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Sunday, December 4, 2005
Richardson's Trip to North Korea Underscores the Long and Strange Relationship It Has N.M.
By Leslie Linthicum
Of the Journal
North Korea has been called the "Hermit Kingdom," a place so cut off from the rest of the world that only a handful of foreigners has ever been allowed to travel there. Its borders are closed and patrolled by armed soldiers. Visas to visit are rare and doled out erratically. And once inside the country, foreigners are kept in the capital city of Pyongyang and in the constant company of government handlers.
Locked away from the rest of the world, North Korea is a place to wonder about and, as it flexes its nuclear muscles, to worry about.
Curiously, though, some of the most frequent travelers behind the Kimchi Curtain are from New Mexico or have ties here.
Gov. Bill Richardson has been to North Korea five times. Former Gov. Dave Cargo counts two trips. Siegfried Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, also has been there twice. And Tony Namkung, a senior adviser to Richardson and the state Economic Development Department's Asia consultant, has traveled to North Korea more than two dozen times.
"It's amazing, really," said Cargo.
Like the Kevin Bacon game, there are a few degrees of separation between New Mexico's frequent fliers to North Korea but mostly just coincidences.
And New Mexicans have played very different roles on their ventures into the secretive nation.
A one-man show
North Korea is a family business, a fanatic personality cult that has been passed on from father to son from Kim Il Sung (The Great Leader) to Kim Jong Il (The Dear Leader).
Each of the 22 million citizens of North Korea wears a lapel pin at all times depicting the face of the Great Leader and photos of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader are in every building in the country. They are required to hang in every home.
Inside North Korea, Kim Jong Il is a living symbol of the greatness of everything North Korean which, according to its people, is the most advanced nation in the world.
Outside North Korea, Kim and North Korea are symbols of something entirely different.
North Korea, rather than the center of the civilized universe its leaders sell it as, is known for a despicable record on human rights, a faltering economy and a deadly decade-long famine.
And Kim is known as its eccentric leader, a pompadoured recluse whose habits invite comparisons to Elvis or Jacko.
President Bush has called him a "pygmy;" Newsweek magazine called him "Dr. Evil."
One of his biographers, deriding Kim Jong Il for presiding with a silver spoon in his mouth over a famine that killed one in 10 North Koreans, called the short and stout dictator "the one fat man in the country."
His father was even more notorious.
Cargo is the only one of the New Mexico gang of four that has traveled to North Korea who actually met the infamous Kim Il Sung before he died in 1994 and set eyes on the son.
Cargo says the elder Kim was actually a nice guy.
Over a series of two-hour lunches during two-week trips there in 1991 and 1993, Cargo said he never saw a dictatorial monster.
"He was a very intelligent guy," Cargo said. "He was very congenial. Very humble."
But beneath the silver chop sticks and attentive tea service offered American visitors simmers a long-standing hatred of the United States.
Korea, taken over by Japan in 1910, was under Japanese colonial rule during World War II. Japan was required under the terms of its surrender to give up its claim to Korea and the nation was split in two along the 38th Parallel in what was meant to be a temporary arrangement.
It didn't turn out that way. South Korea elected an anti-communist nationalist president and North Korea established a socialist government and declared Kim Il Sung its premier. Two years later, North Korea invaded the South, sparking the Korean War. Three years later, after untold bloodshed, the war ended in a stalemate and the two countries have followed polar opposite paths.
A North Korean official once asked Cargo whether he knew how many bombs the United States dropped on his country during the Korean War. Cargo said he didn't know and was provided an exact number well into the thousands.
To get another view of how the United States is viewed in North Korea, take a look at how Kim Jong Il's official biography describes his experience as an 8-year-old during the Korean War: "He was an eyewitness of the saturation bombing of Pyongyang in which the heinous American imperialist murderers destroyed factories, schools, theaters and houses viciously at random, revealing their true nature as beasts."
In that atmosphere, New Mexicans have managed to hold a cordial relationship with the rogue regime continuously from Cargo's first trip there in 1991 to Richardson's most recent diplomatic mission in October.
More than 20 years after he served as governor, Cargo made the first foray into North Korea from New Mexico. His contact was the Unification Church's Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whom he had gotten to know at a conference in Seoul.
Moon, who grew up in North Korea and became good friends with the elder Kim, wanted to open dialogue between North Korea and the rest of the world and invited Cargo to accompany him on a visit in 1991.
