Remarks at Seoul National University

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Seoul, South Korea
October 28, 2016

Good morning. It’s wonderful to be here, and I really do thank you for turning out. I never took a class on a Friday afternoon—I tried never to take a class on a Friday period. So I’m really grateful. Professor Han, Professor Park, thank you so much for having us here today, for your generous hospitality and warm welcome. It is a pleasure to be—to meet what I know is an incredibly talented group of students and also to see firsthand South Korea’s first national university, which I have heard so much about over the years.

I understand that your spring graduating class included Master’s students from 11 countries, and indeed there are students from 47 countries here in this program. It’s a testament to the global reputation of the university, of the program, and indeed South Korea. When I’m looking out at this room at all of you, I have no doubt that among you are future Ministers, Ambassadors, maybe even Presidents and Prime Ministers. And then some of you will actually go into real gainful pursuits in your careers, as well.

I also want to thank my good friend, Ambassador Mark Lippert, who is no stranger to SNU. The Republic of Korea could not ask for a more talented, a more committed, a more sincere envoy from the American people. We’re grateful for his extraordinarily able leadership at this critical time in our relationship, and grateful, as well, that he’s come not just himself, but with family that has made a significant impact on South Korea and on our relationship.

Now, in a little over one week, some of you may have noticed this, Americans will go to the polls to elect a new president. This hasn’t gotten a lot of attention. We’ve been flying under the radar. Kept it low-key. But in fact, one of the great luxuries of my job I’m in now as a diplomat is I get to stay out of politics, which is very, very fortunate.

Instead, what I get to do is work with counterparts in countries around the world, including especially in this region, and, if I’m lucky, also meet with their young leaders, like yourselves. I’m especially eager, traveling around the world, to hear about you—your thoughts, your ideas, your plans, your venture, even your frustrations and failures, because that is part of this great evolution that you are going through as students and then entering into the workforce.

I was saying to the Dean, one of the striking things that I’ve found, going around the world, especially engaging with this rising generation, when I close my eyes, and forget a little bit about exactly where I am, the young people I tend to meet sound just like their brothers and sisters all over the world—the exact same energy, the same passion, the same anxieties, the same curiosity, the same eagerness to put their skills and education to work on humankind’s greatest challenges. That more than anything else gives me tremendous hope for the future.

Few places are more alike in this respect than the United States and South Korea, two of the most wired, most innovative, most resilient nations on the planet.

South Korea is a nation that has faced down war, faced down poverty, faced down political chaos, faced down division to emerge as an economic powerhouse, a vibrant democracy, and a donor partner that itself now provides aid to those in need. South Korea is a nation that has instinctively understood the only way to really predict the future is to create it.

It is this common spirit—anchored in shared values and mutual interests—that binds the United States and South Korea together in one of the strongest, most effective, most enduring alliances on the planet.

In the eight years since President Obama rebalanced our sights towards the Asia Pacific, the United States and Korea, together, have forged a high-standard free trade pact. We’ve modernized key defense agreements. We have expanded educational and exchange opportunities. And we have carried trilateral collaboration with Japan to new heights. In fact, just yesterday, I was in Tokyo with your Vice Minister Lim for our fifth deputy minister-level trilateral meetings with Japan in just the last two years.

Our discussions yesterday once again underscored the essential place of this trilateral partnership—our three countries together—in upholding a rules-based, norms-based, institutions-based international order dedicated to the progress of all nations. When you think about it, virtually every advantage we enjoy in our societies draws a direct line to this international order—from the goods we buy that flow freely across borders, to the public health systems we rely on to stop outbreaks from becoming epidemics, to the environmental protections we are counting on to preserve the planet we share.

Here in Seoul, we are reminded every day that this order—on which the very prosperity and stability of our societies depends—can never, ever be taken for granted.

As you all know, less than 60 kilometers away, a profoundly different, darker, and dangerous model persists—a relic from the past… of the social repression, command economy, and international isolation that once shrouded many countries frozen in the grips of the Cold War.

As much of the rest of the world has moved forward towards peace, toward reason, toward prosperity, toward dignity, North Korea’s regime has categorically refused to step out from the shadow of humankind’s past.

This is a regime that operates enormous political prison camps at home, denies its citizens nearly all basic rights, and imposes a system of surveillance and censorship so repressive it has no comparison in the modern age.

This is a regime run by a leader so reckless and inhumane that he prioritizes nuclear weapons and missiles over the well-being of the North Korean people.

