one of them a Republican and one of them a Democrat?
Kirk: If you try to implant our system on theirs or theirs on ours, Mr. Lee Jae-myung would have to be the Republican and Mr. Moon Jae-in, it’s very easy to get those names confused, the outgoing president Moon Jae-in would have to be the liberal or the Democrat. We’ll see how that translates into domestic politics. Mr. Moon Jae-in had all kinds of ideas about, when he came into office, encouraging small business and diminishing the power of the chaebol of the conglomerates that dominate the economy. He also had ideas about lowering real estate prices and all that kind of thing. Since that time, real estate prices there have been going up and nothing has really been done to lower the power of the Samsung group even though the hereditary heir to the group, Jay Y. Lee is on trial even as we speak. He continues to be on trial. It’s an extremely complicated case that goes right back to the ouster, impeachment, and jailing of the conservative Park Geun-hye. We could spend hours talking about that case, but even though he’s in jail, no he’s not in jail by the way. He was let out of jail. Even though he’s not in jail but still on trial for charges stemming from that whole scandal, the Samsung group is more powerful than ever. Nobody wants to tear down the chaebol because they would hold up the Korean economy so it takes a lot of nerve to say “Well let’s bring antitrust action against them, and let’s break them up, and all that because there is a fear that this would really hurt the economy. Mr. Moon Jae-in was not able to live up to his promise of economic reform and the housing prices have gone up. Some people, a lot of people think that’s the main reason why his successor, Lee Jae-myung, lost the election. It had nothing to do with North Korea, or maybe not that much to do with North Korea.
Lipsky: Don, is it true that Samsung accounts for 20 percent of the Korean GDP?
Kirk: That figure is always thrown around. I think it’s true. Samsung Electronics which is the flagship of the Samsung empire and the world’s biggest manufacturer of semiconductors and a whole lot of electronic gadgets. I happen to have an LG smartphone which is made by the rival, LG, but they cease to make smart phones. They can’t compete against Samsung. I think I’ve got their last model. Apple has had tremendous problems with Samsung. So Samsung is really the world’s dominant or at least leading electronics giant. And who wants to break up Samsung? Theoretically everybody would. In fact, when push comes to shove, you have to hesitate before taking dramatic steps that might just result in economic upheaval.
Lipsky: When was the last time you were at the DMZ? Is it still like it was in the old days which I would characterize as exceptionally foreboding?
Kirk: I can’t remember the last time. I’ve been up there so many times, probably 20 or 30 times. The last time might have been the eastern bit of the DMZ when I went up there to see a team arriving from North Korea. It was a South Korean team that had gone to North Korea at the behest of the South Korean government. This was in the era, around 2018 or 2019, when South Korea was promising to do all sorts of great things for North Korea. The team came back and they were very careful about what they said. What came out later was that this was a team that was investigating the North Korean railroad system. They said you can’t run trains on these tracks at more than 15 kilometers per hour. The whole system needs reconstruction and revamping. That’s what they said. They didn’t say it quite as bluntly in their return press conference, but that word quickly spread. The North Korea rail system was decrepit and needed vast amounts of aid. Astronomical figures were bandied about. I think that was the last time at Panmunjom. Not that long ago, they cut off tours to Panmunjom. During the pandemic they had them mostly off, or off again and then on again. Not that long ago I was at a hill overlooking Panmunjom where you can see into North Korea. I was up there. Tourists go up there. It’s always fun to go. So there it is. I’ve probably been to the DMZ 20 or 30 times. I just don’t track when I was there.
Lipsky: How do you think it’s going to end, this standoff?
Kirk: Very good. I like that question.
Lipsky: It seemed to me that when Trump met with Kim Jong-un, I imagined and it’s purely speculation, that the conversation went something like this: “Young man, why don’t you let us make you rich? We’ll build you some hotels around the coast and you can come out of this a winner.”
Kirk: South Korean leaders as well as North Korean leaders have dangled all kinds of billions of dollars in aid that would relieve North Korea of any problems if North Korea could only do away with their nuclear program. North Korea just won’t do away with their nuclear program. In terms of how it is going to end, I can go out on a limb and say it could end either happily or unhappily. Either beautifully or tragically.
Lipsky: What’s the happy scenario?
Kirk: Maybe North Korea and South Korea will be able to reach a viable ending and maybe they’ll be able to resume, or begin I should say, normal commerce. Maybe there will be a serious family business. Those things aren’t happening though. North Korea keeps on test firing missiles as of late. They may conduct their seventh nuclear test. They’re having a huge — I believe but you never know until these things happen — they’re expected to have a big parade tomorrow the 15th. In US time, that would be tonight. It will be featuring new weapons and planes flying overhead accompanied by a great speech by Kim Jong-un and maybe an ICBM test. Who knows? Maybe a nuclear test. They keep on doing things like that so it could be quite an unhappy ending. If they ever take it upon themselves to fire any of these missiles into the south, we’ll simply have holy hell on the Korean Peninsula and Korean War II. It is very hard to predict what’s going to happen in Korea. The best stories are unexpected. Nobody predicted the invasion of South Korea in June 1950. Nobody predicted the rise of the South Korean economy from the rubble of the Korean War to one of the world’s most powerful, 10th or 11th most powerful economies. Nobody predicted that. Nobody predicted the rise of the liberal Kim Dae-jung as president and his efforts at reconciliation with North Korea. No one thought Kim Dae-jung would ever be elected. So it’s very, very hard to predict what will happen in Korea. People are saying Kim Jong-un can’t survive and he’s going to be overthrown because the economy’s in terrible shape. Luckily I have to say I never made that prediction. Thank goodness. Maybe he’ll get overthrown tomorrow. I don’t know.