With no agenda other than developing friendships, Cargo and the others spent two weeks at a guest house on the grounds of Kim's presidential palace in Pyongyang. They were taken to visit farms, a locomotive factory, hydro-electric dams and the DMZ. And they had many long lunches with Kim in which, according to Cargo, no topic seemed to be off limits.
Cargo said he remembers Kim telling him he couldn't afford to build the nuclear bombs the world was so afraid he had, but that he would be happy for propaganda purposes to let people think he had them.
Cargo returned to Pyongyang in 1993, during which he got a taste of the younger Kim who now leads the country.
Cargo and five other Americans received an engraved invitation inviting him to a private party with Kim Jong Il. They assembled for the event and their host arrived.
"Kim Jong Il walks in the room and looks at us and leaves," Cargo remembers.
Cargo had a third trip to North Korea scheduled in 1994, he said, which was canceled when the elder Kim died.
He never went back, but he did continue to receive a phone call from North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations in New York every Saturday.
"I had to tell him not to call when the Michigan game was on," Cargo said.
Cargo said one of the calls in 1994 was regarding fellow New Mexican Bill Richardson. Richardson was in North Korea for his first time and was in a standoff with government officials as he tried to win the release of an imprisoned U.S. pilot.
Cargo said the New York North Korean delegation called to ask, "How the hell do we get rid of this guy?"
'Anything can happen'
Richardson, in his autobiography, describes bargaining with North Koreans: "The North Koreans don't much like give-and-take in negotiations; they believe you should give and they should take."
On the plane from Tokyo to Pyongyang in October, Richardson briefed a group of first-timers to North Korea by saying, "Anything can happen. You never know with these guys."
Richardson first traveled to North Korea in late 1994 when he was representing New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District. He was there with the blessing of President Clinton but in an unofficial role to encourage the North Koreans to comply with a nuclear freeze accord they had agreed to earlier in the year.
When he arrived, he found his mission had changed. North Korean soldiers had shot down a U.S. Army helicopter that had strayed into North Korea airspace earlier in the day and the government was holding the pilot who survived as a spy.
Richardson turned the purpose of his trip to the release of the living pilot and the return of the remains of the pilot who had died.
And his first taste of North Korean logic shed light on how negotiating there is not for the faint of heart.
The North Koreans' opening demand was that the United States reimburse North Korea for the cost of the ammunition used to take down the helicopter.
Despite that rocky start and after paying about $10,000 for the long-distance phone calls he made during his stay Richardson negotiated the return of the remains of the one pilot. The surviving pilot was released about a week later.
Richardson returned to North Korea in 1995 as part of continuing efforts to obtain information about U.S. servicemen missing in action in the Korean War and presumed dead.
He went back a year later as an unofficial Clinton representative to persuade Kim Jong Il to sign a formal peace treaty to officially end the Korean War. That mission failed, but a few months later, Richardson made his last trip to North Korea on a non-nuclear matter. He was sent by Clinton to free a 26-year-old American missionary who, drunk and naked, had swam across a river on the China border and illegally entered North Korea.
Frustrated by not being able to meet with the American or find out about his health, Richardson took a pass at humor.
"Can you at least tell me whether he still has his fingernails," he asked.
After a surprised silence, Richardson says, the North Koreans laughed and negotiations began.
Richardson's green chile diplomacy, as it has been called, mixes formal negotiations with informal exchanges.
Richardson says he simply plays it straight on serious matters and has fun with his hosts along the way.
"He knows how to combine moments of levity with serious thoughts," his longtime North Korea adviser Namkung said. "Most diplomats are all about the carrot and the stick and it's obvious when they're using the carrot and when they're using the stick. He's not like that. His style is very human and very disarming."
The Richardson team
When Richardson announced he was bringing a delegation of New Mexicans to North Korea in October, the names were well-known: TV cardiologist Barry Ramo, PNM CEO Jeff Sterba, lawyer Paul Bardacke, New Mexico State University President Michael Martin.
But who was Tony Namkung?
While Namkung has made a couple dozen trips to North Korea on different issues and worked behind the scenes with Richardson for nearly 10 years, he has largely labored in obscurity.
Namkung met Richardson in 1996 when he was coming out of a meeting in New York with North Korea's representatives in the United Nations and Richardson was waiting to go in.
Namkung had made his first contacts with North Korea in 1990. As the executive director of the Asia Society in New York, he was interviewed about North Korea by CNN. North Korean diplomats saw it, called him and were happy to find out he was Korean and interested in their place in the world.
