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(Yonhap Interview) Feulner: N. Korean leader will find 'very formidable adversary' in Trump

2017/02/16 07:00

By Chang Jae-soon and Shim In-sung

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will find a "very formidable adversary" in U.S. President Donald Trump, as he won't be shy of invoking sharper pressure, including secondary sanctions, while leaving all options on the table, a top Trump adviser said.

Edwin Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation who is considered one of the closest outside advisers to Trump, made the remark in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency and Yonhap News Television, as the North ratcheted up tensions with a surprise ballistic missile test.

"I think (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un is in a small way trying to test President Trump but he will find that he's up against a very formidable adversary," Feulner said of the North's weekend missile launch during the interview held at the foundation on Tuesday.

The missile launch marked the first provocative act by Pyongyang since Trump's inauguration, and came after the North's leader threatened to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile apparently capable of reaching the U.S., though the latest test involved a new type of an intermediate-range missile.

After the launch, Trump called the North a "big, big problem" and vowed to deal with it "very strongly."

   "I think anything that happens post January 20, 2017 is a test and is a challenge to President Trump and that President Trump takes anything that happens while he is the President of the U.S. he is going to take it very seriously," Feulner said of the missile launch.

Increasing pressure on North Korea, including making China, through secondary sanctions, use more of its leverage over Pyongyang as the main provider of food and energy assistance, would be a key part of Trump's policy on the North, Feulner said.

"Mr. Trump ... will be expecting China to do a lot more. The notion of economic pressure on North Korea is one that Mr. Trump understands. Mr. Trump is not going to be reluctant to use his willingness to invoke secondary boycotts, for example, of organizations in North Korea or in China that are pass-through entities for exports from North Korea to cut off even more economic help," Feulner said.

"Mr. Trump ... will not hesitate to employ more significant measures," he said.

Edwin Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency and Yonhap News Television in Washiongton on Feb. 14 (Yonhap) Edwin Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency and Yonhap News Television in Washiongton on Feb. 14 (Yonhap)

Feulner also stressed that China has a lot more leverage over the North than it has been exercising, and the North's denuclearization is also in the interest of China because South Korea, Japan and Taiwan could pursue nuclear development unless the North's program is stopped.

The Trump administration should also increase pressure on the North for its human rights abuses by appointing a "widely recognized, respected ambassador" so as to make sure Pyongyang cannot continue to be this kind of an actor on the world scene, Feulner said.

Asked if Trump would be willing to consider a preemptive strike on the North, Feulner said, "One of the things I've learned about Mr. Trump, having worked for him now for some months that he always says don't take any option off the table."

   Even though Trump won't take anything off the table, it is "unlikely" for him to open negotiations with the North, considering that the regime has acted "outside the framework of a legitimate government" with so many violations of its international obligations, he said.

On the death of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of the North's leader, Feulner said that if it's confirmed the North's leader ordered the assassination, it would mean that he is "trying to eliminate any alternative challenges to his power."

   Feulner also said that even if Trump's relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping warm, there is no chance of the U.S. tweaking the decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, which Beijing has strongly opposed.

Trump "views THAAD as being a settled and decided agreement between Washington and Seoul. That he is, from my discussions with people close to him, THAAD is, that's a given," he said. "I don't think THAAD is one of those things that is going to be reconsidered at all."

   On defense cost-sharing, Feulner said Trump understands forward deployment of U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan is not only good for the two allies, but also for the U.S. as well. That, together with the more urgent issue of North Korean threats, are among the reasons why Trump has since the election refrained from the campaign rhetoric that Seoul and Tokyo should pay more, he said.

He also said it would cost more to keep the American troops in the U.S. rather than in the South and Japan. There could be some "fine tuning" or "slight adjustments" in cost-sharing agreements but Trump will listen to his close advisers, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, with regard to the issue, Feulner said.

Speaking to the leadership crisis in South Korea, Feulner said that regardless of whoever is elected the country's next president, the strong relationship between the South and the U.S. will continue because the alliance is "stronger than partisan politics."

   Feulner, widely considered a top candidate for Trump's ambassador to Seoul, said that he is certain that whoever becomes ambassador will be "somebody of the highest caliber to represent U.S. interest there and to remind the Korean people that we are your ally, we've been here for a very long time and we look forward to continuing to be with you."