No Hostile Intent: A Look Back at Kim Jong Il’s Dramatic Overture to the Clinton Administration

North Korea announced last week the death of Marshal Jo Myong Rok, a powerful figure in the North Korean armed forces, and for many years one of Kim Jong Il’s closest associates. Jo will probably be best remembered for his historic trip to Washington in October, 2000, when he became the only North Korean official to visit the White House and meet the President of the United States. In this excerpt from his book “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis” (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), author Mike Chinoy, CNN’s former Senior Asia Correspondent and currently a Senior Fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, recounts that meeting, with its promise of a breakthrough in U.S. relations with North Korea—a promise that was never fulfilled.

* * * * * *

It was the uniform he wore that everyone would remember. It brought to mind a Soviet general of bygone era—dull green, gold braid and epaulettes, a chest covered with medals. The whole effect was jarringly out of place at the 21st century White House. Yet on the morning of October 11, 2000, Marshal Jo Myong Rok of the Korean Peoples’ Army, the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to visit Washington, walked into the Oval Office, saluted sharply, and extended a hand to President Bill Clinton. As an official photographer snapped away, Clinton, exuding his customary charm, escorted the tall, dignified Jo to a chair by the Oval Office fireplace, the seat of honor for foreign dignitaries. In the last months of Bill Clinton’s waning term in office, the unthinkable was happening. Two adversaries in one of the most enduring conflicts of the Cold War were talking about making peace.

New York Times coverage of Marshal Jo Myong Rok's White House visit with President Bill Clinton (October 11, 2000)

Jo’s official title was “First Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” a title befitting the top military officer in North Korea’s equivalent of the politburo and the top party figure in the army. A veteran of the Korean War, he was in Washington as the personal envoy of North Korean ruler, Kim Jong Il. 

Sitting across from Jo and Clinton were the leading members of the President’s National Security team—Madeleine Albright, former Ambassador to the United Nations and the first female Secretary of State; National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, an associate of Clinton from his first presidential campaign; and the small group of policy advisors and North Korea specialists who had spent most of the past few years struggling to deal with the endlessly intractable problem of North Korea.

Catching his first glimpse of Jo’s uniform, Chuck Kartman, the lead negotiator in Washington’s frequently torturous dealings with Pyongyang, silently sucked in his breath. Kartman had been designated to meet Jo the previous evening. At Washington’s Dulles Airport, Jo had been wearing a business suit and had seemed almost grandfatherly to Kartman. Always crafty, the North Koreans had told none of their American interlocutors of Jo’s intention to wear his Marshal’s uniform to the White House.

Is this really the photo op we want on page one tomorrow? Kartman wondered to himself.

The same thought occurred to Charles “Jack” Pritchard, a soft-spoken 28-year army veteran with a background in intelligence. Since 1996, Pritchard had been an Asian expert at the National Security Council and now served as Senior Director for Asian Affairs, as well as Kartman’s deputy negotiator with the North Koreans. In preparing for Jo’s visit, Pritchard had explicitly asked North Korean officials whether the Marshal would wear his uniform, and had been told no. Wary of the North Koreans’ obsession with winning the psychological upper hand, as the Clinton meeting approached,  Pritchard worried over how such an image would play in the American media, and with the administration’s political opponents, who were eager to jump at any chance to criticize efforts to engage North Korea.

The uniform did not surprise Wendy Sherman. Thin, intense, with cropped silver-grey hair, a confidante of the Secretary of State, highly skilled at navigating Washington’s treacherous bureaucracy, Sherman had been a key player in pushing the Clinton administration towards engagement with Pyongyang. Her first reaction to Jo’s agit-prop was a grudging professional respect. “For everybody who is in diplomacy,” she recalled, “you appreciate a good piece of choreography. And that was a good piece of choreography.”

The symbolism was indeed powerful. Jo Myong Rok’s uniform symbolized the unity of the army and the party behind Kim Jong Il’s engagement with America. Still, the potential for awkwardness in such an encounter was obvious.

“It was a somewhat stiff meeting,” recalled Sandy Berger. “In full-dress regalia, he was a fairly imposing figure. It was very formal. He was not there for chit-chat.” Chuck Kartman, however, detected what appeared to be an edge of anxiety, a judgment shared by Gary Samore, the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Non-Proliferation. Beneath the severe formality, “Jo was very, very nervous,” Samore recalled. “He was shaking like a leaf,” presumably aware of the dire consequences that could await him from an angry Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang if he failed in his mission.

Now, as Bill Clinton and Jo sat next to each other, the President glanced at a brown folder the Marshal held in his hand and asked, “Is that a letter for me?” With a flourish, Jo stood up, as did Clinton, and formally handed over the leather folder, which Clinton accepted graciously and immediately opened. Inside was a letter from Kim Jong Il, in Korean, along with an English translation provided by the North Koreans. While everyone else in the room waited in silence, Clinton read the document. Chuck Kartman and Jack Pritchard both winced. Before Jo’s arrival, they and others had briefed Clinton, alerting him that the North Korean would likely be carrying a letter. Being cautious diplomats, they had urged the President that, instead of accepting it directly, he hand it off to one of his aides. That way, Clinton would not be placed in the potentially awkward position of feeling compelled to respond without adequate consideration of its contents. Clinton, with a more finely tuned sense of the moment than his advisors, ignored them.

