• Olympic Optimism from the North Korean Spy I Met

    February 12, 2018

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    Posted in: Trump

    Secretary of State Tillerson left open the possibility of Vice President Mike Pence meeting with North Korean officials alongside the Winter Olympic games. He would be the highest ranking American official ever, since North Korea was founded, to do so. At the same time, North Korea is to send its highest ranking official ever to the South, Kim Yong Nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state and president of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Is this a long shot at an opening?


    It’s easy to be cynical, but I look at this from a unique position. See, I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun with a fanatical, patriotic North Korean spy and watched her choose to blink, and you haven’t. It’s why watching the run-up to the Olympics, with levels of cooperation and kinship unseen for years between the two Koreas, I find myself allowing optimism to peek in between the shades.

    The details must remain a bit sketchy but at one point during my years working for the State Department at the American Embassy in Seoul I found myself inside a cell of a foreign intelligence organization alone with a North Korean spy. I’ll call her Ms. Park here, but I have no idea if even her “real” name was real (other identity details altered below.) She’d been arrested for espionage. She was on a hunger strike.

    I was there because Ms. Park may have acquired American citizenship along her complex life journey and one of my jobs at the embassy was to look after the welfare of incarcerated American citizens. Ms. Park was trying to starve herself to death to avoid cooperating and it was my task to provide her the same assistance I would any other American in jail. It was a long shot, but my job was to convince Ms. Park not to die.

    Over a handful of visits, with a nurse employed by the embassy now with me, I watched Ms. Park starve herself to death. She was trained to do so. She took small sips of water, she explained, to keep her higher brain functions active enough to allow her version of logic to push back against the survival instinct. She was unshakable in her loyalty to her cause. She told me she would eventually begin to give up secrets if she lived long enough, and everything she devoted her life to said she should indeed starve herself to death to prevent that.

    I did not speak about politics, and Ms. Park came not to trust me, but to at least understand my role was not to pry information from her. So we spoke of family, mine at first to fill the air, then at one point, hers. Her son liked the elites’ amusement park he once had access to. There was a day when Ms. Park bought him shaved ice, some sweet flavor that reminded her of the fruits she ate in the west but which her son never tasted in real life. Even as the embassy nurse whispered to me Ms. Park’s vital signs were reaching a critical point and that we should schedule a second visit even that afternoon “in case,” I saw Ms. Park stare down the barrel of a rifle she held herself, and understand her duty. She asked for rice.

    Ms. Park is just one person, but she is exactly the kind of person you would least expect to change. She is one of the reasons I continue to believe there is a path that will not lead to war on the Korean Peninsula.


    The essence of North Korea is written into the national philosophy of juche, which above all emphasizes survival. The Kim family has been remarkably good at that since 1948. They endured total war, the collapse of their patron the Soviet Union, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. North Korea exists under a survivalist philosophy, not an apocalyptic one. A senior Central Intelligence Agency official confirmed Kim Jong Un’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

    The path to some form of peaceful co-existence on the Korean Peninsula lies in understanding survival, and that means North Korea can never denuclearize, a precondition the United States has insisted on negotiating forward from. If denuclearization was ever possible, perhaps through some form of security guarantee, the chance was lessened in March 2003 when a Saddam Hussein who had lost his weapons of mass destruction found his country invaded by the United States, and then lost in December 2003 when Muammar Qaddafi agreed to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, only to find himself in 2011 deposed under American bombs.

    One Korea University professor argued Pyongyang’s leaders felt “deeply satisfied with themselves” after Qaddafi’s fall. In Pyongyang’s view, the Libyans “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.” Only a national leader bent on suicide would negotiate away his nukes in 2018 after that.

    The last serious attempt at finding a path forward with North Korea was in October 2000, when then Secretary of State Madeline Albright went to Pyongyang without preconditions. A flurry of quiet diplomatic activity followed (I was in the embassy in Seoul and saw it first-hand) as both sides began building the connective tissue, the working-level personal and bureaucratic ties essential to getting down to business; progress is hard to make when even small details have to rise to the national leadership. One outcome was a series of extraordinary family reunions between North and South, among relatives who had not seen each other since the 1950s. The reunions were major media events in the South.

    Enthusiasm from the American side dipped sharply after the election of George W. Bush, and the process collapsed completely in 2002 after Bush chucked North Korea into his “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and Iran. The last attempt to restart talks took place in February 2012, soon after Kim Jong Il passed away and Kim Jong Un, his son, took over North Korea. Washington and Pyongyang held limited discussions resulting in a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and other activities. The agreement fell apart following a (failed) North Korean satellite launch, and a later successful nuclear test in February 2013. Diplomacy has otherwise not seen much trying for the last five years.


    Why might there be hope now? Since 2013, North Korea’s ability to deliver more powerful weapons via more accurate missiles has grown. Through one lens, that increases the threat to the United States (Seoul, within range of overwhelming numbers of conventional weapons, is nonplussed; their destruction has been assured even prior to the North going nuclear.) Looking at the weapons development from Pyongyang’s perspective, however, offers a different picture: the more powerful weapons create a more realistic deterrent. To a regime that values survival at its core, that creates a very different starting point for negotiations than in 2000.

