‘So long as we’re divided, we cannot be world citizens’
Tony Namkung, a long-time consultant on North Korea, is best known as a key middleman who has since the 1990s facilitated secret meetings between Washington and Pyongyang.
The former deputy director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has for around 20 years maintained friendly relations with some of North Korea’s powerful elites, namely diplomats.
This includes the new North Korean foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, and Choe Son-hui, a deputy director general of the U.S. Affairs Department of the North’s Foreign Ministry.
Choe made headlines for declaring that the “six-party talks are dead,” referring to the long-stalled denuclearization dialogue also involving China, Japan, Russia, the United States and South Korea at the half-governmental Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue in Beijing on Wednesday.
Namkung was born in Shanghai and comes from a prominent Christian family in North Korea. To escape the onset of Communism in China, his family moved to Japan, where he attended an American school in Tokyo. He studied abroad in the United States on a South Korean passport, though he had never been to South Korea at that point. After graduating from Calvin College in Michigan, he received his doctorate degree in Asian history from UC Berkeley.
He weighed in on North Korea issues as he sat for an interview with Kim Young-hie, a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo, on Tuesday during a visit to Seoul.
Q. How many times you have visited North Korea so far?
A. I believe about 60 to 65 times.
You met many of North Korea’s elites, particularly Foreign Ministry people, outside North Korea.
Yes, in third countries as well as in the U.S. When relations between North Korea and the U.S. are going fairly well, we meet often in the U.S. Otherwise, always in third countries, often in Southeast Asia.
You have played a significant part in bringing together this 1.5-track meeting between Pyongyang and Washington. How many times have you done that?
I’m not sure exactly how many times, maybe 15 to 20 times. But over 25 years, on average once a year maybe.
Where? Again, it depends on the administration in the U.S. During the Clinton administration, all of them took place in the U.S., and even during the second Bush administration, there were some meetings in New York and elsewhere.
Now that Ri Yong-ho is the foreign minister and Choe Son-hui, your friend, is getting promoted, is it safe to say that your role will be more meaningful from now on?
I think what would be safe to say is that this is the first time a foreign minister has become a member of the Politburo — even though he is an alternative member. This shows that the Foreign Ministry is playing a more important role. So I expect my role also to be enhanced. But it’s not for me to decide, obviously.
Do you have a plan to visit Pyongyang soon?
Yes, I would like to. I don’t have any specific plans at the moment, but sometime in the next two to three months, I’m hoping to.
Tell us about Ri Yong-ho’s position with regard to Chairman Kim Jong-un. Does Ri have easy access to Kim, and does he make policy recommendations to him?
The second question is much easier to answer. He certainly is very much at the center of policymaking and works closely with the Chairman Kim in that respect.
Whether he has free and easy access to him several times a day, that sort of information is top-secret, and I have no access to that. But if you look at the only published photograph of their national security committee or council meetings, you will see that the First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan is seated to the immediate left of the chairman, while Hwang Pyong-so and Choe Ryong-hae are seated at the other end of the table. This suggests that the top leadership of the Foreign Ministry is in very close contact with decision-making authorities.
As you know, inter-Korean relations are in an impasse, and a breakthrough is not within sight. Do you think Ri Yong-ho and his colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will try to make a breakthrough now that the party congress is over? Will Ri Yong-ho’s promotion to minister make a difference in the near future or some time later?
There are two points to make in this regard. One is that there is a near obsession, if that is not too strong a word, in the Foreign Ministry with the need to improve relations with South Korea. By that, I do not mean their perspective is similar to that of the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland or that of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee or any of the other party organs which tend to look at inter-Korean ties as relations between brothers. The Foreign Ministry prefers to look at relations with South Korea in terms of state-to-state relations.
And secondly, being the Foreign Ministry, they are in charge of foreign policy and diplomacy, and they must deal with the issue of the United States when they deal with South Korea. In the other channel, it is possible to deal with South Korea independently of the United States, for example on the divided families or tourism or trade and investment. But on hardcore security matters, obviously the U.S. has got to be involved for both North and South Korea. So the Foreign Ministry is paying a great deal of attention to its relations with South Korea.
North Korea has conducted its fourth nuclear test, and immediately after that, President Park Geun-hye closed the Kaesong industrial park. As of today, inter-Korean relations are at their lowest point. What do you suggest to the Korean government to make a breakthrough?
I think step No. 1 is for any administration in the ROK to empower its Foreign Ministry to deal directly with its counterpart in the North through secret meetings, unofficial contacts, and whatever means, if necessary, to try to pull the U.S. State Department into that kind of unofficial conversation either through three-way Track-2 seminars or some other means.
At the moment, the administration here does not seem to regard this approach as being particularly useful since it does not think of the Foreign Ministry either here or in the North as anything more than an instrument to implement policy rather than make policy.
But we have to remember that in the North, these people are making policy. They are of course recommending them to the leader, but are themselves the principal architects of the policy, whereas here, I don’t have the sense that people are actually in the business of formulating policy. So this is what I mean by empowering the Foreign Ministry to do its work in a more robust manner.
To give more responsibility to the Foreign Ministry? Yes, and many people are not aware of how extensive the personal contacts already are between senior Foreign Ministry people on the two sides through various contacts in the past, with many of them secret. These people know each other, personally. They’ve gotten drunk together.
You don’t find this in the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland or Asia-Pacific Peace Committee line of the Unification Ministry. Their channel is likely to break up right away over issues that anger one side or the other. These people on the Foreign Ministry side are professional diplomats. They are trained to discipline themselves and treat each other with diplomatic finesse. So this is a much better channel for settling the big issues of missiles and nuclear development and the peace treaty.