This is the only regime in the world to test a nuclear weapon in the 21st century.

A regime that has accelerated both its missile and nuclear programs—conducting two nuclear and 24 missile tests this year alone, the most recent of which – a missile test – was just last week.

Against this threat, the United States is committed to protecting ourselves, defending our allies, meeting our treaty obligations, and providing extended deterrence, guaranteed by the full spectrum of U.S. defense capabilities.

We will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Period. Neither will China. Or Russia. Or Japan. Or the Republic of Korea. Neither will the international community.

We will continue—through diplomacy, deterrence, and pressure—to build a sustained, comprehensive, and relentless campaign that increases the costs on North Korea until it makes a strategic decision to return to serious talks on denuclearization and complies with its international obligations and commitments.

Until North Korea comes out of the dark and abides by the same rules that all the rest of us live by, its strategic position will continue to weaken, as its behavior only tightens and toughens our political and military resolve.

In the last several years, the United States and South Korea have updated the framework governing the transfer of wartime operational control of alliance forces, as well as the Special Measures Agreement through which the Republic of Korea helps support our air assets and troops that stand guard 24/7 on the Korean Peninsula. This time last year, I had the great honor of sharing a meal with Korean and American soldiers who serve side-by-side every day, standing sentry along the DMZ—literally the embodiment of our alliance.

After this year’s nuclear and missile tests, we decided together, as an alliance, to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to the Republic of Korea—the latest but not the last in a series of defensive measures we have taken over the past eight years to meet the evolving security threat from North Korea.

We have also modernized our alliance with Japan, another frequent target of North Korea’s threats. We’ve updated guidelines that hadn’t been revised in over 17 years—preparing us to work more closely together and engage in collective self-defense.

A few months ago, for the first time, South Korea, Japan, and the United States conducted a trilateral ballistic missile warning exercise. Practical trilateral defense coordination, focused on the dynamic threats that our three countries face, sends a powerful deterrent message and enhances the security of all three countries.

Simply put, as long as the threat persists, we will continue to strengthen our defenses and deterrent posture.

North Korea’s diplomatic position will also continue to weaken, as its behavior invites growing isolation and condemnation around the world.

Earlier this year, for the first time, the United States sanctioned Kim Jong-un and 14 other senior officials associated with the regime’s grave human rights abuses—abuses so egregious that a UN Commission of Inquiry noted they have “no parallel in the contemporary world.” Think about that. Abuses so egregious that they have no parallel in the contemporary world. Our action should make regime authorities—especially midlevel or low level officials, who may not be so protected—think twice about the consequences of their own choices in the coming years.

China and Russia—North Korea’s traditional guarantors—are tiring of defending the increasingly erratic and outlying regime. And old friends like Cuba and Iran are no longer willing to burn political capital on the North. In May, when North Korea celebrated a major party congress, it didn’t dare invite foreign leaders to avoid the embarrassment of those leaders no showing up. What international leader wants to be seen in Pyongyang today?

In contrast, the five nations most directly involved in working towards denuclearization—South Korea, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States—are working more closely than ever before in the face of this challenge.

And North Korea’s economic position will continue to weaken, as its choices prompt the international community to work together to choke off the revenue streams that sustain its increasingly dangerous and destabilizing weapons programs.

The DPRK cannot simultaneously achieve both the nuclear weapons and missiles its leader prioritizes over everything else and the economic development that its people so desperately want and so desperately need.

Just weeks ago, we saw Kim Jong Un happily observing a weapons test even as his people were deluged by horrific floods—suffering one of the worst disasters to hit the country in a generation. That’s the choice that he’s made.

In March 2016, UN Security Council Resolution 2270 imposed, for the first time, measures that target economic activities that support the Kim regime broadly, as opposed to just targeting revenue streams directly connected to the nuclear and missile programs. UNSCR 2270 includes unprecedented inspection and financial provisions, including mandatory inspections of cargo to and from North Korea, and a requirement to terminate banking relationships with North Korean financial institutions. Most importantly and significantly, it includes for the first time sectoral sanctions, eliminating or prohibit DPRK’s exports of key things like coal, gold, iron, titanium, rare earth materials, and also prohibits the import of aviation fuel and rocket fuel. This provision, if fully and effectively implemented, can have a very, very significant impact.

These sanctions—the toughest in history directed towards the North—are already impeding the regime’s ability to generate hard currency to buy-off elites, proliferate arms or nuclear material, attract international investment or economic assistance, or extract concessions and aid from the outside world.

