The Globe and Mail spoke to former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon Wednesday about the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea. Mr. Ban, who spent a decade leading the United Nations until the end of 2016, described his views of U.S. President Donald Trump's approach to diplomacy, Canada's prospects for gaining a Security Council seat and his hope to one day see a unified Korea.
What do you make of the bellicose rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S.?
I'm very concerned about the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. We are very concerned about why North Korea has been continuously, defiantly challenging the whole international community. This situation is the worst since the end of the Korean War. We must make sure this will not lead to any military conflict. We are concerned that if the tension is not defused, it may lead to an accidental conflict. Wars have not always started with plans; sometimes there have been accidental conflicts that lead to a bigger war. We do not want to see this tragic thing happen again on the Korean peninsula.
What's your assessment of how Mr. Trump is handling the situation?
There have been different interpretations of what President Trump has been saying. At the same time, as a Korean, I'd like to understand the context in which President Trump has been speaking in such a strong way. North Korea has been [speaking] in an even much stronger way, a nasty way, disregarding all the norms of the international community. North Korea has become the worst norm-breaker of the international community. President Trump, even though he has been changing some wordings, I think he has been sending some clear messages that such North Korean behaviour cannot be tolerated.
You're not worried that his language could result in an escalation that leads to an accident, as you described?
It's not desirable, frankly speaking, that this situation is now escalating in such verbal warfare. We must try our best to defuse the tension first.
You were a national-security adviser in South Korea at one time. What did you learn in that role about the North?
I have been dealing with this matter for 25 years, since the discovery of the North Korean nuclear-development program in 1990. North Korea is small and economically and militarily very poor, except that they have developed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In terms of military assets, they are not up to date, they are not modern. There is no comparison between their military strength and that of the United States or even South Korea. Why, then, do they behave that way? I think it can be regarded as high-intensity psychological warfare to draw attention from the other side, the United States.
What is their goal?
I cannot speak for them. They may try to protect themselves by speaking loud and hard to scare away those countries and people who speak in a normal, reasonable way.
What do you think people misunderstand about Kim Jong-un?
It's hard to understand his real motives and hard to understand his behaviour. He has been known as a very brutal leader, executing his uncle, his brother, defence minister and many senior government officials. I think more than 80 such high-level officials, according to some intelligence, have been executed since Kim Jong-un took power.
What can China do to further engage North Korea?
China can play a most-effective role. If China is seriously committed to solving this issue, I think it can handle this matter with political pressure and even economic pressure. Considering that North Korean national trade volume, exports and imports included, is less than $10-billion a year, 90 per cent of this trade is done with China. If China really squeezes the valve, then North Korea cannot survive. China can also send very strong political messages to North Korea.
Canada failed to win a seat on the Security Council when you were secretary-general and is now pursuing one again. Why do you think it failed and what are its chances this time?
It was quite unexpected and it was big news when Canada failed. If you consider the foreign policy of prime minister [Stephen] Harper at the time, which has not been much appreciated by many member states of the United Nations, I think that was the main reason. Now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken his leadership role and has made quite clear that [he's pursuing] strong involvement and participation in the United Nations and in multilateral issues, I think that is widely appreciated by the international community. Therefore, I am hopeful that Canada can be elected next time. That's the general expectation. Prime Minister Trudeau has been seen as a leading voice in the international community and humanitarian and peace and security issues, and even refugee issues. He has been receiving a lot of civilian refugees, that has been much more appreciated than the time of prime minister Harper.
You didn't run for President of South Korea earlier this year. Do you wish you had, given the present crisis?
No comment about that. This is already gone, we have a new President.
Ten years ago, you said a unified Korea was possible. Do you still think it's possible in your lifetime?
I hope so. I think that's the ardent aspiration of the whole Korean people. When the two Germanys were united, there was the highest expectation that the two Koreas would be united. But somehow, it has not happened, unfortunately. But that's mainly because of North Korea's behaviour. They have always been not sincerely engaging in dialogue.
This interview has been edited and condensed.