Not long after news reports that the State Department was changing horses mid-stream in its North Korea negotiating team, James Church happened to be going through stacks of paper on his desk. He ran across this interview with Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, from May 2010. Naturally, he immediately called Inspector O on his new cell phone.
“Let me guess, you were in a dark bar where the girls wore dresses slit up to here,” said Inspector O. His voice was loud and clear, none of the static and pops that we normally had in phone conversations.
“No, we weren’t in a dark bar. We were in an undisclosed location. The only thing we were drinking was coffee, rather weak coffee. Everyone was dressed quite soberly.”
Inspector O laughed. “You slay me sometimes, Church. All right, spill it. What did he say? Did you slap him around?”
“I told him I’d studied interview techniques and didn’t think water boarding would be necessary.”
“You took that off the table? You were talking to Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, and you didn’t tell him that you had ruled nothing out? He must have walked all over you.”
This was meant to nettle me, which it did. I replied in kind, never a wise move with the inspector. “Guess what?” I said. “I’ve talked to you plenty over the years. This time, for a change, I figured it might be interesting to interview someone who knew something.”
“O-ho, so, why did you pick a fictional character, like the Special Representative for North Korea Policy?” From my silence it was clear I wasn’t going to take the bait, so Inspector O continued. “What were the ground rules for this love-fest, or have you forgotten?”
“None,” I thought a moment. “Well, one actually. I ordered a bowl of mush, and told the ambassador if in response to any question he felt obliged to repeat the standard US Government line, all he had to do was point to the bowl and we could just move on.”
There was a longish silence on the other end of the line. I knew what it meant.
“Don’t smirk at me, O. There’s no cause for it. As a matter of fact, he didn’t invoke that privilege.”
“You expect me to believe that you just asked questions and he just answered? In Hidden Moon they knocked me out a few times during questioning.”
Again, silence. “Hurt like hell,” O said at last. “They used ash, very tough wood.”
“I know; I wrote it.”
“So it’s rumored.” The inspector coughed nervously, which he does when remembering things best forgotten. “Did you ask him about their hackneyed line on buying horses?” (See “A Horse of a Different Color.”)
“I did. We chatted a little about press spokesmen in general.”
“You’re getting oblique. Sort of fading in the precision department. All that diplo-speak must have rubbed off on you.”
“OK, then let me be precise. If you want to hear about the interview, this is how it will go down. I’m not going to tell you everything he said, and that’s final. The ground rules are very ‘Simple Simon.’ You sit and listen, take notes if you want. I’ll relate the conversation, more or less as I see fit, and we do it in one go, no interruptions.”
“No interruptions, that’s the deal. You keep quiet, I’ll keep talking.” I narrowed my eyes, which unfortunately has little effect over the phone.
“OK, Charlie Rice, take it away.”
“Rose, but never mind.”
Notes of Discussion between James Church and Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, Mid-May 2010, Mid-Atlantic location
James Church: Good morning. Let me express my appreciation for your accepting my invitation. Secretary of State Clinton said you would be “our” senior official handling North Korea issues, reporting to the Secretary of State, as well as to the President. By “our” did she mean the State Department or the US Government, I wonder? I ask because readers are interested in the decision-making process and your role in it in an effort to get a better sense of how the policy has emerged.
Ambassador Stephen Bosworth: Decision-making is complicated. I didn’t expect people would be turning to me every single time an issue came up. Moreover, building a policy is an iterative process. I have a strong and distinct voice in the policy formulation.
[JC: Question almost asked: The Secretary also asked you to oversee US efforts in the Six Party Talks to achieve the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner. So, how’s it going? ]
(Question actually asked: The Secretary noted you will serve as “our”—there’s that word again—senior emissary for US engagement with North Korea, in close consultation with our allies and partners. I’ve noticed you have spent a lot of time in close consultation with allies and partners. How much time have you been able to spend with the North Koreans? Do you think a little more time talking with them would be fruitful? (In print this looks snide, but it was said in nonjudgmental tone of voice.)
Amb. B: With North Korea, you’ve got to engage; without that they do reckless things. In the early weeks of this new administration, that was generally the view held at all levels. But in the first six months, our ardor was unrequited. The North greeted us with a missile and then a nuclear test. People were taken aback. We labored on and eventually, with a lot of coaxing, primarily from the Chinese, the North Koreans began to get back to the table. But by that time, there was a certain skepticism that had developed.
JC: Along those lines, if you got back to Six Party Talks, what do you imagine the second sentence in your talking points would be?
Amb. B: We have been using the time to coordinate with each other, to cement relations with our allies, and expand areas of common interest with China and Russia. The concentration of multilateral approach is a reflection of a new reality, a new context in Northeast Asia. Unlike the 1993-94 period, the US can’t do this by itself without close coordination.
For me, the great differences on coming back to this issue in government after 10 years away were that first, North Korea can credibly say it has a nuclear capability, which makes the situation much more difficult than it was earlier, and second, the overall context is now very different. China’s role is different than it was, and South Korea is stronger and more self-assured.
JC: In the wake of the sinking of the South Korean ship (NOTE: a reference to the March 2010 sinking of an ROK naval vessel, see below), some who used to be staunch advocates of Six Party Talks want to abandon them. I’m not sure that’s much of a punishment for the North, but anyway…
Amb. B: There is an inherent tendency to view talking as a reward for good behavior. But if you get consistently good behavior, the urgency for talks wouldn’t be there.
