America lost a master diplomat and a wise foreign policy leader when Steve Bosworth died on January 3, 2016, at the age of 76. Most 38 North readers know Steve best for his role with regard to the Korean peninsula, where he has been a towering figure for two decades. But even before that, Steve had left an enormous impact on American foreign policy.
I followed in Steve’s footsteps at many stages of my own career and tried hard to emulate his wisdom and success. The two of us share the unique distinction of having been Ambassador to both the Philippines and South Korea, two treaty allies. We also both were intimately involved in relations with another important Asia ally, Japan. We were working together on a project relating to Korea and China up to his final days.
Throughout his diplomatic career, Steve somehow found himself in situations crying out for his skillful touch, whether it be in Asia or Latin America, or dealing with the most pressing multinational issues of day, including energy security, nonproliferation and democracy promotion. I first met him in the 1970s, when, as a very young diplomat, Steve led consumer country efforts to cope with the Arab oil embargo through the creation of the International Energy Agency in Paris, an organization that has lived beyond crisis to become one if the world’s leading authority on energy issues. I often saw Steve, an office director barely 30 years old, dominate a room full of senior European officials with his keen intellect, sage presence and quiet charisma. Steve knew how to exercise US leadership the right way. I was proud to carry his bag.
I next encountered Steve when he was Ambassador to the Philippines just as the “people power movement,” inspired in part by US calls for reform, led to the collapse of the long-standing Marcos dictatorship. Steve’s cool-headed leadership was crucial to a successful transition. Having helped back-stop Steve from Washington, I agree with what Jim Kelly wrote in another forum: “His was one of the greatest performances by an American Ambassador, anywhere.”
It was based on this experience that I first thought of Steve, who was then heading a Japan-related foundation, as the ideal American to head the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the international organization set up to carry out the nuclear and other energy commitments called for in exchange for the abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He was a proven manager, he knew energy issues, and, above all, his experience in orchestrating the departure of the entrenched Filipino dictator without undue turmoil suggested that he was tough enough to deal with the North Koreans. It may be that KEDO’s aims were so high—complete and verifiable abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for light water reactors and diplomatic relations—as to be unachievable under any circumstances, but Steve and his multinational team at KEDO got the process off to a good start before political support for the enterprise waned in all key countries.
By then, Steve was Ambassador to Seoul, where his first task was also herculean: helping the new South Korean administration under President Kim Dae-jung cope with the devastating impact of the Asian financial crisis, which threatened to destroy the economic heath and prosperity that Koreans had worked so hard to achieve. Steve’s background as an economic officer and his familiarity with US and international institutions available to assist the Koreans were important. But I believe it was above all his cool head and steady presence that played a crucial role in bolstering President Kim’s courage to take the needed steps to restore financial stability and open the economy to the trade and investment required for future economic growth.
In the meantime, the process of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula continued to face its ups and down throughout his tenure. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, Steve played a critical role behind the scenes in the Perry Process designed to test North Korea’s nuclear intentions and to reinvigorate the process he had begun at KEDO. When Steve finished his term as Ambassador we were all pleased to see him proceed to a successful academic career at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, but relieved to see him remain active on North Korea through Track 2 activities. Given his dedication to peaceful resolution of the issues dividing the Korean peninsula, I was not surprised that he answered the call of duty when President Obama asked him to return to lead efforts to build productive dialogue with North Korea seven years ago. It is tragic that Pyongyang was not prepared to accept the opportunities offered them at that time.
North Korea’s conduct of a fourth nuclear test suggests that Steve left us just when we need him most. North Korea’s progress toward an operational nuclear weapons capability is an urgent matter that calls out for problem solving diplomacy of the kind Steve Bosworth exercised throughout his career. We need to be tough with North Korea, just as Steve always was, but we also need to be open to dialogue if it can open avenues to constructive solutions. It is time for toughness as well as creative diplomacy. We will miss the master.
Thomas C. Hubbard is senior director for Asia at McLarty Associates and specializes in Asian affairs.
See other memorial essays about Amb. Stephen Bosworth here.