Opinion: Former US Ambassador Laments 'Failures' on North Korea

I often refer to North Korea as "the longest running failure in the history of US intelligence." I can say that because as a CIA officer, I fruitlessly pursued the North Koreans for many years. As a diplomat, I can also say that North Korea has been almost a total failure of our diplomacy.

As U. S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993, I worked hard to lay the basis for improved diplomatic relations between North and South Korea, and between North Korea and the United States. All this was undone due to a lack of coordination between our Departments of State and Defense. Today, the US posture of "strategic patience" toward Pyongyang still confounds those of us who believe in dialogue.

I have gone over in my mind the varying interactions I have had with “the two Koreas,” beginning in 1952 during the Korean War, when I trained young South Koreans for crude and ill-conceived CIA operations against the North, from which few survived.

In January, 1968, serving in Tokyo, I was the CIA representative on a task force formed to determine how best to retaliate against Pyongyang after its seizure of the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-gathering ship operating off the east coast of North Korea. We decided that an attack on North Korea would probably result in the crew being killed, and the re-starting of military hostilities, so did nothing. The crew was returned 11 months later. The Pueblo sits on the shore of the Taedong River in Pyongyang, a popular tourist attraction.

Station Chief Seoul

I was sent to Seoul as CIA chief of station in 1973, with a top objective of gathering human intelligence on North Korea, of which we had practically none. North Korea was clearly an active enemy at that point, digging invasion tunnels under the DMZ, and in 1974, sending an agent from Japan who shot at President Park Chung-hee, missed, and killed his wife. North Korea proved to be an extremely difficult target, and I returned to Washington in 1975 with virtually nothing to show for my intelligence gathering efforts against Pyongyang.

On the plus side, the CIA had played a central role in keeping opposition politician Kim Dae-jung alive after he was abducted by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency from a hotel in Tokyo in October 1973.

In September 1989 I returned to Seoul as ambassador. The United States had become deeply concerned by North Korea’s clear intention to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. The US still had tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, left over from the Korean War. This was widely known, though never admitted by Washington. I knew that as soon as we began to pressure the North on the nuclear issue, they would raise the fact that we had nuclear weapons in the South. A year after my arrival, with the full support of President Roh Tae Woo and the commander of USFK, a recommendation was sent to Washington that our nuclear weapons be withdrawn from South Korea.

Denuclearizing the Peninsula

This was accomplished a year later, and on December 18, 1991 President Roh announced that there were no nuclear weapons in South Korea. On December 31st, North and South Korea signed the “Joint Declaration,” calling for a denuclearized peninsula, and promising to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Earlier in 1991, the commander of US forces in Korea and I had got the Pentagon and the Korean Ministry of Defense to cancel the annual “Team Spirit” training exercise for 1992. This was a yearly re-enactment of America’s rushing to South Korea’s aid in response to the surprise attack from North Korea in 1950. Pyongyang hated the exercise, and always put itself on an extremely high military alert level in response.

Broken reconciliation under Bush 41

These two decisions paved the way for eight prime ministerial meetings between the North and South in 1992, and the prospects for a general reconciliation were higher than ever before.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the “Team Spirit” exercise was reinstated in March 1993. Neither the State Department nor I were consulted, and I was taken totally by surprise by a decision that undid all the progress made between Seoul and Pyongyang in 1992. In March 1993, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and resumed its march toward nuclear weapons.

A year later, I was working in New York City as chairman of The Korea Society. On May 19, 1994, my first Op-Ed appeared in The New York Times. It was entitled “Offer Korea a Carrot.” In it I said: “North Korea does not want to be taken over by South Korea as East Germany was taken over by West Germany, and South Korea does not want North Korea to collapse economically, imposing a staggering burden that the South cannot assume.”

The fact that over 21 years later the same words clearly apply is a sad indicator of the lack of progress in dealing with a stubborn remnant of the Cold War, though efforts toward reconciliation continued.

