By BOB MARTIN
PLYMOUTH — Richard Solomon, former president of the United States Institute of Peace, has plenty of experience dealing with highly volatile nations in a peaceful manner through his years of experience. Friday he spoke with The Citizen about North Korea based on his personal views and the state of where the nation is at today.
Solomon feels that some of the largest problems when dealing with North Korea are the failing economy that has been on the downturn for many years, as well as stubbornness by its leadership and military.
“The North Koreans have a fundamental problem: their economy is broken,” Solomon said in an interview with The Citizen on Friday, following a speech he gave at Plymouth State University. “And the Chinese have been begging the North Koreans for decades to do what China has done and open up their country to the world, reform their economy, stop putting all the money into the military and create a viable situation for their people. And the North Koreans won’t do it. The new leadership who has just taken over with Kim Jong Un, I believe, has been pushed by the Chinese again to focus on economic reform. The military in North Korea have been pushing back. I think they are in the middle of a big debate internally. So, what I think we should be doing is work with the Chinese and the South Koreans to create conditions where the North Korean leadership will basically change their policy.”
While Solomon is known mostly for his time as president of the United States Institute of Peace from 1993 to 2012, he was involved with North Korea in years before this. Solomon was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 1989 to 1992. While there, he had a leading role in the dialogue on nuclear issues between the United States and South and North Korea as well as helping to establish the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation initiative.
Solomon said that the new regime is a step towards change compared to years prior, where Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung led North Korea. He called it a “mafia regime,” where the Kim family runs the show and the military is relied on for support and security. However, he said that with a young leader it may be a chance to step in the right direction due to his long future ahead of him.
“Now you have a third generation leader and I think this young guy, he’s coming in, and I don’t think he is as secure in his leadership position as people tend to assume,” said Solomon. “He has to look forward to 40 or 50 years of leadership with a broken economy. So what may be new or promising about this situation, again, is you have a good argument that he doesn’t want his tenure during his period to be limited to be heeding nuclear weapons. So, as I said, I think our policy should be working in tandem with the South Koreans and the Chinese to try to nurse this new leader, leadership, in the direction of focusing on economic development.
“But ultimately, their core is their security and they conclude that if they don’t have any nuclear weapons they are going to be run over. What’s their greatest fear? The first fear is their own people. The average height of a North Korean inductee is two or three inches shorter than in the south because of malnutrition. The second fear is the tremendous success of South Korea. They are worried about being dependent on China. If you understand that dynamic, the question is how can we say to them, ‘here’s a way of establishing your security, but to the benefit of your own people.’”
Solomon said that the poor conditions put upon the residents of North Koreans make it difficult for Congress to act peacefully, however.
“Now you tell me, will our congress, given the terrible human rights record in North Korea and that they are threatening to bomb us with nuclear weapons, is congress going to support a soft diplomatic approach with these guys? You tell me.”
While Solomon did not comment on whether he felt that North Korea is a legitimate nuclear threat, he stressed that they are, indeed, a major military threat. He said that this has been something apparent for decades and the real threat at this time is them proliferating nuclear technology to other areas.
“Think of it from their point of view,” Solomon said. “They don’t want to be the target of our pressure. They’d much rather have us in a fight with the Iranians, which distracts our attention and resources to another part of the world. I think our major concern is their proliferation.”
Solomon is the commencement speaker at Plymouth State University’s graduation today, taking place today, at 10 a.m., on Currier Field.