U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Japan, South Korea and China for five days from March 15 as his first trip to East Asia since taking office. The tour revealed the Donald Trump administration’s basic line of policy toward North Korea, with diplomatic experts paying attention to how the top American diplomat’s three-nation tour may influence regional diplomacy in Northeast Asia. Here’s Kang Jun-young, professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, to explain.



The recent East Asian tour by the top diplomat under the Trump administration came at a time when there were predictions that the new U.S. administration might get tougher on North Korea or China. The tour carried great significance as it offered a glimpse into how Trump’s East Asia policy may unfold. Currently, conflict between South Korea and China is intensifying over the deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD on South Korean soil. Experts expected the U.S. secretary of state to touch on this issue during his visit to China. His trip was also expected to fine-tune the details of the U.S.-China summit, which is scheduled for early April. Overall, Tillerson’s latest trip drew a lot of attention as it could potentially indicate the U.S. administration’s future strategy involving China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.



In a regular briefing on Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that Tillerson sent a very clear message that the American policy of strategic patience was over. He added that President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson had an expectation that China would employ multiple points of pressure on North Korea. Professor Kang now talks about the implications of Tillerson’s visit to Japan and South Korea.



Japan and South Korea are under the direct threat of nuclear-armed North Korea. When Pyongyang test-fires missiles, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles, they often land within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, as North Korea intended. And it is South Korea that feels a direct and major threat from nuclear provocations from North Korea, which is located on the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. As far as the North Korean nuclear issue is concerned, the U.S. has made it clear that its previous policy of “strategic patience” has ended, signaling its new approach to North Korea.



In Japan and in South Korea, Tillerson sent a stronger message to North Korea than expected. During a press conference after meeting with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, Tillerson mentioned the need for a new approach toward North Korea, saying that 20 years of diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea have failed. In South Korea, he pointed out the departure from the “strategic patience” approach to North Korea, hinting at Washington’s tough policies toward Pyongyang, including a military option. He also strongly criticized China’s retaliation measures against South Korea over the THAAD installment. So analysts expected that Tillerson would discuss the THAAD deployment in earnest during his visit to China. In Beijing, however, Tillerson did not publicly mention the THAAD issue or the so-called “secondary boycott” sanctions placed on Chinese financial institutions for doing business with North Korea. Analysts are showing mixed responses to that.



In China, Tillerson did not directly address the issue of North Korea or THAAD. Judging from Washington’s previous comments, however, I think he fully delivered his nation’s position to Beijing, even though the two sides refrained from including the contentious issues in an official announcement. But Tillerson’s remarks do merit our attention. He said that the U.S. and China share a common view and a sense that tensions on the Korean Peninsula are quite high right now. The comment leaves room for additional discussion between the two nations. In a press conference on March 18, he also said that the U.S. and China should work together to convince Pyongyang. It means that the U.S. is willing to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue in cooperation with China.



In the meantime, on March 19, North Korea’s state-run media, including the Korean Central News Agency, reported that leader Kim Jong-un inspected the ground jet test of a new high-thrust rocket engine. The report said that the leader declared the day of the historic event as the “March 18th revolution,” as the successful test marked a new birth of the nation’s rocket industry. It is assumed that the rocket engine test was conducted on March 18, when Tillerson had talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing.



It seems North Korea was trying to demonstrate its missile technologies as a de-facto nuclear state with advanced missiles. Through the rocket engine test, it is sending a message that the U.S. should change its previous strategy of employing pressure on the North. But this is a very dangerous gamble. While the international community continues to impose sanctions on the North, the U.S. administration and even China are saying that they will firmly respond if Pyongyang goes too far. But North Korea seems to believe that its hard-line stance is the most effective negotiation card for now.



The U.S. Secretary of State has ended his East Asian tour, which was expected to be a turning point in complicated diplomacy in Northeast Asia. North Korea-related issues that were discussed during the recent tour will likely take a more concrete shape at the U.S.-China summit between Trump and Xi Jinping early next month.