High point of US-Pyongyang Relations

In December 1997, Kim Dae-jung was elected president of South Korea. He invited me to his inauguration, and in a private meeting in the Blue House he urged me to “Plant the flag of The Korea Society in North Korea.”

I immediately began to make efforts in that direction. Among other things, I introduced the North Korean foreign minister to an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September 1999. And I was fortunate to be invited by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to attend a lunch in Washington for Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, given by Vice President Al Gore in October 2000. I consider that event to have been the high point of Washington’s relations with Pyongyang. President Bill Clinton was invited to visit Pyongyang, and came close to doing so, but his time in office ran out.

And then in early 2002 came President George W Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, which paved the way for our misguided invasion of Iraq, completely soured our relations with Iran and befuddled and enraged the North Koreans.

Regrettable ‘Strategic Patience’ Under Obama

I have made six trips to Pyongyang in a private capacity since April 2002, but little or nothing has been evoked from Washington by my trips or my detailed reporting. In November 2002, when I hand-carried to the White House a written offer from Pyongyang to begin a dialogue, I was quickly told “No, we won’t do that—it would be rewarding bad behavior.” To my surprise and regret, President Obama has followed more or less the same attitude, which has come to be known as “strategic patience.”

On 25 April 2014, the New York Times carried a long piece by David Sanger discussing the consequences of Washington’s having underestimated Kim Jong-un by virtually ignoring him via employment of “strategic patience.” Sanger quotes an unidentified administration official as saying “You could argue that the best North Korean strategy now is to get a deal with Iran and use it as a model for the North about what the world can look like.” About a year later the nuclear deal with Iran had been negotiated, but nothing has been done about North Korea.

On Nov. 13, in announcing the imposition of additional sanctions on North Korea, Treasury Under Secretary Adam Szubin had this to say in the New York Times: “North Korea’s continued violation of international law and its commitment to the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction pose a serious threat to the United States and to global peace and security.”

In a conversation several years ago Henry Kissinger said to me that there were two ways of looking at North Korea. One was to see Pyongyang only in terms of its being a nuclear threat, and to concentrate our efforts solely on denuclearization. He said that that would not work because the North Koreans would only consider giving up their nuclear weapons if they had come to trust us, and they would never trust us if we did not talk to them.

In order to deal with Pyongyang effectively Kissinger said that North Korea’s overall evolution away from totalitarian rule had to be seen, and encouraged, as part of the developing situation in Northeast Asia. He also noted the longer we continued to confront Pyongyang solely on the nuclear issue, the slower that evolution would be.

I very much agree with Kissinger, with whom I have met with North Koreans on more than one occasion. On Nov. 15, I had two short conversations with Kissinger, before and after which he gave a presentation. He confirmed his belief in the need to reach out to those we oppose in order to find common ground with them. He was strongly in favor of working with Russia to destroy ISIS, while still working to reconstruct Ukraine.

Kim’s Version of ‘Strategic Patience’

In bringing this hitherto rather gloomy article to a close, there is one very positive note to strike. And that is the performance of Kim Jong-un in improving the North Korean economy and downplaying nuclear threats and nuclear weapons development. As Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute recently put it, Kim is adopting a North Korean version of “strategic patience” toward us.

The problem is that this message is not yet coming through clearly in the US. We continue to hear predictions of collapse and calls for regime change. In addition, the increasing flow of critical books by North Korean defectors and escapees keeps Western focus on human rights violations and the egregious conditions in Pyongyang’s prison camps and gulags. This is highly discouraging to those who believe that dialogue is the way forward.

I regret having to say this, but in the US today there is zero political support for advocating any sort of outreach to Pyongyang.

My hope is that at this year’s 7th Party Plenum, Kim Jong-un will officially announce economic development as his primary goal, having established a satisfactory level of nuclear deterrence. Such a non-threatening posture would make it easier for moderates in South Korea to reach out to the North with more confidence and enthusiasm. Therein lies the best hope for North-South reconciliation.

Donald P. Gregg is now chairman, Pacific Century Institute. He previously served as a CIA official and as ambassador to South Korea. This was written for the East Asia Foundation. Reprinted with permission