By the time that he had returned to South Korea early this week, Lt. Gen. In-Bum Chun‘s predictions of an upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea‘s supreme leader, appeared to be taking shape.
The lieutenant general, who retired in 2016 after a 35-year career in the South Korean army, had been in Atlanta as “a distinguished visiting fellow” in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology since August. During this period he also met with civic and the non-profit Atlanta Council on International Relations where he spoke at a luncheon gathering downtown on Jan. 11.
In his opening remarks at the ACIR luncheon, he alerted the guests that they should never underestimate the wyliness or resourcefulness of North Koreans. He cited their development of missiles and rockets “that actually work,” their “super notes” — actually U.S.$100 bills that are so perfected they can’t be detected or traced, or their cyber capabilities.
To underscore his warning, he described the shooting down of a U.S. Navy Lockheed reconnaissance plane by a North Korean MiG-21 aircraft over the Sea of Japan in 1969.
The Nixon administration operated under the mistaken intelligence that the North Koreans had no aircraft that could challenge their surveillance mission over international waters. The administration was proven wrong when two MiGs were dismantled, transferred over treacherous terrain, reassembled and armed with missiles.
Their pilots were told, Lt. Gen. Chun said, “shoot your missiles and if you miss, you are to ram into the aircraft and destroy it.” A single shot downed the reconnaissance plane, which crashed 104 miles off the North Korean coast and all 31 Americans including 30 sailors and one Marine on board were killed.
Although the incident constituted the largest single loss of U.S. aircrew during the Cold War era, the Nixon administration took no retaliatory action apart from staging a naval demonstration in the Sea of Japan for a few days.
Lt. Gen. Chun warned the guests that they should not be complacent about a North Korean attack just because they are 8,000 miles away from North Korea’s military even if it doesn’t have intercontinental missiles that could reach Atlanta.
“If North Korea can do this,” he added, citing the 1969 reconnaissance plane downing, “what would prevent them from arming conventional submarines which would go as far as they can (toward the U.S.) and fire a missile, even perhaps a nuclear warhead?”
While apologizing for scaring the guests as they enjoyed their chicken plates, he underscored the importance of the U.S. reaching a deal with Kim Jong-un and forcasted that some sort of negotiations were afoot.
“This is not just a Korean problem,” he said. “We need to be on our toes and think about the kind of a deal the U.S. would make with North Korea.”
He criticized Mr. Trump’s summit in Singapore last year where, he said, the supreme leader was enthralled to have such a photo opportunity and not have to provide any significant concessions in exchange.
But the lieutenant general supported Mr. Trump’s efforts to reach an agreement. In view of the political pressures under which the president is operating and the ever narrowing window for negotiations, he encouraged that a deal be reached as soon as possible.
Even from Atlanta, the lieutenant general was able to follow developments on the Korean peninsula and noticed that in a 10 minute New Year’s speech, Kim Jong-un didn’t make any threats against the U.S., announced that he would be ready to meet with the U.S. president anytime and criticized corruption at home. “It sounds different,” he concluded, possibly affected by a positive reaction to “the great birthday party” the supreme leader had recently enjoyed in China.
He also noticed that Mr. Trump wasn’t sending out any tweets regarding North Korea. “One conclusion is that we will have another summit. A deal must be in the works. Something is going on,” he said, predicting that the summit would take place within 60 to 90 days.
By the end of the week North Korea’s lead nuclear negotiator was headed to Washington from Beijing for an anticipated high-level meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. On Friday, Jan. 18, the White House announced that a second summit is to take place in February to discuss de-nuclearization.
As if anticipating this announcement, Lt. Gen. Chun then launched his views about CVID, which he clarified stood for Complete Verifiable, Irreversible, Dismantlement of nuclear weapons, a goal that he fervently supports.
Yet as a realist his views begin to take on a variety of nuances. He affirmed his commitment to peace on the peninsula in a letter that he wrote directly to Kim Jong-un. He has said Mr. Trump deserves credit for this tough talk and sanctions, but he considers the road of de-nuclearization to be traveled “in phases.”
While teaching at Georgia Tech, he said that he met a student who had been analyzing North Korean television broadcasts for the past five years and who detected that the most perceived threat by the North Koreans to Kim Jong-un’s regime apparently isn’t nuclear retaliation but the combined military exercises of U.S. and South Korean troops.
Conversely, he said that he fears acutely North Korea’s advances in cyber warfare, going so far as to call North Korea “a cyber superpower.” He said that the North Korean government is identifying “math geniuses” in their early teens whom they are training as hackers and computer programmers. “They learn how to steal money on line but the real worry is that they can learn how to hack into the systems of commercial airliners.”
In response to a question, he said that he felt the most likely “trip wire” to ignite a serious confrontation would be an attack on one of the U.S. airbases located in South Korea.
He added that for the U.S. to pull out of South Korea today would be a grave mistake and would place not only South Korea but Japan in great jeopardy. Although born in 1958, he recalled that in 1949, as many South Koreans do as well, the U.S. greatly reduced its forces on the peninsula motivating Kim Jong-un’s grandfather to lead North Korean troops in the invasion that led to the Korean War.
He emphasized the contribution of 2.3 percent of the country’s gross national product to military support, in contrast to what many members of NATO are paying to that alliance, and the leadership of South Korea’s current president, Moon Jae-in, in stabilizing the current situation.
Among the guests at the luncheon were Japan’s and Korea’s consuls general for the Southeast, Takashi Shinozuka and Kim Young-yun.
Robert Kennedy, president of the ACIR, closed the luncheon by thanking Lt. General Chun for reminding Americans to be alert to North Korea’s ambitions, and not adopting the overconfident military mindset of the French in Vietnam who were routed by Vietnamese troops in the battle at Diem Bien Phu, which he had recently visited.
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