The U.S.-China summit will take place amid conflict between the two nations, as both leaders are taking a hard-line stance and refusing to budge an inch. The Chinese government finds it necessary to build a powerful leadership and show the nation’s strong image to the outside world in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress in October. The Trump administration, for its part, underlines its America-first policy aimed at reviving a strong U.S. The two superpowers will inevitably clash over various issues. In this situation, South Korea should set its own principle. Seoul may have to say “no” to both sides, if necessary, and should protect its own strategic interests. Only then, can South Korea secure some room to negotiate the nuclear issue and the THAAD dispute.



The upcoming U.S.-China summit should hopefully provide some momentum to resolve the thorny problems in Northeast Asia, such as the conflict over the THAAD issue as well as North Korean provocations and threats.



[Interview] Defector Makes Documentary about North Korean Human Rights Activists


In a film studio located in Mapo-gu District, western Seoul, North Korean defector and movie director Kim Gyu-min is busy putting the final touches on his documentary film titled “First Step.” The movie criticizes the dire human rights situation in North Korea by describing the activities of North Korean defectors who participated in the 12th North Korea Freedom Week in 2015.



Documentaries about North Korea mostly show the dismal reality of North Korea, difficulties faced by North Korean defectors in the process of escaping, or success stories about North Korean newcomers in South Korea. But this film “First Step” is about the North Korea Freedom Week of 2015. The movie revolves around a group of North Korean defectors, who could have lived as ordinary citizens in South Korea, but instead chose to fight for human rights in North Korea as human rights activists.



The movie tells the story of 24 North Korean human rights activists who took part in the events of the 12th North Korea Freedom Week that was held in Washington D.C. and New York from April 27 to May 2 in 2015. At the time, the activists participated in seminars, debate sessions and press conferences at the U.S. Congress, the State Department and local churches to let the American public know the reality of the brutal and inhumane North Korea regime. Then, on April 29, they unexpectedly ran into a North Korea delegation at the U.N. headquarters in New York.



In North Korea, it is utterly impossible for a person like me to meet members of the delegation because I belonged to the slave class. It is simply unthinkable to meet those people, much less defy them. So, when the defectors bumped into the North Korean delegation, they probably felt they had a subconscious fear of those people.



The encounter between the North Korean delegation and the North Korean defectors at the U.N. headquarters is the highlight of the film. At that time, the North Korean delegates argued against the activists’ testimonies and hindered their presentations.



In the conference room at the U.N. headquarters, delegations from all around the world were listening to the testimonies about North Korean human rights abuses. It was the North Korean delegation’s turn to speak, and they claimed that North Korean people were living happily under the regime. They called the defectors liars, since human rights were fully guaranteed in North Korea. Then, the defector activists began to shout the slogan, “Free North Korea.” While the North Korean delegates refuted what the activists were saying, the activists chanted the slogan repeatedly to prevent other representatives from hearing the North Korean delegation.



With the North Korean delegates relentlessly interfering with the defectors’ testimonies, all the activists could do was shout out the slogan, “Free North Korea. But it turned out the desperate shouting was so powerful that the North Korean delegation eventually left their seats, as if they were escaping from the place.



Numerous North Korean defectors and human rights activists have been working against the North Korean government. But it is very significant that defectors drove the North Korean delegation out of the conference room at the U.N. headquarters. It was their first victory, and I wish it will lead to their final victory of giving freedom and liberation to people in North Korea. With this hope in mind, I titled the movie “First Step.”



Kim managed to cover part of the production cost through crowd funding by collecting funds through social networking services and the Internet. It is said that a number of North Korean defectors have also made contributions. The film debuted at the North Korean Human Rights Film Festival in Hong Kong in August last year, and the preview of the movie was held here in South Korea last month. The director is preparing to screen the film in Washington D.C. in the U.S. in June. He says he really wants to show this movie to people in North Korea.



I want North Korean citizens to see this film. I want to show them that those who once belonged to the slave class in North Korea can confidently speak out on the U.N. stage, fight against people who are regarded as a god in the North, and eventually gain victory over them. I want to show North Korean residents that they, too, can rise up for freedom. I’m preparing to send this movie to North Korea through various channels.



Director Kim says that unification should start with getting to know each other better, expressing his hope that his movie will help enhance the understanding of North Korea. We also hope that the film will be the “first step” toward examining the North Korean human rights issue more closely and resolving it as well.