REVIEW: Article

A Long Road to P'yongyang

In late 2001, with United States (US)-North Korean relations in a deep freeze, initiatives were undertaken to pull together an unofficial American delegation to travel to P’yongyang to discuss ways in which a resumption of the US dialogue with North Korea could be facilitated. A group of four former American Ambassadors to Seoul agreed to undertake this mission as members of a private delegation to be led by Dr. Robert Scalapino, the eminent Asia scholar from the University of California at Berkeley. I was one of the four who agreed to go, and our trip was scheduled for late February 2002. I was looking forward to the trip, but soon began to wonder if it would take place in the wake of the State of the Union address in which the “axis of evil” terminology was first used. When Dr. Scalapino called me on February 8 to say that the trip was off, I was very much disappointed although not really surprised. (See “The Road Not Taken,” The Korea Society Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter 2001-2002 issue.)

Over the next few weeks, my concerns about the lack of dialogue between Washington and P’yongyang grew stronger. At a late February conference in the United Kingdom, I had learned at firsthand how poorly understood Americans are by some of our closest friends in Europe, as we grapple with the continuing threat of major terrorist attacks. This lack of understanding among longstanding allies with whom we share common values and deep historical connections made me realize how truly difficult it must be for the North Koreans to appreciate fully the depth of our anger at the terrorists, and our fears that devastating weapons systems might fall into hostile hands. At the same time, I also came to believe that a crisis on the Korean peninsula was the last thing the United States needed, given the strains being placed on our military establishment as we continue to meet our commitments in Afghanistan while simultaneously seeking to counter terrorist activities in several other countries. I thus decided to write directly to Chairman Kim Jong Il, explaining why Americans are so angry at the terrorists, why there is so much concern about North Korean weapons and missile systems, why the Bush administration is different from the Clinton administration and why it is necessary for Americans and North Koreans to talk these issues over, sooner rather than later.

 I delivered my three-page letter to North Korea’s United Nations (UN) Mission in New York on March 6. After a spirited discussion, focused on why I had felt it necessary and appropriate to write directly to Chairman Kim Jong Il, my contact at the Mission agreed to forward my letter to P’yongyang. Less than two weeks later, on March 18, I received word that I would be welcome to travel to North Korea as a private citizen. In the interim, I had kept both the US Department of State and the South Korean Embassy in Washington informed of these developments. The Department graciously offered to send a talented, Korean-speaking Foreign Service officer with me. I was pleased to learn as well that the South Koreans viewed the trip favorably.

And so it happened that on April 6, I found myself on an Air Koryo Ilyushin 62 flying from Beijing to P’yongyang. As my thoughts ranged back over my own personal and professional connection with Korea since 1950, I realized how glad I was to be making the trip even though I had no idea of what it might accomplish.

When in 1989 I was asked by President George H. W. Bush to be his Ambassador to Seoul, some important new factors had emerged on the Korean Peninsula. First, our ability to defend against a North Korean attack had dramatically improved. Second, North Korea was suspected of laying the foundation for a nuclear weapons capability at a place called Yongbyon. Third, the South Korean President, Roh Tae Woo, had launched a diplomatic offensive that he called Nordpolitik, aimed at establishing more normal relations with North Korea. (This plan was patterned after Chancellor Willy Brandt’s brilliantly conceived Ostpolitik that eventually led to the reunification of East and West Germany.) And fourth, it had become evident that South Korea had become the stronger half of the divided peninsula in economic terms. A feeling of vulnerability remained in the South, kept alive by memories of the horrific attack in 1950, but a collective sense of confidence was on the rise, fed by the successful Seoul Olympic Games of 1988, and by the emergence of an increasingly powerful sense of participatory democracy. The direct election of President Roh in 1987, determined by popular vote, was a major step forward in the establishment of democratic processes in South Korea. And during my time in Seoul, I was happy to be able to report to Washington that the Korean military establishment had gotten out of politics. (The election of President Kim Young Sam in 1992 and President Kim Dae-jung in 1997, both political figures with no military connections whatsoever, proved this to be true.)

During my time as Ambassador in Seoul, the US did all that it could to support President Roh’s Nordpolitik plan. President Bush arranged a 1990 meeting in San Francisco between President Roh and Mikhail Gorbachev that led to Russian recognition of South Korea later that year. Washington urged China to drop its long-held determination to veto South Korea’s entry into the United Nations. As a result, both North and South Korea joined the UN in 1991, and China extended diplomatic recognition to South Korea in August of 1992. In 1991, the White House announced that the US had withdrawn all tactical nuclear weapons from overseas deployment. It was made clear to the North Koreans that this decision had included South Korea. This allowed Washington, which had become increasingly concerned about North Korean nuclear activities at Yongbyon, to offer P’yongyang full nuclear inspection rights in South Korea, in return for similar access to the North. This offer was not accepted.