Lipsky: It’s always seemed to me that there’s a kind of dimension to Korea that foreigners rarely appreciate. It came to light in that period where there was a television or radio show that found the sister or brother or parent of some divided family, and then it turned into a whole phenomenon of these reunions via television networks of separated families. Were you there during that episode?
Kirk: Oh yes. I’ve been in some of those reunions. Let me just say that they agreed on inter-Korean family reunions in June 2000 in the summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il. Since that time, they’ve only had somewhat more than 20. I can’t remember the exact number. They’ve only had some 23 or 24 family reunions. They last had a family reunion in September of 2018 after the summits between President Trump and Kim Jong-un and between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un. Then they had a reunion. These reunions last about four days. They’re now all held in the Mount Kumgang resort area inside North Korea. Nobody says anything they’re not supposed to say. They see their long-lost relatives, or sometimes long distance relatives because all their close relatives have died away or something. They see their long-lost relatives and they’re never going to see them again. So after they have their reunions it’s bye-bye. See you in the next life or something. These reunions were vastly overhyped as are so many good news stories over the years. They get overhyped and then we have disillusionment.
Lipsky: Were there not also such reunions among separated families within South Korea?
Kirk: Yes, I know what you’re referring to. Initially they had them within South Korea. They had the first few reunions. They were trading back and forth. The reunions in Kumgang and there were reunions in Seoul. Well the North Koreans who came down to Seoul returned with tales of this modern city they visited and all the luxury items that they saw for sale in hotel shops. Obviously they saw all that. The general view is that North Korea didn’t want anymore of this kind of propaganda coming back to North Korea, these people coming back with tales of the wonders of life in Seoul. By the way, there was a joke at the time. The head of the South Korean Red Cross pointed out that all the North Koreans wore one suit every day they were there. They had one black suit. Kim Dae-jung wouldn’t let him have anymore to do with family reunions if he was going to talk like that about the North Koreans. There were reunions in Seoul, but they stopped it. They are all now at the Mount Kumgang Resort. When I say “they are,” they all have been. There have not been any since September 2018. I interviewed the people as they went in and after they came back. Of course, you know, they were all excited to see some uncle they’ve never met before or some cousin that they never heard of because they’re closest relatives were gone. Then comes the dissolution of “but I won’t see anybody ever again.” There’s a real sadness about those reunions and a real disappointment. That’s what I’m trying to say.
Vik: Fascinating. So, to end this conversation, what are you keeping your eye on? What should we be watching for? What are you anticipating the near future will hold?
Kirk: I’m keeping my eye on two things right away. I’m keeping my eye on whatever happens tonight our time, the morning of the 15th in Pyongyang with its 110th anniversary. That’s been hyped up as a major event. Sometimes things get overhyped and then they turn out to be not that major, but nonetheless I’m definitely watching for that. Another thing I’m watching for Right away is coincidentally, there’s a dedication tomorrow of a newly reconstructed Korean War Memorial on the Mall in Washington DC. Some former US Army commanders from Korea are going to be there and all kinds of people from both South Korea and the US are going to be there. So I’m keeping my eye on that.
Lipsky: Are you going?
Kirk: I’m hoping to go. It just so happens I have an interview that I really wanted in the morning at the US Institute of Peace at 11 o’clock in the morning tomorrow and I’m hoping that doesn’t coincide.
Lipsky: We could do a curtain-raiser on it. Write about it before the event and we’ll publish it.
Kirk: Yeah, I could. I was thinking about writing about it after the event. I’d love to get the quotes and atmosphere. I’m going to go there. Now whether or not the event’s going to still be going on, I don’t know, but I’m going to go there, and see it, and talk to some people. The US Institute of Peace is right across from the Mall in Washington so it’s a walk away. But I really wanted to see somebody from the US Institute of Peace. I got the appointment at 11 o’clock tomorrow. Somehow I’m going to make it to the Mall. You know, the curtain-raiser could get outdated pretty quickly and then we have what was going on in Pyongyang. So, yeah, I could write anything at any time, but I was thinking of doing it afterwards.
Vik: All right, Don. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us and we’ll talk to you soon.
Sages of the Sun is a weekly podcast produced by The New York Sun. The Sun is committed to upholding the finest journalistic traditions and staying true to our motto, “It Shines For All.”
Seth Lipsky is a seasoned veteran of the news business, and among the most revered American editors. He previously spent 20 years at the Wall Street Journal, launched the Jewish Daily Forward, and first revived the Sun back in 2002.
Caroline Vik has more than a decade of experience in policy-making, with years spent on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the Department of Defense, and on the National Security Council.