Transcript: South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on "Face the Nation," March 18, 2018

President Trump surprised the world when he announced he had accepted an invitation from North Korea to meet with leader Kim Jong Un. That invitation was conveyed by South Korean officials, who have been in talks with the North in a flurry of diplomacy following the Olympics in Pyeongchang.

South Korea's top diplomat, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, was in Washington this week for talks with U.S. officials on trade and North Korea. She joined us to discuss the talks, whether the North has responded and the significance of talks to the South.

The following is a transcript of the interview with Kang that aired Sunday, March 18, 2018, on "Face the Nation."  


MARGARET BRENNAN, IN-STUDIO: It's been ten days since President Trump accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's invitation to meet, but there's still been no public response from North Korea. Yesterday, I spoke with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who was in town for talks on trade and North Korea. That's where our conversation began.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Have you heard anything from North Korea in response?

MINISTER KANG: Well, nothing publicly. But there is a channel of communication now established. So I'm sure there are back and forth messages. But, I think the North Korean leader would also need some time given the readiness with which President Trump has accepted the invitation to talks. I think we were all quite surprised by-- by the-- the readiness of that decision. I think it was an extremely courageous decision on the part of President Trump. We believe the North Korean leader is now taking stock. We give them the benefit of the doubt, and the time that he would need to come out with some public messaging.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you were surprised President Trump accepted so quickly? Do you think Kim Jong Un was surprised?

MINISTER KANG: I think we all were.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Your President Moon has plans already --

MINISTER KANG: Yes, yes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: -- to meet with Kim Jong Un next month.

MINISTER KANG: Mm-hm.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What does South Korea hope to achieve from that conversation?

MINISTER KANG: -- This is of course also a very historic engagement and the North Korean leader is coming just south of the DMZ for the third inter-Korean summit. The two previous ones were held in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. So, the indication that he is willing to come south for this is-- is very significant in itself.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In the talks between North and South Korea, will the nuclear program even be a topic? Or are you saving that for President Trump?

MINISTER KANG: No, we're not saving that for-- I think, President Trump. I think this is a concern not just for the United States but for South Korea as well. But I think we will want to discuss key security issues including the denuclearization issue.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What conditions do the North Koreans have to meet before this conversation happens?

MINISTER KANG: Well, in effect they already have. We have asked the North to indicate in clear terms the commitment to denuclearization, and he has in fact conveyed that commitment.

MARGARET BRENNAN: He's given his word?

MINISTER KANG: He's given his word. But the significance of his word is-- is quite -- quite weighty in the sense that this is the first time that the words came directly from the North Korean supreme leader himself, and that has never been done before.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The idea of a North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, meeting with an American president caught a lot of people by surprise. What is the significance of that to South Korea?

MINISTER KANG: Well, it clearly demonstrates the President Trump's will-- determination to resolve this issue once and for all. And, I think that's hugely appreciated by the South Korean public. The previous years before the administration has been one of non-action, called "strategic patience".

What has changed is the-- the maximum pressure campaign, which is a-- a series of Security Council-- sanctions-- but also U.S. unilateral sanctions.

North Korea is in a situation of very limited ability to engage economically-- with the outside world, which means it has very limited ways of improving its-- the livelihood of the people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You're describing a weak North Korea financially --

MINISTER KANG: Economically, definitely.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But they've never been this militarily strong when it comes to the development of their nuclear program. They've never come this close to being able to hit the U.S. mainland, with a weapon before.

MINISTER KANG: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So they're actually walking into these talks in a strong position in some ways.

MINISTER KANG: But the-- I think-- I think that's probably what-- what goes into the North Korean calculation of coming out to dialogue at this point. But again, it's-- it's strength on-- on the side of its nuclear missiles program. On the side of the economy very, very weak and increasingly so. The art of diplomacy and negotiation is this-- what this boils down to.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What is South Korea, and what is the U.S., its partner, willing to offer North Korea at this negotiation?

MINISTER KANG: At this point we haven't offered it anything. We have made it clear that we will engage, but there will be no reward for dialogue.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Does South Korea trust Kim Jong Un?

MINISTER KANG: As I say, it's not a matter of trusting. It's a matter of discussing, and pressing for action. And once you see those actions, then you move forward further.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When President Trump says things like he did reportedly at this political event earlier this week when he suggested U.S. troops could be removed because of a trade dispute.

MINISTER KANG: Mm-hm.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How were those comments received in South Korea?

MINISTER KANG: Well, anytime troops are mentioned it raises eyebrows. So, yes it has caught attention, but we are absolutely confident of the American commitment to the alliance and the troop presence in our country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you don't take comments like that seriously?

MINISTER KANG: Well, we take any comment coming from the president very seriously. But-- but in, yes, but in the larger scheme of things is this alliance that have (sic) been the bedrock of peace and security in the-- in-- on the Korean peninsula, but also the-- northeast Asia for decades.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Next week those tariffs on steel and aluminum --

MINISTER KANG: Mm-hm.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --go into effect.

MINISTER KANG: Mm-hm.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What's going to happen to South Korea?

MINISTER KANG: Well, we've been arguing very much, you know, as ally and particularly in a visible alliance at this point when we are trying to make the most of this opportunity that is created to come to terms with a North Korean nuclear issue, that we-we-- we need-- we need an exemption on this. So we've put all of our arguments and considerations on the table and we're hoping for a good result.

MARGARET BRENNAN: No assurances that you will be exempt yet?

MINISTER KANG: I think we'll know when the decision is made and announced. But I think we've put-- we're putting the best arguments in place.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This comes in the middle of what was already a tough renegotiation of that U.S. free trade deal with South Korea.

MINISTER KANG: Mm-hm.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So are you concerned that some of this beating up on trade is going to hurt the alliance?

MINISTER KANG: There has always been trade issues (sic). The steel issue is not entirely new. This is particularly big, but we take it for what it is and try to deal with it. But again, yes, coming at this particular time, it-- it's not helpful.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Minister, thank you.

MINISTER KANG: Thank you.