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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

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Kathleen Stephens served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011. (Credit: Stanford University) Kathleen Stephens served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011. (Credit: Stanford University)

Lessons from Korea

A former U.S. ambassador to South Korea will reflect on the country’s economic rise and democratic and cultural transformation.
By SDSU News Team

Kathleen Stephens, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011, will visit San Diego State University on Tuesday, April 4, to discuss “Lessons from Korea.”

Her lecture is sponsored by the Charles W. Hostler Institute on World Affairs and begins at 6 p.m. in the J. Keith Behner and and Catherine M. Stiefel Auditorium in Storm Hall West. For more information or to register for the lecture, please visit the events page.

Stephens discussed the current diplomatic ties between the United States and the Korean peninsula during a recent appearance on PBS Newshour.

Her lecture will address pressing challenges in that region, including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the potential impact of tougher sanctions and the upcoming elections in South Korea.

Will tougher sanctions against North Korea as proposed recently by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson work?

Sanctions are a very blunt instrument, and sanctions against North Korea have been progressively tightened and broadened through United Nations Security Council resolutions, as well as through bilateral actions by the United States, South Korea, Japan and China. I think sanctions could bring pressure on the North Korean regime. Will they lead Kim Jong Un to make a strategic choice, that he is ready to trade his nuclear missile program for lessening of sanctions and for other benefits? I think that the chances of that working are far less promising perhaps than they have ever been. That doesn’t mean you give up on sanctions. What it means, is that it is only one part of your approach.

Given what we know and don’t know about North Korea’s leader, are tougher sanctions going to anger him more, or actually bring him to the table for negotiations?

I think what we know about Kim Jong Un, who has now been in power for five years, is that his priority has been to accelerate and consolidate his nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capability. To date, the sanctions, the isolation, and for that matter the carrots that have been offered to him to do otherwise, have not been sufficient. So I am pessimistic about them, but I think that continued pressure is important because you don’t know what the timeline is for getting somebody to the table. I think sanctions have to be combined with some kind of exit ramp and the ramp has to be into something that allows Kim Jong Un to start to make some adjustments. Given where he is in the program, we may have to lower our sights about what he needs to do to get into talks.

How do you expect diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Seoul will change once South Korea holds its elections in May?

I think it will be very important not to close off too many options before that new government gets into place. Once South Korea has a new leader, the United States along with Seoul and Beijing should analyze—with deepened pressure, deepened sanctions and more countries participating in pressuring North Korea—what may be possible in terms of a fresh diplomatic approach. The ultimate goal is some kind of grand bargain that addresses our core interest in seeing all of the Korean peninsula denuclearized. That means no nuclear weapons in North Korea and a way to get into some kinds of talks on that basis.

About Ambassador Stephens

Before she was nominated to be U.S. ambassador to Seoul, Stephens was principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2005 to 2007. In that role, she was involved in the six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Ambassador Stephens was the first woman to hold the top U.S. job in Seoul. Before that assignment, she served at U.S. missions in China, Belgrade and Zagreb. She also served as the U.S. Consul General in Belfast, Northern Ireland from 1995 to 1998 during the consolidation of ceasefires and the negotiations leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and as director for European affairs at the White House during the Clinton administration.

Stephens holds a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies from Prescott College and a master's of public administration from Harvard University, as well as honorary degrees from Chungnam National University in South Korea and the University of Maryland. She is currently the William J. Perry Fellow at Stanford University.