WASHINGTON – The U.S. must maintain an open dialogue with North Korea if it wishes to make progress on a potentially volatile situation, and China, Russia, South Korea and Japan all must be involved in some fashion, the Republic of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Wednesday.
“You have to apply pressure,” Lee said at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You also have to talk. You cannot not talk because if you don’t talk, you can’t get anywhere. If you only talk, then nothing will happen because you’ll just be strung out, and you’ve gone through this so many times before.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in September that Washington has various direct lines of communication with Pyongyang, signaling that the U.S. is open to dialogue with Kim Jong-un. President Trump responded via Twitter, writing that he told Tillerson, “our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” referring to Kim.
Lee was asked if he believes there will be formal dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea before there is conflict.
“I think that is a reasonable proposition. Whether the dialogue will reach an outcome before you have confrontation, I cannot say,” he said.
Lee, who met with Trump last week, said he believes the administration is still developing its Southeast Asia strategy, just like it is with the rest of the world. He added that Defense Secretary James Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster have all been saying “the right things,” which has been reassuring.
Trump and Kim have repeatedly traded threats over Twitter, from the president and through administrative officials representing Kim, as North Korea has miniaturized nuclear warheads and publicly ramped up its intercontinental ballistic missile program to achieve capability of striking the United States.
Lee said that while there have been strong statements from the Trump administration, it’s clear that the U.S. does not want to go to war with North Korea. He added that he doesn’t think the North Koreans are “suicidal,” either. South Korean officials, meanwhile, remain adamantly opposed to any conflict in the region, given the devastating impact it could have on Seoul. Lee warned against the possibility of a “miscalculation,” though he didn’t specify which country that miscalculation might come from.
“I think so far you have not had a miscalculation. You hope that will continue,” Lee said. “The difference this time is that they now have more nuclear weapons, and they have more powerful missiles, ICBMs. So that raises the stakes, but it doesn’t yet qualitatively and suddenly change the picture because you have never been able to say you are completely without risk before the missile tests. So it’s up to the United States, how you want to respond and what pressure you want to apply to them.”
North Korea has conducted nearly 20 ICBM tests in 2017, and in September it launched a missile over Japan toward waters in Guam, where the U.S. has two military bases. Trump had previously threatened unleashing “fire and fury” the world has never seen against the reclusive communist nation.
Lee said that in order for the U.S. to “play this game” it must work with the Chinese, the Russians need to be in the picture and, most of all, the U.S. needs South Korea and Japan on its side.
“If they’re not on your side, you have a hard spot,” Lee said. “Even if you want to do something decisive.”