The end of the Cold War was an extremely difficult period for P’yongyang. North Korea’s position eroded as the Soviet Union, and then China, recognized Seoul. The North Koreans were particularly galled by Beijing’s recognition of South Korea, which their vehement protests had failed to stop. The overthrow and execution of the Romanian dictator Ceausescu also came as a personal shock to Kim Il Sung. The two men had maintained a rather bizarre relationship over the years, marked by their willingness to tweak the Soviet Union when it served their interests to do so.

Perhaps in an effort to compensate for these diplomatic setbacks, North Korea began to open itself up to more contact with the South. Prime ministerial-level visits were exchanged, and in December 1991 an agreement on reconciliation, nonaggression, exchanges and cooperation was initialed. Kim Il Sung hailed the agreement as “the first epochal event” since the beginning of North-South contacts in 1972.

As I watched these events from Seoul, it became increasingly clear that Kim Il Sung was seeking closer ties with the US, having lost his more or less exclusive relation-ships with the Soviet Union and China. In 1992, for example, he warmly received the Reverend Billy Graham and other American visitors to P’yongyang. During the same period, North Korea began to agitate for higher-level official contacts with the US. For several years, US-North Korean contacts had been held at the political counselor level at our Embassy in Beijing. In January 1992, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Arnold Kanter met with Workers Party Secretary Kim Yong Sun in New York. Kanter took a hard political line, but the American dialogue with North Korea had reached a new level.

P’yongyang’s attitude toward me remained hostile. I was routinely denounced as “the Governor General of South Korea.” This was part of a long-standing North Korean effort to depict South Korea as a puppet of the US. In 1991, just south of Seoul, I picked up a North Korean leaflet that showed President Roh deferentially bowing to me as we plotted the demise of Kim Young Sam, who at the time was a leading contender for election to the presidency. Such leaflets were periodically dropped over South Korea from balloons launched in the North that were designed to burst when they reached a certain altitude.

The election of President Bill Clinton in 1992 ended both my tour as Ambassador and my government career. In the spring of 1993, I assumed the position of Chairman of The Korea Society in New York. It was my hope to be able to play some role in helping to continue the process of opening North Korea up to more normal relations with its neighbors. The nuclear-related crisis of 1994 put those hopes on hold, as did the death of Kim Il Sung in July of that year. The attitude of the Kim Young Sam administration (1992-1997) toward North Korea hardened as time passed, and occasional efforts by The Korea Society to open up channels of communication with P’yongyang met with strong disapproval in Seoul.

The election of President Kim Dae-jung in December 1997 brought with it a completely changed attitude toward the North. Even before his inauguration in February 1998, President Kim began laying the foundation for his sunshine policy by reaching out positively to Russia, China and Japan, seeking their support for rapprochement with P’yongyang. I was invited to President Kim’s inauguration, and at that time he said to me, “I hope that you will be able to plant the flag of The Korea Society in North Korea.”

My efforts in that direction moved rather slowly, with the pace being set by the North Koreans. I got to know senior diplomats at North Korea’s Mission to the United Nations, and entertained them at my home and in New York. I made it clear to them that a number of high powered American business firms were interested in taking a look at investment possibilities in North Korea. Representatives of some of these firms were introduced to the North Koreans, but nothing specific evolved from these contacts.

In September 1999, I introduced North Korea’s Foreign Minister to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright invited me to attend a luncheon honoring Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok when he visited Washington in October 2000 as an emissary of Chairman Kim Jong Il. Vice Marshal Jo invited President Clinton to visit P’yongyang, and Secretary Albright promptly thereafter traveled to North Korea to explore the feasibility of such a presidential visit. Upon her return, Secretary Albright brought together a group of about thirty “Korea watchers” at a dinner in Washington to discuss further options. I attended that dinner and recall that two or three participants urged that the President visit P’yongyang, no matter what. An equal number of guests were adamantly opposed to a visit under any circumstances, and the rest of us expressed varying degrees of uncertainly about the value of a US-North Korean summit when so many questions remained unanswered.

President Bill Clinton came close to visiting P’yongyang in the final days of his presidency, but in the end decided not to go with so many uncertainties about North Korea’s missile program still unresolved. The North Koreans clearly regret that what they saw as a chance for a breakthrough in relations with the US had been missed.

