Steve Bosworth: An Appreciation

Stephen Bosworth as US Special Envoy for North Korea, pictured in 2009.
(Image: Pool/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Steve Bosworth was my boss, my mentor and my friend. By the time I first met Steve, he had already had a highly successful first career as one of America’s most distinguished ambassadors. A mutual friend, Bob Gallucci, introduced us and asked if we would like to start a new organization, not even yet officially named, that would implement the 1994 Agreed Framework nuclear deal between the United States and North Korea.

It is hard now to imagine how controversial this deal was back in 1994, but some flavor can be gleaned from the fact that it was on the hit list of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America that helped propel the Republicans to recapture the House of Representatives after 40 years as the minority party. The downside of our participation was clear, while the upside, well the upside was pretty much unknown since we would literally be breaking new ground by attempting to build two nuclear power reactors in North Korea in return for the North’s elimination of its nuclear weapons infrastructure. To be very clear, Steve had far more to lose than I, since he would be the most senior official and public face of what came to be known as KEDO (for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization). From our initial meeting, I recall most how sanguine, calm and thoughtful Steve was as we discussed the pros and cons of whether we should accept the State Department’s offer. In retrospect, it was obvious that he intuitively understood the stakes, and the opportunities, far more clearly than anyone else, and was even quietly bemused by the political controversy that swirled around the deal. He had a blend of moral courage, determination and resilience that I would come to know and admire greatly during our time together over the next few years.

KEDO’s beginnings could not have been more humble—a rented office with a temporary secretary in New York City. We quickly staffed up, as South Korea and Japan sent us their very best Foreign Service officers; a year or two later, so did the EU. Steve made it a priority from the start that we forge a common culture and identity as members of the same KEDO team. This was no easy matter, as in addition to cultural divisions, the nuclear deal was similarly controversial in Tokyo and Seoul. But the wisdom of Steve’s approach was borne out as the team coalesced to the common challenge of negotiating agreements with Pyongyang, and then ensuring that they be implemented.

KEDO’s first Deputy Executive Director from South Korea, Choi Young Jin, was fond of saying that Steve was the very best type of leader—smart and cautious. What he meant was that Steve gave his lieutenants clear guidelines and then trusted them to do their jobs, while he focused on the top-tier issues, relationships and strategy that only the CEO could address. Steve’s judgment was excellent, and, when combined with a world-class temperament, meant that KEDO had a very steady hand on the tiller. This firm leadership was absolutely essential as we quickly grew our multinational staff (we moved into larger office space toward the end of our first year) and as we navigated uncharted seas, whether delivering monthly quotas of heavy fuel oil to Nampo, struggling to receive funding from our member countries, or staring down threats from the North Korean negotiators to break off talks and restart their reactor at Yongbyon, just to name a few of the myriad challenges KEDO faced. Through it all, Steve was unflappable and a great source of strength to me personally and to the entire team.

No appreciation of Steve is complete without some recognition of his sense of humor. It could be characterized as understated, wry or even wicked, and all three would be correct. That was certainly the case when I invited Steve to lunch to commemorate our first “anniversary” at KEDO. Steve selected one of his favorite places, a Jewish deli called “Sarge’s,” not an obvious choice, to say the least, for a farm boy from the Midwest. During lunch, I thanked Steve for giving me the opportunity to help start and build the organization. Steve didn’t even look up from his sandwich; he replied in an even voice, “Mitchell, not a lot of people wanted the job.”

Another memorable occasion occurred at one of our early morning staff meetings. By this time, we had been negotiating with the North Koreans for almost a year and were intrigued by the reflexive devotion of the North Korean delegation to the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, and the likenesses of him they always wore on their lapels. We decided that we had our own Dear Leader and so had badges made with Steve’s likeness on them. We all arrived at the staff meeting early, with Steve’s face beaming from our lapels. No one said a word when Steve walked in and started the meeting. After a minute or so, he sensed the anticipation in the room and then saw the badges. He sat back in his chair to fully take in the scene, showed a hint of a smile, and then continued the meeting. Classic.

Of course, Steve eventually left KEDO to become a ground breaking ambassador in Seoul and subsequently Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, helping to further internationalize the school, adopt new programs and generally reposition it for the 21st century. Fletcher could not have asked for better ambassadors than Steve and his wonderful life partner, Chris.

Steve will be missed greatly by many people around the world. Today, to honor his memory, I plan to wear on my lapel, once more, the badge with my “Dear Leader.”

Mitchell Reiss is the President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 

See other memorial essays about Amb. Stephen Bosworth here.

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