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[Herald Interview] Speaker says for thaw to last, Japan must reciprocate

Kim Jin-pyo says South Korea getting own nuclear weapons would lead to greater loss

April 14, 2023 - 09:14 By Cho Chung-un By Kim Arin
National Assembly speaker Kim Jin-pyo speaks to The Korea Herald at his office on Wednesday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Kim Jin-pyo, the speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly, said the success of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s bid to improve ties with Japan hinges on reciprocation from his counterpart, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Speaking with The Korea Herald and its sister publication, Herald Business, on Wednesday, Kim said that Yoon’s deal with Japan in the summit with Kishida last month reflected “significant resolve” on the part of the South Korean president.

“It is a decision that is not at all easy to make, and a considerable concession,” said Kim, who himself visited Japan before assuming office as Assembly speaker to address the forced labor issue as the South Korean president of the South Korea-Japan legislators’ union.

“In diplomacy, conceding first without a guarantee of a return is an incredibly difficult thing to do. President Yoon has done that after determining that this is what has to be done for future relations of South Korea and Japan,” he said.

But the speaker also said that for Yoon’s resolve to “see the light of day,” his administration needs to push Japan to reciprocate South Korea’s offers of an olive branch with an apology and measures to resolve other pending issues between the two countries.

“Japan will have to respond to President Yoon’s resolve with more. A sincere apology from Prime Minister Kishida about wartime history also seems necessary for the thaw to last.”

“We have to reassure the victims and their families, ask for their consent and not leave them out of the process,” he said. “The efforts to mend ties at the top level must be supported by public trust.”

On the US intelligence leak over the weekend suggesting Washington was spying on top South Korean officials, Kim declined to respond, saying it was not his place to comment when the suspicions have not been verified.

Kim believes South Korea getting its own nuclear weapons, an idea that is increasingly gaining public support here according to recent polls, is “feared to cause a greater loss.”

“South Korea building its own nuclear program would mean the country is withdrawing from the NPT," he said, referring to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

He added he does not think it is “completely out of the ordinary that non-experts and some in politics would talk about arming the country as a more tangible nuclear deterrent” against the backdrop of increased threats from North Korea.

“North Korea is escalating tensions, advancing its nuclear program and missile capabilities at an astonishing pace given its chronic food shortages. It’s natural that people want more security,” he said.

He assessed that by any given standard, South Korea’s military and economic powers “far surpass” North Korea’s.

“What we need is a sure means to outmatch the weapon of asymmetry that North Korea possesses under a clear non-nuclear proliferation strategy, and the US nuclear umbrella must operate in a way that can respond immediately to any provocation from North Korea,” he said. “I have said this before, as have many of our experts.”

Kim said when he and the previous US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi met in August last year, he proposed a nuclear nonproliferation strategy to counter North Korean nuclear and missile threats in an overwhelming way and to stay ahead of North Korea’s moves.

The meeting of the two speakers developed into a resolution commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bilateral alliance, which called for joint efforts to achieve an effective deterrence against North Korea and pursue a lasting peace.

For now, what the resolution entails is the “best that can be done” in terms of North Korean nuclear deterrence, the speaker added.

The South Korean speaker is planning to make a trip to the US in June, about two months after the summit between Yoon and US President Joe Biden slated for April 26. He will be traveling on Air Force One.

One of the main objectives of what will be his first US trip as speaker will be to create a union of the legislators of the two countries, he said.

“We have a legislators’ union with Japan, which has been going on for almost 70 years. There will soon be one with Chinese legislators, the launch of which was agreed upon when (China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chairman) Li Zhanshu was here last year. And yet we don’t have such a union with the US.”

He said the union, anticipated to be formed within this year, will serve as a permanent diplomatic channel between South Korea and US legislators. He said the plan was floated at his meeting with a delegation of US House Foreign Affairs Committee members, led by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, in Seoul last week.

“In the US, both houses of Congress rarely come under control of the governing party," Kim said. "Sometimes policies pushed by the House can escape our notice, as was the case with the Inflation Reduction Act under the Biden administration."

“So it’s important for our Assembly members to be networking and communicating more closely with our counterparts in the US. I am hoping that the representatives and senators of cities and states with South Korean businesses will be joining.”

Kim says when it comes to diplomacy, the Assembly can fill in where the government cannot reach.

During his trip to Poland and Romania last year, he pitched South Korean companies’ bids to sell arms there and work more closely in the defense sector.

“South Korea is the world’s seventh-largest spender on the military. As a divided country, we have no choice but to strengthen our defense industry. So there is a lot of room to make exports of defense items a win-win situation,” he said.

He said parliamentary diplomacy is a “bit different from government-to-government diplomacy in that it is more flexible -- you can discuss a wider range of things without a binding commitment.”

“This flexibility allows diplomacy on a parliamentary level to address the bigger picture and work on a long-term vision that can be followed up with more concrete steps later on,” he said.

This interview was jointly conducted by The Korea Herald and Herald Business. -- Ed.

National Assembly speaker Kim Jin-pyo (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Kim Jin-pyo is speaker of the South Korean parliament and a prominent politician who served as a top aide for the late President Kim Dae-jung before serving as the finance and education minister under the late President Roh Moo-hyun.

The former public servant entered politics by winning a parliamentary seat in 2004. He was elected to five consecutive terms in the National Assembly with the Democratic Party of Korea and served for the party as floor leader and a supreme council member.

South Korea’s National Assembly speaker, elected by fellow parliamentary members, leads the legislative branch and is the second-highest position in the country’s official state protocol ranks. The speaker’s power is limited to the legislative realm and does not extend to executive functions.

Kim studied law at Seoul National University and obtained a master of public affairs degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.