Pyongyang's "Diplomatic Dream Team"
Pyongyang’s negotiators are a diplomatic “dream team” handpicked by titular head of state Kim Yong Nam and his deputy Kang Sok Ju, first vice minister of foreign affairs.
Despite their extensive travel outside North Korea and relatively unrestrained access to information from all corners of the world, Pyongyang’s veteran negotiators retain an unwavering loyalty to Kim Jong Il, his ideology, and their nation. Rarely will a team member mention Kim Jong Il by name, instead preferring the phrase “the highest level of our government.” Early in the U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks, North Korea’s chief delegate opened each session with a long, rambling political polemic. Obvious U.S. boredom eventually halted the practice.
The team’s worldview is typical of North Koreans. It is anchored in the view that all Koreans, North or South, share their nation as the focal point and victim of centuries of great-power rivalry. In North Korea, this international rivalry is expressed in Marxist-Leninist jargon. Domestically, however, North Koreans view their political and social systems in Confucian terms. Confucianism’s goal is social harmony. This is possible only when individualism, the source of anarchy, is suppressed and one’s aspirations and conduct merge with those of society as a whole to better serve the common good.
North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, established a political system that blended selective elements of Marxism-Leninism with Confucianism. He placed himself at the apex of this highly stratified sociopolitical pyramid. Reinforcing this philosophical outlook is an extensive array of “carrots and sticks.” Diplomats and their families, for instance, enjoy access to the nation’s best educational institutions, employment for their spouses either in the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang or at diplomatic posts abroad, and ample economic compensation that includes access to modern living quarters in Pyongyang; the best food and clothing available in North Korean society; and, of course, frequent travel abroad. Breaking with the system would exclude one from these “carrots” and expose both the individual and their family to the “sticks” of possible ostracism, even imprisonment.
A Hierarchy of Negotiators
Like so much in North Korean society, the “dream team” is hierarchical. Members are divided into groups similar to the “strings” on an athletic team in the United States. There appear to be at least three “strings.” The first string works directly with Kim Jong Il in the formulation of policy and strategy for dealing with the United States. The second string now represents Pyongyang at the six-party talks and is responsible for liaison with the United States. The remaining string provides various types of support to the other two teams.
Overseeing the entire operation is the first string of Kim Yong Nam and Kang. Kim Yong Nam, who served for a decade as North Korea’s foreign minister, is Kim Jong Il’s mentor and most trusted civilian adviser. Kang is Kim Yong Nam’s closest deputy and Pyongyang’s chief negotiator and master tactician regarding dealings with the United States. Whenever U.S. delegations have called on Kim Jong Il, both Kim Yong Nam and Kang have been present. The current foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun, plays a limited role in policy toward the United States; this is Kang’s “turf,” a claim he earned as North Korea’s chief negotiator in U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations in 1993-1994.
The second string, responsible for day-to-day negotiations, is headed by Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Gye Gwan. (North Korea has several vice ministers, but they distinguish themselves based on their area of expertise. Highest ranking of the vice ministers is Kang.) His deputies are Li Hyong Chol, former director of North American affairs, and Li Gun, the current director of the same office. Both served together in New York as deputy permanent representatives to the United Nations. The current North Korean deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Han Song Ryol, also is on the second team.
Tae Yong Jung and Pak Myong Kuk are prominent members of the third string. Like Han, they have accompanied Kim Gye Gwan and Li Gun to the six-party talks. Jung’s formal title is acting director-general for American affairs on the Flood Damage Relief Committee (FDRC). Formed in 1995, this interagency committee coordinates humanitarian relief matters between North Korea and international relief agencies, foreign governments, and private groups. Jung oversees the coordination of all related humanitarian activities between his government and U.S. official and private humanitarian aid agencies. Pak Myong Kuk, or “Big Pak,” as he is known because of his height, is an expert in consular affairs.