As to what form the talks take, the structure may vary depending on the sets of issues. If, as I told the North Koreans, we aim to be engaged in simultaneous talks on the nuclear issue and a peace regime, we will need very different configurations. For the latter, there are only four parties—North and South Korea, the US and China. Japan has interests, of course, but not direct involvement on a peace regime. The Russian have interests in a peace regime on the peninsula, but are even more interested in the question of denuclearization.
Once Six Party Talks resume, there will be ample opportunity and need for bilateral progress. A multilateral umbrella makes the bilateral much easier.
I think we’ll get back to the Six Party Talks. There is no acceptable alternative. Everyone is looking for a demonstration of a serious change in the North’s behavior, and that is not likely to occur in a vacuum. For now, we need to demonstrate to our allies that we have empathy and sympathy for their position. There has to be some form of accountability, implied or explicit. Prior to the Taepodong test (NOTE: in April 2009), we said actions will have consequences, and that has to be serious.
JC (eating a spoonful or two from the bowl of mush before deciding to use a technique taught to him by Inspector O, something called “changing the subject”): You were Executive Director of KEDO and the American Ambassador to the Republic of Korea. I could ask you who was harder to deal with, but I won’t.
Amb. B: I would have given you my standard answer—the Fletcher faculty is the most difficult.
JC: (What comes next is somewhat out of order, because the ambassador addressed the issue near the beginning of the interview, before I got around to question. It fits nicely here, though). Let me ask, what lessons did you learn dealing with the North Koreans while you were at KEDO, and have you been able to apply any of those lessons in your current capacity?
Amb. B: I tell people that the North stuck to agreements once reached. It was hell getting them to an agreement, they would nickel and dime us to death, but once an agreement was reached, it held.
JC: Have you ever wondered what would have happened if KEDO had been able to continue work on the light water reactors—would the North have gone ahead with a nuclear test October 2006 and risked giving up those reactors, the first of which at that point would have been not that far from completion?
Amb B: (The answer in so many words: Silly question.)
JC: The North Koreans say they are going to build their own LWRs. (NOTE: Bear in mind this interview occurred six months before anyone from the outside visited the site and actually saw the construction.) Apart from “good luck,” what would you say about that?
Amb. B: The last thing in the world the North Koreans need are light water reactors to solve their energy and economic problems. Big reactors like that would destroy their electric grid.
JC (playing the human interest card with absolutely no ulterior motive): What’s your favorite book?
Amb. B: (Without missing a beat.) James Church novels. Also I’ve been reading Travels with Herodotus. I’ve also recently read The Little Ice Age. I also read some Lee Childs.
JC: Yes, fine. (Sticking with the literary theme and demonstrating a deep knowledge of poetry gained from a recent Google search) A poet once said: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” Do you already sense where this is leading?
Amb. B: Make nice to the North Koreans?
JC: No, I’m leading up to the issue of visas for the North Korean State Symphony orchestra. Is it such a momentous political decision to let them play in this country?
Amb. B: If things were in a talks-mode, this would be easy. (The bowl of mush may have quivered slightly, perhaps because of a truck rumbling along the street outside.)
The ambassador and I then exchanged notes on the North Korean symphony orchestra, which he had heard during a trip to Pyongyang in January 2008, shortly before joining the administration.
We then resumed with a question I didn’t ask and so he never had a chance not to answer it: I could pose the question what do you think the US will do when the North Koreans roll out their next space launch vehicle, but I won’t—unless you want to say something about that.
JC: (This I did ask.) Things have been going almost steadily downhill in inter-Korean relations for the past two years. Today the South stopped shipping sand from the North. Let me end with the incident in March in Korea’s West Sea, the sinking of the ROK navy corvette with the loss of 46 lives.
Several years ago, the claim of the Republic of Korea that the Northern Limit Line was a territorial boundary was pretty widely accepted by everyone except for the North Koreans and those few people who knew what the NLL actually was.
Today, it seems somewhat more commonly accepted that the waters around the NLL are “contested.”
There was some movement by the two Koreas in years past to address the issue and take steps to make clashes less likely because of those contesting claims. Since January 2008, however, the ROK has seemed a lot less interesting in that course.
(There followed a discussion of where things might go, the importance of accountability, and finally the larger value of engagement even for the most difficult and seemingly intractable of problems. On the latter, Ambassador Bosworth highly recommended the writings of Chester Crocker, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.)
JC: So, what’s next?
Amb. B: Engagement has gotten a bad reputation, and has become connected in people’s minds with ‘making nice,’ picking off the easy agreements first that don’t change anything. My view is that engagement is an attempt to make the other party adjust its perceptions and behavior. In the process, we may find that we have to adjust our own.
An abstruse discussion followed on the use of the term “tragedy” in relation to various recent events. From there things moved to this final thought from the ambassador:
When a younger generation of historians writes the history of this period, let’s say the years 1985-2015, their judgment may be that the real tragedy for both Korea and the region was that the hopeful developments and opportunities of the late 1990s were squandered.
JC: Again, thank you for joining me on the set of the new “James Church On the Road Show.”
“Is that it?” Inspector O asked when I’d finished. He paused. “Hang on one a second, would you?”
I heard footsteps, a clatter of crockery and cupboard doors slamming, then the Inspector’s voice again, annoyed.
“Can you send me some tea? I’m all out.”
Ambassador Stephen Bosworth served as United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1997 to 2000. He was Executive Director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) from 1995 to 1997 and previously served as Ambassador to Tunisia and the Philippines. He has visited North Korea several times and was until stepping down recently, Special Representative for North Korea Policy, as well as the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.