With the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, last year brought turbulence in the countries’ longstanding alliance.
For retired South Korean Lieutenant General In-Bum Chun, it was an opportune time to give North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a reality check.
A decorated military leader who once headed South Korea’s Special Warfare Command, Mr. Chun penned an open letter to Kim in NK News in January.
The message: Don’t perceive the workings of democracy in Seoul and Washington as signs of weakness, instability, cowardice and a lack of resolve. They are anything but. So it might be a smart move to stop rattling sabers and start pursuing peace.
Months later, in September, Mr. Chun visited Kennesaw State University. He delivered to lectures at the school and spoke to Global Atlanta and other news outlets.
Did the North Korean leader read his letter?
“If he did, he ignored it,” said Mr. Chun, now a visiting fellow at Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
Ushered, chauffeured and cloistered throughout his life, Kim “knows very little about the outside world,” Mr. Chun said during his visit to Kennesaw, and must wrongly interpret democracy in South Korea as “chaos.”
But the South’s globally celebrated K-pop music and atmosphere of unbridled free speech and protests are signs of resilience and toughness.
“There’s an inner strength to our society,” Mr. Chun told Global Atlanta in an interview after a general lecture. “He cannot win.”
Mr. Chun’s visit came amid anxiety among world powers over Kim’s nuclear aspirations and a war of words between Pyongyang and Washington.
North Korea wants to be a nuclear power and equal to the United States, he said in the interview.
“Right now, he seems to assess he’s close to having a capability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon,” he said.
At first, Mr. Chun reasoned, President Trump’s threat to unleash “fire and fury” seemed to work because it injected unpredictability into the conflict.
But as the tough talk escalated, Mr. Chun realized that maybe it is time to “tone down” what has become a counterproductive tack.
North Korea is using the U.S. rhetoric to show that America wants to destroy the country, thereby buttressing its hard line.
“Having the moral high ground is very important,” Mr. Chun said during a lecture. “This kind of offensive language has caused confusion.”
What is needed to lessen tensions, he said, is a Marshall Plan of sorts for North Korea, an effort to better the lives of the people. That will result in a positive long game.
“When the average North Korean life gets better, once lunch and dinner are solved, the next question will be, ‘How come I can’t have freedom to move around, to speak?’” he said.
Airing criticism of the U.S. government is rare for Mr. Chun, who is loath to disrespect or rebuke a U.S. president since he is not an American.
He repeatedly stressed the strong reciprocal political and military ties between South Korea and the United States.
South Korea, he said, is the great post-war U.S. success story; the nation forged “a truly free and democratic society” mostly because of American influence, he said.
He cites the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan – forces keeping stability. That atmosphere helps promote trade and prosperity.
“When people say ‘Yankee go home,’ don’t believe it,” he said. “As long as there are Americans, there will be stability.”
South Korea, he argues, is a “vital interest” for the United States, a label some observers don’t use to describe the relationship.
In fact, Mr. Chun was cited for contributing to the first ‘fair and free’ elections in Iraq and helping to resolve a hostage crisis in Afghanistan when the Taliban kidnapped Korean missionary workers.
“America should be very proud of us,” he told Global Atlanta.“When the going gets tough, we Koreans come up to the plate.”
When Koreans look north, they see the shadow of China, the one major country with pull in Pyongyang.
The deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea angered Chinese President Xi Jinping.
At the same time, Seoul values business ties with China and wants to maintain commerce, though China has made that challenging.
Koreans never have been and won’t be dominated by that nation, he says.
Yes, the Chinese are a great people, Mr. Chun said, but “never doubt where our heart is.”
“China is a great country. The U.S. is a greater country,” he said.