The Korean People’s Army (KPA) asserts strong influence on North Korea’s foreign policy and negotiations but is not allowed to be present during actual negotiations. Other attempts at military-to-military cooperation have generally foundered. Since 1994, KPA has sought to open its own, separate channel of direct communication to the U.S. military. Its aim is to replace the long-established channel through the Military Armistice Commission to the United Nations Command (UNC). The effort thus far has been in vain despite occasional general-to-general talks between both armies.
Under the banner of “humanitarian” issues, the U.S. and North Korean armies decided in May 1996 to conduct joint operations to recover the remains of U.S. military personnel who died in North Korea during the Korean War. Despite the UNC’s opposition, the agreement opened a direct channel between the two armies but only for this purpose.
Kim Yong Nam—The Decision-Maker
Kim Yong Nam, whose official title is president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, links the team to the “Supreme Command.” Born in 1925, Kim graduated from Kim Il Sung University, North Korea’s leading university, before going abroad to study in Moscow during the Korean War. Upon his return in 1954, he began working in the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) International Affairs Department. Kim rose steadily through the KWP’s ranks. By 1970 he was elected to the Central Committee and in 1978 became a member of the Political Bureau.
Early in his career, Kim caught the attention of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Appointed vice minister of foreign affairs in 1963, Kim Yong Nam accompanied Kim Il Sung on trips to the Soviet Union, China, and Romania. It is believed that Kim Yong Nam has made at least 15 trips to foreign nations. In the 1980s, Kim Yong Nam served as foreign minister, a post he held until Kim Jong Il promoted him to premier after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994.
In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union faltered, Kim concentrated on rallying the Non-Aligned Movement’s (NAM) diplomatic support for his nation, its leader, and his juche ideology. The NAM is an association of developing nations that claimed to fill the diplomatic and ideological middle ground between the Soviet Union’s communist bloc and the United States-led Western bloc of capitalist nations. Kim’s successful promotion of Pyongyang’s ties with NAM members, especially in Africa and the Middle East, combined with his adroit diplomatic skills and ardent loyalty to Kim Il Sung won him the unwavering trust of the “Great Leader” and his son.
After the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, Kim Yong Nam visited New York in September 1992 to represent North Korea at the United Nations’ annual gathering of the General Assembly. I was the first U.S. diplomat to meet and engage him in substantive conversation. At the time, the abrupt reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet-led communist bloc in Eastern Europe, and the bankruptcy and evaporation of the Soviet Union had discredited the communist ideology. Even China, in the wake of the Tiananmen uprising and welcoming of foreign investment, appeared destined to turn to capitalism. Prospects for the North Korean regime’s survival and its nationalistic brand of socialism seemed bleak.
Yet, during lunch together, Kim Yong Nam confidently asserted that North Korea would hang on. When pressed to explain his prediction, he said that North Korea’s leadership was superior to that of all other communist nations.
Kang Sok Ju—The Strategist
Kang has long served as the first vice minister of foreign affairs. Born in Pyongyang in 1939, he has followed the same career path as his mentor Kim Yong Nam, with whom he has worked for more than 30 years. After graduating from Kim Il Sung University, Kang rose through the ranks of the KWP International Affairs Division during the 1970s and began dealing with foreign diplomats in 1986. Kang is thoroughly acquainted with the United Nations, delivering North Korea’s acceptance of membership speech when his country was admitted to the international organization in 1991.
At the end of 1992, it was Kang who engaged in the first formal negotiations between the United States and North Korea regarding the recovery of the remains of 8,100 U.S. military personnel left behind in North Korea during the Korean War. Soon thereafter, Kim Yong Nam entrusted Kang with responsibility for North Korea’s diplomatic effort aimed at the United States. Kang proved to be a shrewd and tough negotiator during the 1993-1994 negotiations with the United States that culminated in the Agreed Framework intended to solve North Korea’s first nuclear crisis.
In October 1993, when the talks were stalled, a U.S. representative visited North Korea to meet Kim Il Sung. During the meeting and luncheon, Kim Il Sung and Kim Yong Nam demonstrated complete confidence in Kang by repeatedly calling upon him to respond to the representative’s questions regarding the negotiations. Each time that Kim Il Sung called on him, Kang would rise slowly, look toward Kim Il Sung, bow and begin his response by uttering the honorific Korean phrase used in pre-modern times to address the Korean monarch.