As realization sets in that North Korea’s saber-rattling presents a growing and global threat, more and more countries are taking action. Taiwan has halted imports of North Korean coal; Malta ended its visa extensions for North Korean workers; Kuwait is stopping flights to Pyongyang; and Tanzania recently cracked down on DPRK vessels that were trying to hide from international sanctions by flying the Tanzanian flag.

Air Koryo’s landing privileges at foreign airports have been reduced, and North Korea’s UN-designated shipping line, Ocean Maritime Management Company, has essentially been shut down, as its ships are denied access to ports, scrapped, impounded, or confined to their homes.

These are real results, but despite them, we know that North Korea continues to pose particular challenges from a sanctions perspective, given its isolation, economic immaturity, and the pride it takes in an ideology of self-reliance above all.

Of course, you can’t talk about North Korea’s economy without talking about China, on which North Korea’s economy is heavily dependent.

China may believe its influence with the DPRK has waned. Perhaps so. But its leverage has not. Virtually all DPRK trade goes from, to, and through China. North Korea’s coal exports, mostly to China, generate over $1 billion a year in revenue for the regime annually and account for about a third of all its export income. Meanwhile, North Korea’s shipping lanes continue to limp along, despite the sanctions, and armies of enslaved workers keep the economy on life-support.

China is in a unique position to exert pressure and so, in our judgment, has a unique responsibility. Now, China understandably puts a premium on stability. That makes sense. But it also increasingly recognizes that North Korea is the greatest source of instability in the region.

We are closely engaged with Beijing at the highest levels to seek greater Chinese cooperation in imposing costs on North Korea and forcing Pyongyang to reconsider its dangerous nuclear ambitions. In fact, I will be in Beijing tomorrow to continue that conversation.

The objective is simple and straightforward. It is not to bring Kim Jong Un to his knees. It is to him back to the table for meaningful, credible talks on denuclearization. We stand ready at any time to engage in credible negotiations on denuclearization, but we have to see the same willingness from the DPRK and that willingness has been absolutely and totally absent.

Until then, we will continue to sharpen the choice for the DPRK, so that it understands, as much as it does not want to denuclearize, the alternative for the DPRK will be worse.

Although the challenges are manifest, we have seen similar, concerted campaigns, undergirded by international consensus, change the calculus in other countries, and there is no better example recently than Iran. That nation’s decision to freeze its nuclear program and allow international inspectors to come into the country created the time and space for us to work together on a comprehensive agreement that has now put far into the future even the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The United States resolutely supports President Park’s vision for peaceful reunification—a unified peninsula free of nuclear weapons. This future, however, will not come to pass if more and more nations acquire nuclear weapons—triggering a regional arms race and only further escalating the risk of catastrophic nuclear war. We cannot allow the clock to turn back on Northeast Asia, playing directly into North Korea’s hands by taking false comfort in a weapon that only offers security to humankind by laying waste to it.

You know, if we were gathered in this classroom fifty or a hundred years ago, and we were talking together about what constitutes the wealth of a nation, we would probably be talking about things like the expanse of its land mass, the size of its population, the power of its military, the abundance of its natural resources.

And, of course, all those things still matter. And thankfully the United States and South Korea are blessed with many of them.

But I think we know, gathered here in the early years of the 21st century, the true wealth of a nation, the true strength of a nation is defined by its human resources and by the ability of a country to maximize their potential, to allow our citizens to build, to invent, to create, to excel. The success of the Republic of Korea powerfully reflects that reality.

We can confront grave challenges without, at the same time, allowing them to define us. The enduring strength of our nations is not simply our unity against common adversaries. It is our insatiable desire to see over the horizon and try together to pioneer new frontiers. That is why we are so proud to be your partner in advancing human progress.

Together, our leading scientists are opening fresh avenues for cancer and brain research, our global development agencies are teaming up to end hunger, our global health experts are stopping the spread of infectious diseases, our officials are shaping peacetime norms for the uncharted waters of cyberspace, and as we see here today, our students are studying together and coming up with game-changing new ideas to make our world a little bit safer, a little bit wealthier, a little bit wiser than before.

In short, from what I’ve seen working in government these past few years, our partnership has never been broader. It’s never been deeper. It’s never been stronger. It’s never been more diverse and creative than it is today, and right now, it is just waiting for you to help write its next chapter.

Thank you very much.