Instead, with his famous Clinton charm, the President turned to Jo and said, “This is a good letter.” In the document, Kim Jong Il had indicated North Korea was prepared to cease the production, sale, and use of long-range ballistic missiles—the central concern of American policy at the time. Marshal Jo followed that moment with another bombshell. On behalf of Kim Jong Il, he said, he was inviting the American President to visit Pyongyang for a summit meeting to seal a missile deal. “If you come to Pyongyang,” Jo said, “Kim Jong Il will guarantee that he will satisfy all your security concerns.”

Then Jo said something that appeared strikingly out of character for a North Korean general. In what Jack Pritchard recalled as almost a “pleading” tone, Jo said to Clinton “I need to secure your agreement to come to Pyongyang. I really need to take back a positive answer.” To some observers in the room, the plea reinforced a sense that Jo, for all his clout, was desperate not to displease Kim Jong Il by returning with bad news, with the potentially grave personal consequences that might ensue in North Korea’s harsh system.

Clinton, of course, was non-committal. But in Chuck Kartman’s view, the President “intuited that it was important that the North Koreans come away with the belief, deep down, that he stood behind the premise that we could normalize relations if we could get the (missile) deal. Furthermore, Kartman recalled, “his relaxed and friendly body language didn’t need translation. Clinton understood, in a way that perhaps most of us would not have, that this was all about establishing your personal rapport, this wasn’t about the language, the substance of making a deal. This was about carrying back a feeling that ‘okay here is somebody that we can trust and whose word will be good’. So he had turned on the charm.” It was a radical departure from decades of hostility—a signal to Jo and, by extension, to Kim Jong Il—that the U.S. was not irrevocably committed to being North Korea’s enemy.

As Clinton spoke, the other Americans were struck by how visibly the North Korean general relaxed. “Jo’s mission, in retrospect,” said one U.S. official, “was to get Clinton to take Kim Jong Il seriously. That was his charge. As soon as the President spoke, you could see and feel that something in that room had occurred on the North Korean side that was extremely important.” The meeting had gone well. As Wendy Sherman noted, by the time the two men exchanged farewell handshakes, “We all knew there was something real here. Kim Jong Il was ready to do a deal.”

As Jo Myong Rok left the White House for an afternoon of sightseeing (for which he changed clothes and wore a western-style suit), Wendy Sherman and her team accompanied First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju and the rest of the North Korean delegation to a set of offices on the first floor of the State Department that was normally used by transition teams during a change of administration. There, the team from the State Department and their North Korean counterparts began a round of intensive discussions over the wording of a communiqué. The discussion was wide-ranging. Kang had brought with him what Sherman felt was a thoughtful, substantive proposal on the North’s missile programs. “Unexpectedly constructive” was the way Madeleine Albright described it in her memoirs, raising the possibility, in her view, that a Clinton-Kim Jong Il summit “might well produce an agreement in principle that, if fleshed out, could make East Asia less dangerous.”[i]

The big sticking point was the desire of the North Koreans to nail down a commitment for President Clinton to visit Pyongyang.

“Clearly, Jo had been given the instructions—you cannot leave there with this proposal on the table without a commitment that Bill Clinton is coming to Pyongyang,” noted Wendy Sherman. “We said presidents don’t come. Summits get prepared for presidents. And the communiqué—the big squabble was what the communiqué would say to indicate that the president might come.”

The two sides went back and forth for hours haggling over language that would not commit Clinton to visiting but that would give Jo enough cover to be able to return home without facing the wrath of Kim Jong Il.

As newspapers across the country gave front-page play to the photograph that Kartman and Pritchard had worried about—Clinton and Jo sitting by the Oval Office fireplace looking stiff and uncomfortable together—the joint communiqué was issued. It marked a historic milestone in the tense relationship between the two long-time Cold War adversaries. The communiqué’s most important declaration emphasized that both sides were “prepared to undertake a new direction in their relations.” As a crucial first step, the two sides stated that “neither government would have hostile intent toward the other and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.”[ii]

The reference to no “hostile intent” was critical. Since the early 1990s, Pyongyang’s goal had been to achieve a fundamental change in the adversarial relationship with the United States, to ensure that Washington would no longer view—and treat—North Korea as an enemy. The communiqué committed the U.S. to just such a position. As to the issue of whether Clinton would go to Pyongyang, the two sides fudged the question by announcing that, “Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will visit the D.P.R.K. in the near future to convey the views of U.S. President William Clinton directly to Chairman Kim Jong Il of the D.P.R.K. National Defense Commission and to prepare for a possible visit by the President of the United States.”[iii]

According to Wendy Sherman, “This formulation basically gave an indication that if things went well, he would likely come.” Pyongyang’s eagerness to move ahead was palpable. After the language about Albright and Clinton was agreed, Sherman remembered, “They said if the Secretary is going to come, she can come next week. And we said that Secretaries of State usually do not come in a week. Particularly to a place where we had no embassy and no infrastructure. It just can’t happen. And they said how about two weeks? And it ended up being about two weeks after this meeting that we went to Pyongyang.”

[i] Madeleine Albright, “Madame Secretary,” p. 460.

[ii] U.S.-DPRK Communique, U.S. State Department, October 12, 2000.

[iii] Ibid.

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