Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert advised caution and tempered optimism about upcoming peace talks with North Korea in a visit to Pomona College Wednesday, March 7.
Lippert, who touched on many key issues of the current political situation in North Korea, spoke on a panel with Pomona politics professor Tom Le and Robert Uriu, a politics professor from the University of California, Irvine. The three debated their sometimes-divergent views on North Korea.
Lippert’s visit comes on the heels of an announcement Tuesday from the South Korean government that North Korea is willing to participate in peace talks with South Korea and the U.S. and consider ending its nuclear weapons program.
It is “too soon to tell” whether this is a genuine overture towards peace, Lippert said in an exclusive interview with TSL prior to the event.
“There are some things that are new and interesting and some things that are old and troubling,” Lippert said. “We do need to be open to it, but also very clear-eyed about the downsides and risks.”
Less than a day after Lippert’s visit to Pomona, South Korean officials announced that Kim and President Donald Trump have agreed to meet to negotiate about North Korea’s nuclear program in the coming months. Lippert could not be reached for comment on this development before press time.
North Korea’s apparent openness to negotiation is Kim’s first step toward peace since coming to power, and follows recent cooperation between North and South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, including a joint Korean ice hockey team.
Lippert thinks the Olympics were North Korea’s way of influencing South Korean public opinion, and an exploration of whether Kim can divide public opinion in South Korea or create division between South Korea and the U.S.
“They were very adroit about manipulating public opinion during the Olympics,” Lippert said. “[Kim] got a lot of international attention from that. North Korea’s stature in the world went up and it cost him nothing.”
Although experts believe North Korea now has the capability to target the entire U.S. with a nuclear strike using its newest ballistic missile, the chances of such a strike actually occurring without any prior strike on North Korea itself are relatively low, Lippert said.
“I tend to be less worried about using a first strike [nuclear attack] now,” Lippert said, “and more that the nuclear weapons allow them to engage in conventional or asymmetric provocations that are not as damaging, but very severe and serious,” Lippert said.
Lippert said he does not agree with assessments of Kim as a crazy or unpredictable madman, but has other questions about Kim’s thinking and worldview.
“I definitely think he’s rational. I don’t think he’s this insane, crazy character. I think his moves have shown that,” Lippert said. “The question I always have is ‘How does he perceive the world around him?’ … And it’s an open question about how smart he is.”
Lippert is the last person to serve as ambassador to South Korea — he was ordered to resign his post when Trump took office, along with all other politically appointed ambassadors, and Trump has has yet to nominate a replacement.
Lippert, who worked in the Department of Defense and as a Navy intelligence officer prior to becoming an ambassador, said his familiarity with Pentagon procedures and relationships with military leaders, Korea’s National Security Adviser, and other Korean officials, was a significant asset to him as ambassador.
“Through the defense relationship … I had a base of knowledge in the country when I showed up,” he said.
It’s unclear how Trump and his inflammatory rhetoric — including threatening to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea — have impacted relations with North or South Korea, Lippert said.
“Some argue that it has not been helpful. On the other hand, we are at a place now where we have the potential of negotiations,” Lippert said. “It’s really hard to know what has led us to this point and how the rhetoric has played into it.”
Going forward, however, Lippert advised caution.
“However we got here, we are at this interesting inflection point,” he said. “The rhetoric and the policy calibrations have to be very deliberate and very calculated.”
Despite the global scale of ongoing U.S. conflict with North Korea, 5C students can become involved and have their voices heard in the peace process, particularly as activists for human rights in North Korea, Lippert said.
“Where students tend to have a big impact is on human rights issues,” Lippert said. “The North Korean human rights issue is just so tragic, so severe, and I think that ensuring that this issue continues to get the attention it deserves is something that campuses and students can play a significant role in.”
International relations major Nina Zhou PO ’19, who focuses on security and cooperation in East Asia, said she attended the event Wednesday to gain further insight into challenges in that region.
“It was … quite a big deal,” she said. “I don’t think the IR program has had that big of a name come in a few years.”
Zhou said she was particularly interested in hearing Lippert’s insights into the importance of China in relations with North Korea during former President Barack Obama’s tenure.
This is the fourth speaker event Pomona has hosted about North Korea this academic year, and Le said he hopes it brought additional perspectives.
“I hope from this one [students] could see that there are academic and civil society aspirations [for North Korea], but then there’s also the political reality in which everybody works,” he said.
Lippert said he hopes the event helped better inform students about the issues surrounding North Korea.
“It’s an incredibly complicated and sometimes counterintuitive situation. I [hope students take away] a greater understanding of the issues, because it’s an incredibly important issue,” Lippert said. “Informed citizens, especially on critical foreign policy issues, are unbelievably important to the United States and this democracy.”