Former S. Korean ambassador calls US-North Korean relations ‘failure’


Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens met with students to discuss diplomacy with North Korea on April 25, the same day it was revealed North Korea billed the U.S. $2 million for the medical care of the previously imprisoned American student, Otto Warmbier, prior to his release on June 13, 2017.

Members from the South Korean consulate, including consul general Park Joon-Yong, sat alongside international relations students in the J. Paul Leonard Library for a question and answer session with Stephens on North Korea-U.S. relations, the future of disarmament and the roles of Russia and China in the region.

Stephens, an Obama-era appointee who served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011, was the first woman to hold the position and the first to speak Korean.

“For those that are into U.S.-Korea relations, she’s quite legendary,” Korea Economic Institute communications director Yong Kwon said. “Not only does she have a long history with South Korea, but she also got to see South Korea grow.”

Stephens first traveled to South Korea in the 1970s as a volunteer for the Peace Corps, during a period when the country was taking off economically. As a foreign aid worker in the 1980s, she witnessed the pro-democracy movement, as well as economic changes in South Korea brought about by globalization and advancements in the technology sector. As ambassador, she watched as North Korea slowly built its nuclear weapons arsenal in the last decade while the U.S. increased its military presence on the peninsula.

“She was a key policy contributor in the way the United States approaches the North Korea nuclear crisis today as well,” Kwon said.

The April 25 event was part of the International Relations Student Association speaker series and was sponsored by the KEI, a political think tank based in Washington, D.C., where the former South Korean ambassador has served as president and CEO since 2018.

“U.S. policy has played a very large role in the Korean Peninsula,” Stephens said. “To date, it’s been a failure.”

She said she doubts the U.S. can successfully control North Korea’s ambition to build nuclear weapons without a more comprehensive approach and a settlement of the discordant relationship between North and South Korea—worsened by U.S. intervention—that Stephens calls “unfinished business.”

“It’s been very unconventional having President Trump be the only American president ever to meet with the leader of North Korea, and he’s met with him twice,” she said.

Tensions have increased in South Korea as the North Korean nuclear missile program has advanced, and though the talks between Trump and Kim Jong Un III ended without an agreement, Stephens said there is a commitment to continue.

Optimism around Trump’s recent communication with the North Korean leader has diminished since the death of  Otto Warmbier. The student was arrested in North Korea in 2016 for allegedly stealing government propaganda, and when he was released the following year, he was comatose and died three days after leaving North Korean custody.

Stephens called Warmbier’s lengthy arrest “standard operating procedure” for North Korea, a state that regularly arrests foreign nationals for violating strict propaganda laws.

“This time, it all went terribly wrong for them,” Stephens said. “Nobody knows what’s happened. I think it’s highly possible that what the North Koreans say is true, that he got sick and something happened.”

“It would be inconsistent with their treatment of hostages to have tortured him,” she added.

Warmbier entered North Korea through China with a guided tour company that marketed itself as safe for Americans.

According to SF State international relations professor See-Won Byun, China is typically seen as an actor that’s not doing enough when it comes to the U.S.-North Korean conflict.

“From China’s perspective, China doesn’t really have much influence over North Korea,” Byun said. “It is the United States and its military alliance with South Korea that is the problem, not China’s political and economic influence.”

Byun, who has worked closely with KEI and other agencies dealing with Korean foreign policy as a professional in D.C., invited Stephens to speak to her Chinese Foreign Policy and Asia and World Systems classes. Stephens joined KEI in 2018 with a lifetime of qualifications to lead in their outreach initiatives.

“[KEI] organizes speaker visits to universities across the country, where perhaps Asian studies isn’t as represented,” she said. “This was a great opportunity to combine their outreach program with the sort of departmental initiatives to promote Asia-related studies and policy issues.”

Issues facing North and South Korea are not something that can be solved overnight, according to Stephens.

“Even if you reach an agreement, you have to implement it, and you need to work at it day after day and year after year,” she said. “So, for any of you who are going into international relations, I promise there will be opportunities to work on [the North Korean] issue. It will take time.”


Correction: In the Tuesday, April 30, 2019 (Vol. 109, Issue 13) print issue and previous online version, it incorrectly stated that “Kathleen Stephens met with students to discuss diplomacy with North Korea on April 25, the same day billed the U.S. $2 million for the medical care of the previously imprisoned American student, Otto Warmbier.”  North Korea billed the U.S. sometime prior to Warmbier’s release on June 13, 2017 not April 25, 2019. (Monday, May 6, 2019/5:47 p.m.)