The Bush administration took office with a much more skeptical view of North Korea. A policy review was quickly called for, and it became clear that President Bush did not intend directly to build on what had been accomplished during the Clinton administration. The Bush administration’s interest in national missile defense made it highly sensitive to the threat posed by North Korea’s surprisingly sophisticated multi-stage missile program. The US policy review was complete in May 2001, and called for continued dialogue with North Korea, and support for the sunshine policy. However, the Bush administration’s agenda for resuming the dialogue was quite different from that of the Clinton administration. It called for quick and top priority discussion of highly sensitive issues such as conventional troop deployments along the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and inspections designed to reveal North Korea’s past practices with regard to its production of weapons grade uranium from the nuclear reactor shut down as a part of the 1994 Framework Agreement.

The terrorist attacks on the US on September 11 markedly heightened Washington’s concerns about North Korea’s missiles and weapons programs. As Bush administration officials learned of the implacable hatred of the US held by the terrorists led by Osama bin Laden, their worst nightmare became the fear that weapons of mass destruction would fall into the hands of the terrorists. North Korea is strongly suspected of possessing a formidable array of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They are known to have sold missile systems or components to Pakistan and several Middle Eastern countries. These facts and suspicions have caused the Bush administration to designate North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq as the states causing most danger to US interests due to their WMD capabilities.

From the North Korean perspective, this change of perspective in Washington is difficult to fathom. In late 2000, they sent their number two man, Marshal Jo, to Washington, where he was received at the White House. They subsequently entertained our Secretary of State in P’yongyang, and came close to having a presidential visit. Today, although their behavior has not worsened in any perceptible way, and they have made significant progress in establishing constructive relations with Russia, China and the European Union, they have essentially been cast into outer darkness by the US. Harsh rhetoric used in referring to North Korea only adds insult to injury.

Earlier this year, I had time to reflect on some of the implications of the final stage of my “long road to P’yongyang.” Within the larger context of US relations with Korea over the last half-century, as seen through the prism of my own personal experiences, here are some of my enduring impressions:

  • The North Koreans received me with both courtesy and seriousness. My long conversations with Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Gye Gwan and Lt. General Ri Chan Bok were uninhibited, with flashes of harshness and humor marking our exchanges. I set the only guidelines for our talks, which were that my hosts should not expect me to criticize my own government any more than I would expect them to criticize theirs.
  • In marked contrast to the cynical belligerence I had encountered in talks with officials in the former Soviet Union, and in Romania under Ceausescu, my North Korean interlocutors showed a deep concern for the problems they are facing in their own country. Both men stressed the power shortages that cripple their economy and render almost impossible their efforts to produce more fertilizer and raise more food for their malnourished people.
  • There was considerable residual nostalgia expressed for the last few months of the Clinton administration and deep regret that a US-North Korean summit had not taken place. There was also a sense of bafflement shown by the North Koreans as they wondered why the Bush administration was treating them so much more harshly than the Clinton administration, particularly in terms of the rhetoric being used to describe their government and its leaders. In response I stressed that the US is a country at war with terrorism, and that this fact makes North Korea’s WMD systems and missile capacities a far greater worry than they were under the previous administration.
  • The hi-tech military capabilities the US has demonstrated in Afghanistan have heightened North Korea’s concerns about a possible American attack upon them. I emphasized that President Bush stated during his February visit to Seoul that we had no intention of attacking the North, but I clearly was unable to ease North Korea’s fears on this basic issue.
  • The North Koreans said that they were looking forward to a resumption of talks with the US, but clearly were not certain that “working level talks” would be able to solve the major issues between our countries. They thanked me for coming, and indicated that they had found some of the things I had said to be useful.

Following my visit to P’yongyang, I returned home via Seoul, where I was able to compare notes with General Lim Dong Won, President Kim’s Special Advisor on National Security and Reunification, who had been to P’yongyang immediately before me. He had met extensively with Chairman Kim Jong Il, and returned from his visit with a strong conviction that normalization of ties with the US is North Korea’s top priority, and that if Washington stops “slandering” North Korea, there is real enthusiasm for a resumption of talks. General Lim had also been struck by Chairman Kim’s extensive knowledge of the outside world. It is reported that he reads the South Korean press daily via the Internet, and is intimately aware of political developments in South Korea.

There are some in Washington who appear to believe that harsh rhetoric and direct pressure can be effective in dealing with North Korea. I think they are wrong. The more we threaten and pressure the North Koreans, the more strongly they will hold on to the weapons systems and troop deployments that are our greatest causes for concern. Somehow, the conundrum of “reciprocity” must be solved. We must be willing to make genuinely conciliatory gestures to the North, and they must learn to respond in kind.