North Korea is under the strongest-ever international sanctions. Do you think it can survive these sanctions? Seoul and Washington have collapsism theories.
Well, I am getting older now, but this collapse business is not going to happen in my lifetime, I can assure you. I have seen too many predictions of this over the years, and with increasing regularity.
If we would only refresh our memories about how many times we have repeated this mantra — only with more pressure, the regime will collapse — we should have learned our lesson by now that this is a government that has been in place for over 70 years.
In a year or two, it would have lasted longer than the Soviet Union. Despite all the things that happened after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it’s still standing. This alone should make you pause and wonder, maybe there’s something going on here that we don’t fully understand, and that we need to understand better so that we can achieve some kind of result that is good for both sides.
That reminds me of Norwegian paxologist Johan Galtung’s remarks. He said that collapsism would collapse before the collapse of the Pyongyang regime.
(Laughs) I quite agree with that.
If Hillary Clinton becomes the next U.S. president, my guess is that there won’t be immediate change in the North Korea policy from the Obama administration, whereas if Donald Trump gets elected, it will be very risky for the outside world and he may change the North Korea policy for better or for worse.
If Donald Trump is elected and he approaches North Korea in the way in which he’s been talking, inviting Kim Jong-un to the U.S. and having a hamburger with him and striking a deal, the North Koreans will walk all over him. That could never lead to any permanent lasting solution. Never.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a little bit more of a hard-liner than President Barack Obama. We know she is going to be quite tough and probably maintain this sanctions regime and maybe even try to toughen it some more. But if she has a second term, I believe that like President George W. Bush, she will try a different track.
Our president has a huge aversion to using back channels. What is the merit and demerit of using back channels?
The demerit, of course, is that you cannot fully control what someone from the private sector does or says. The merit is that such individuals are able to float trial balloons or they can convey some impressions so that the government can deny any responsibility, if necessary.
More people in South Korea argue that we have to go nuclear, too, and there is little the U.S. can do to keep South Korea from doing so because it needs Seoul as an ally.
Well, ironically, if the ROK does that then it will be in the same boat as Donald Trump, and this will only lead to increasing proliferation in the region. The whole point of North Korean diplomacy is that the U.S. is providing their nuclear umbrella to South Korea, which is why it must talk to the U.S. Any attempt to reach a final solution with the South alone will not work because of the presence of the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is the U.S. government.
But some South Koreans say our business is to keep ourselves safe.
All the more reason for South Korea to take the diplomatic lead and empower the Foreign Ministry to be able to lead on this issue before the situation becomes worse.
The issue has something to do with deterrence. Can we trust U.S. deterrence when North Korea will have fully developed re-entry technology and miniaturization and lightening of nuclear warheads that can reach New York and Washington? Can we still count on the U.S. to protect us at the risk of New York and L.A.? That’s our concern.
At the moment, that sounds more like a movie. I can see theoretically how at some point down the road, let’s say 10 or 15 years from now, that could be a realistic scenario, but I think we still have ample time to work out these issues.
Now that it believes it has a strong nuclear deterrence, North Korea, paradoxically, is going to become more flexible in my opinion. It will be able to look at things in a broader way, for example, toward the direction of reducing its defense budget for conventional arms, as it has already begun to do, diverting those resources to the civilian economy, hence the increase in standard of living that we have seen especially in Pyongyang over the last three or four years.
My prediction is that it will, again paradoxically, be able to be a little bit more broad-minded than it has in the past when it was forced to rely on economic aid, food aid, in times of great distress. I think what the ascension of someone like Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho means is that people who have dealt with him from all of these countries know him very well and know him to be a man of moderation, always in search of solutions, diplomatic ones.
I think that they will try some new diplomatic tactics, and it will be very interesting for us to observe those in the years to come, beginning with his visit to the UN General Assembly this fall. As you know, the foreign minister usually goes to the Assembly, but for him to go to the meeting for the first time is something quite different.
It will be interesting to see whether he issues the same call for a peace treaty as his predecessor, Ri Su-yong, or if he tries something new. I know him fairly well, and I believe that he will try to be quite inventive and creative in the period ahead. So South Korea should take advantage of that and attempt to play a stronger role with respect to persuading its ally in Washington to hold talks necessarily on a secret basis. The North Koreans in general are always very welcoming of secret talks.
The dilemma is this. North Korea is insisting they’ve already had nuclear weapons and technology, so they have no interest in denuclearization talks any more. Can this be changed?
I do not believe the North has abandoned the goal of denuclearization, despite official statements that appear to say otherwise. If they perceive other parties to no longer pose a threat, they will agree to denuclearization. This has been made clear in both official and unofficial statements.
What do you want to achieve as a middleman going back and forth between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington. What is your goal?
I would like to see the Korean people assume their rightful place on the world stage. And that means the two Koreas living in some kind of peace with one another. I have no illusions over whether we can achieve reunification. This will not happen for many, many years to come.
But peaceful coexistence is another matter. And so long as this division exists, I don’t believe Koreans can assert themselves as world citizens.
And until this issue is resolved, there can be no true Korean culture.
We are having a presidential election next year. If the opposition party takes office, we can expect a summit and the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tourism facility. How will Washington react to that?
I think this is very hard to predict this particular scenario because we don’t know who the precise characters are on both sides.
As a middleman who is connecting the most isolated country in the world and the outside world, what’s your No.1 rule? And while you were playing the role, was there any tricky or awkward situation that you would maybe prefer not to remember?
My first rule is never to insert my own views into the situation but to convey the various parties’ policies faithfully. This is called the work of an “honest broker.” I cannot recall a time when I violated this rule or did or said anything that was embarrassing.
BY KIM YOUNG-HIE, SARAH KIM [email@example.com]