Kang shares Kim Yong Nam’s deep distrust of the United States. When I first met Kang in 1992, he told me that he and his family had survived the U.S. bombing of North Korea’s capital during the Korean War. After one raid, Kang recalled, his father sent him back into Pyongyang’s still smoldering ruins to retrieve the family’s genealogy. Kang, speaking with obvious bitterness toward Americans, said the city was so devastated that he could not locate the neighborhood where his family had once lived.
Kim Gye Gwan—Chief Delegate
Kim Gye Gwan heads North Korea’s delegation to the six-party talks. Although Kim Gye Gwan appears docile, he is one of North Korea’s most experienced negotiators. Prior to 1993, he traveled widely in Europe. Fluent in French, Kim Gye Gwan served as ambassador at large and maintained ties with socialist parties in Western Europe. Then in 1993, Kang designated Kim Gye Gwan his deputy in the first nuclear talks with the United States. At the first round of those talks, while Gallucci and Kang were dining in a private room, Kim Gye Gwan teamed up with his U.S. counterpart, East Asia Bureau Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Hubbard, in a separate private room. During their entire time together, Kim Gye Gwan spoke in flawless French while Hubbard struggled to recall the French he had learned. Fortunately, the more significant conversation had taken place between Gallucci and Kang with the help of accomplished interpreters.
Eventually, Kim Gye Gwan headed the North Korean team that negotiated a key understanding with the United States. He also headed North Korea’s delegation to the inconclusive four-party talks that brought together representatives from Seoul, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Washington to address Korean peninsula issues. Patient and calm, he prefers persistence and persuasion over confrontation to achieve his goals.
Li Gun – Kim Gye Gwan’s Deputy
Li Gun is Kim Gye Gwan’s deputy on North Korea’s delegation to the six-party talks. He is the opposite of his colleague Li Yong Ho. Li Gun tends to talk tough, but he can be disarmingly candid and occasionally humorous. Li apparently learned his English while stationed in Havana where he listened to radio stations in Miami. Li Gun has a reputation for solving problems and getting things done. From 1994 to 1996, as deputy director of North American affairs, he excelled at implementing aspects of the Agreed Framework.
Beginning in 1996, his efforts proved invaluable in opening the way for the U.S. Army to return to North Korea to locate and recover the remains of U.S. soldiers who had been left in North Korea during the Korean War. In 1997, Li Gun teamed up with his mentor Li Hyong Chol and came to the United States to open the liaison section at North Korea’s UN mission in New York. Li Gun accompanied Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, Kim Jong Il’s special envoy, to Washington, D.C., in October 2000. After the Bush administration assumed office in January 2001, Li Gun teamed up with Li Hyong Chol to return to Pyongyang. There, Li Gun continues to serve as deputy director-general of North American affairs at the Foreign Ministry. He also headed the North Korean delegation to the so-called three-party talks among Beijing, Pyongyang, and Washington in April 2003 that set the stage for the six-party talks.
Han Song Ryol – Link to Washington
Han Song Ryol is the junior member of Kim Gye Gwan’s team at the six-party talks. Han is a rising star in the Foreign Ministry. He first served in the United States as an assistant to Ambassador Ho Jong at the North Korean UN mission beginning in the fall of 1993. He also served on the North Korean delegation to the nuclear talks between 1993 and 1994. Han remained in the United States until 1997 to assist with implementation of the Agreed Framework. He then returned to Pyongyang to serve as the deputy director of the Foreign Ministry’s North American affairs division. Between 1997 and 2002, Han proved an astute liaison between his government and Americans visiting North Korea. Late in 2001, Han returned to New York to head up the U.S. liaison office in North Korea’s mission to the United Nations and was promoted to deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. Soft spoken, Han speaks fluent English and has developed a comprehensive understanding of U.S. politics and policy and trends in U.S. public opinion.