The door to an improved US relationship with North Korea stands ajar. Whether it slams shut or opens wide depends largely on how astutely the US begins a new dialogue with the North over the next few months. This will be a delicate process, and the stakes involved in this effort are large. I wish good luck to all involved, both in Washington and P’yongyang.*

Author’s Postscript

Assistant Secretary of State Jim Kelly’s early October visit to P’yongyang evoked a startling admission from the North Koreans that they had been in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework by undertaking the secret enrichment of weapons-grade uranium. Whether this was a violation of the spirit or the letter of the Agreement is not entirely clear at this point, but it was clearly an admission that they had been doing something they had agreed not to do. The Bush administration was clearly taken aback by this admission, but so far has reacted sensibly by calling for dialogue and consultation with its allies.

The question is, why did the North Koreans do this? My guess is that the admission is a call to be taken seriously and to be treated with respect by the Bush administration. It is a not-so-subtle reminder of North Korea’s technical capacities, and at the same time a call for the kind of assurance of non-hostile intent from President Bush that has never been given to them.

In an October 17 meeting in New York, a senior North Korean diplomat told me, “We are willing to negotiate every issue that is of concern to you once we have received assurances that you do not intend to attack us as part of the ‘axis of evil.’” Statements out of P’yongyang have echoed that line.

Recently there has been a virtual cascade of events, all of which can be taken as signs of change within North Korea.  Chairman Kim Jong Il’s statement of regret about the June sea clash between North and South Korean naval vessels paved the way for the resumption of serious and substantive talks between Seoul and P’yongyang.  Today, mine clearing is under way in the DMZ to allow the restoration of long-lost rail service between the North and the South. P’yongyang sent a soccer team to Seoul that played a very friendly match in early September, and recently had athletes and others participating in the Asian games in Pusan.

Chairman Kim Jong Il had a productive meeting with President Putin of Russia in Vladivostok in August that clearly showed Moscow’s broad range of engagement with North Korea with particular focus on the railroads. On September 17, 2002, Chairman Kim welcomed Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan to P’yongyang, and surprised the world by admitting that North Korea had kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens during earlier decades when his father was in charge.  This admission, and accompanying statements of regret, opened the way for an apology from Koizumi regarding Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.  This was a significant step forward between Japan and North Korea and reflects great credit on both leaders.* Of all the things North Korea has done to try to show its intention to move into a new era, this was the most significant. In a quasi-Confucian, dynastic situation such as that in North Korea, for the son to acknowledge that the revered father made mistakes, is quite extraordinary. The North Koreans in New York have told me that this was a particularly painful admission for them to make, but that they had to make it to show their seriousness about building a new relationship with their neighbors.

Finally, P’yongyang has announced the creation of the “Sinuiju Special Administrative Region” which will be a virtually autonomous free-trade zone that will be run along capitalistic lines for the next 50 years. It is rumored that a South Korean will be chosen to administer this region.

I think that the North Korean leadership deserves credit and recognition from Washington for its efforts to change. It has received such recognition from all of its immediate neighbors, and a new pattern of reconciliation is emerging in Northeast Asia. Eventually the United States will do damage to itself, and its influence in the region, if it does not become part of that pattern. Now is as good a time as any to begin that process, difficult as that may be in the face of North Korea’s confessed nuclear transgressions.  Hard-liners in the Bush administration will push hard for punishment of P’yongyang, and a continuing application of pressure to induce regime change. That is a highly dangerous and sterile course, but it will be loudly and persistently endorsed.

For its part, P’yongyang needs to give verifiable assurances that it is willing to abandon all efforts to further develop its nuclear weapons potential. This is something it will find very difficult to do in the face of what it perceives as continuing threats of military action by the US. One side or the other needs to make a significant gesture of good will to break the ice. The ball is in North Korea’s court.* I hope that their next move is a significant, sincere and sophisticated one.

* Editor’s Note: The text of this piece is extracted in part from a larger article that first appeared in The Korea Society Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 1.

* Editor’s Note: According to The New York Times of November 6, 2002, North Korea warned on November 5 that “unless relations with Japan are quickly normalized it would resume its testing of ballistic missiles. The thinly veiled threat was issued by an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman less than a week after the first high-level talks between the countries in two years, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, ended in an angry stalemate.”

* Editor’s Note: According to The New York Times of November 7, 2002, Ambassador Gregg, who was on a four-day visit to North Korea in early November, said that “a senior North Korean official had told him the 1994 Geneva framework agreement under which the North promised to stop developing nuclear weapons was ‘hanging by a thread.’” Mr. Gregg also stated that the “North Koreans said they had adopted a ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy toward the uranium issue.”

The New York Times of November 10, 2002, reported that at a November 9 meeting in Tokyo, the “United States, Japan and South Korea called on North Korea…to dismantle its nuclear weapons development program in a ‘prompt and verifiable manner’….[T]he three allies also pledged to seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis caused by North Korea’s recent admission that it had been secretly developing nuclear weapons, in violation of a number of international agreements.”

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President and Chairman, The Korea Society'
United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, 1989-1993