    The second factor is a long shot – Trump. Trump seems unworried about maintaining a consistent policy position. He favors showmanship, the Big Play. His conservative flank is covered. One can imagine Trump being convinced his legacy could be that of Nixon opening China; the tarnished president who nonetheless is remembered for changing history.

    The key lies in removing the precondition any talks be aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea, and in understanding diplomacy with North Korea is never going to be a straight line. That setbacks will occur cannot be a predetermined definition of failure. Among other complications, Kim Jong Un will need to work any progress with America past the hardliners in his government.

    Kim Jong Un is indeed the supreme ruler, but to imagine he rules without consultation from, at minimum, his generals, is simplistic. Sending the 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam as his representative to the Olympics is a significant choice; Kim has been a Communist Party member since the pre-WWII Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, has served all three North Korean rulers, was formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs, has extensive overseas experience, and as a veteran of the 1950 war, has unimpeachable credibility inside the government. The U.S. has also carefully and quietly kept Kim Yong Nam off any sanctions list, ostensibly because he is not directly involved in nuclear development.

    Despite that level of bureaucratic protection, Kim Jong Un will still need to balance conciliatory steps forward with bellicose gestures directed at a limited but important domestic hardline audience. Perhaps not unlike Trump, who may be covering his own hand by sending Fred Warmbier, the father of student Otto Warmbier, who died after being incarcerated by Pyongyang and returning to the U.S. in a coma, to attend the Olympics alongside Pence.


    North Korea is a nuclear state. That is the starting point to any deconfliction on the Korean Peninsula, not the end goal. Finding peace under those conditions is a long shot, but sometimes those pay off.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...


      Libyan regime change folly exposed forever and thoroughly the duplicity of the USA’s diplomatic assurances. Everyone today knows the USA wants war not peace. That is Obama’s lasting legacy.

      02/12/18 10:33 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Peace? Where is the money in that? Trumpie would be happy if State disappeared. More guns, less talk. What could go wrong?

      02/12/18 4:41 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer- America sells a hell of a lot of modern era “Peacemakers” around the globe and makes a handy profit. They are all “defensive” weapons of course and only to peace loving nations or tribes.

      My caption for the new Obama POTUS official portrait. Obama in silent rueful repose: “I’m a fake and have always been a fake”
      His regime change folly in Libya is Obama’s legacy. NK and Syria have taken notice. Never ever trust the Americans except to betray you.

      02/12/18 5:08 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Eisenhower recognized in a speech given to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, on Apr. 16, 1953, the consequences of allowing the military-industrial complex to wage war, exhaust our resources and dictate our national priorities are beyond grave:

      “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

      02/13/18 7:00 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      PVB- your optimism suggests you still don’t get what America is all about. We don’t want “peaceful coexistence” between countries. We want nations to see all others as enemies and adversaries so we can sell them weapons (the means to defend themselves) The USA doesn’t want the two Koreas to coalesce. The USA wants a world on the edge of military conflict. That won’t ever change! It is not in our DNA.

      02/13/18 5:15 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Tillerson as facilitator at a foreign conflict resolution meeting. “I’m here to get you two to get along but just in case I fail I’m leaving behind some brochures on “defensive” weapons packages that my country has to offer.”

      02/13/18 10:51 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Mad Men truth in advertising: We have become Death, destroyer of the World.

      More guns, please.

      02/14/18 8:07 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Free Stormy Daniels!

      02/14/18 9:06 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Trump’s conservative flank will turn on him when that hooker peepee tape surfaces,

      02/14/18 10:54 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Trumpists paid $130K to buy Stormy’s silence. What is the cost of keeping the peepee tape on the QT?

      02/14/18 11:20 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Who is scared of North Korea? They don’t have to do anything but watch US kill ourselves.

      More guns, please. And less news about gun violence. No one gives a shit or we would do something about it.

      02/14/18 9:58 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      And let US permanently keep the flag at half staff to show how impotent we are.

      More guns, please.

      02/14/18 10:15 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      And eliminate background checks for gun purchasers. Give them all interim clearances, like the goofballs in the Russia Whore House.

      More guns, please. CNN is desperate for ratings!

      02/14/18 10:27 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Well, since we won’t do anything about the easy access to slaughter machines like AR15s, obviously the answer to preventing these mass murders is to homeschool our kids.

      02/14/18 10:38 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “To a regime that values survival…”

      Too bad that doesn’t describe US.

      02/15/18 3:33 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      NRA motto: No lives matter. Only gunprofiteers do.

      02/15/18 7:05 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      America, the home of the MAD to the MAX

      MAD MAX was an Australian post-apocalyptic movie. They don’t shoot mass-killer movies in Australia like this anymore. Those fools got rid of assault rifles. Of course, the NRA doesn’t control its elected officials.

      This sign should be posted at every port-of-entry to warn visitors to this Mad MAD country:


      02/15/18 7:50 PM | Comment Link

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