Until 1988, U.S. officials weren't allowed to acknowledge North Koreans with a smile or a hello. Today, the exchanges are still in their infancy and Namkung and Richardson have worked together to try to nudge North Korea closer to nuclear disarmament.
Namkung lives in New Jersey but spends a great deal of time in New Mexico. His role with Richardson is as a senior policy adviser and he is also a consultant to the New Mexico Department of Economic Development to forge new business relationships with Asia.
Namkung has specialized in the type of back-channel negotiations Richardson has favored, unofficial yet sanctioned interactions where subtle messages are conveyed, approaches are tested and trial balloons are floated.
Namkung sees only more of that in the next two or three years as the official six-nation nuclear disarmament negotiations inch forward.
"Under this administration the official channels are not doing very well," Namkung said, "are not functioning as well as they should so that leaves an opening for someone like Gov. Richardson to play a key role."
Namkung's interest in North Korea is intensely personal.
Namkung was born to Korean parents in Shanghai during the years of the Japanese occupation of Korea. His grandfathers were both Ivy League educated one receiving a graduate degree in literature from Columbia University and the other receiving a doctorate of divinity from Princeton.
When Chinese communists overran China, his family moved again and settled in Japan rather than return to Korea where war clouds were brewing.
His father insisted all seven children attend American school in Japan and come to the United States for college.
Namkung has always wondered what North and South Korea might have looked like today had the war not occurred and had people like his parents and grandparents been able to shape its path.
"Maybe that's what helps explain why I've been so deeply involved in this issue," Namkung said. "What has happened in North Korea has not made me a supporter of that regime, not by any stretch of the imagination."
He said he hopes for a united Korea some day where citizens north and south enjoy the full range of human rights.
"At times I feel we're very close to a resolution and then there are other times when I see that fading into the distance," Namkung said. "It's worth the struggle. It gives meaning to one's existence."
The nuclear question
New Mexico's newest entrant into North Korean diplomacy, former LANL director Hecker, has managed to visit the capital city of Pyongyang twice in two years.
Hecker, who still lives in Los Alamos, teaches at Stanford University, where one of his colleagues is John Lewis, an Asian scholar and frequent visitor to North Korea.
Lewis invited Hecker to come along when he was invited to tour North Korea's sole nuclear power plant in 2004.
Because the North Korean government controls who comes in and out of the country and what foreigners do once they're inside, visitors to the nation are always on someone else's agenda.
Hecker said he believes they agreed to show him their nuclear plant to demonstrate their claim that they were a nuclear threat at a time when they were frustrated that disarmament talks were at a standstill.
Nearly two years later, when Richardson won a rare visit to the plant, circumstances had changed and North Korea had different objectives not to flex their muscles but to show their willingness not to fight.
Hecker spent seven hours touring the reactor and the radio chemical laboratory and speaking with the head of the nation's nuclear program in a guest house nearby.
"Given the plutonium," Hecker said, "we have to conclude they are able to manufacture a simple nuclear device and probably have already. They've made a political decision not to own up to that, but the footprints lead directly to that."
Hecker returned to Pyongyang in August, but was denied a visit to the nuclear facilities because the reprocessing plant had not been cleaned of radioactive material.
He was given a tour of an agricultural cooperative, where people farm and live in state-owned barracks, and an experimental farm. He visited a market in Pyongyang where the nation's experimentation with a free market was on display.
On both trips, Hecker said he was struck by how normal such a peculiar place could appear.
When he visited in January, his tourist hotel was decked out for Christmas, with Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer decorations. He received the BBC and CNN in his hotel room and photographed smiling children riding on a tractor in the country.
"All of that is not to say it's a genteel place," Hecker said. "It's a pretty gruesome dictatorship, but it isn't what we expect it to be. Not nearly as grim."
Hecker said his somewhat accidental involvement with North Korea and the paths of other New Mexicans there is as coincidental as it is beneficial to all parties.
"They are people whom the North Koreans have learned to trust to get information in and out," Hecker said. "It's amazing that we're totally separate."
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Eleven years' compulsory education, literacy 99 percent.
Infant mortality is 25 per 1,000, medical treatment is free.
Centralized under the rigid control of the communist Korea Workers' Party. Kim Il Sung served as General Secretary of KWP and President of North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. His son, Kim Jong Il, now heads the party.
Fourth-largest army in the world with an estimated 1.2 million armed personnel. Mandatory military service. One in five men ages 17 to 54 in the armed forces.
One operating 5 megawatt nuclear reactor and plutonium reprocessing facility. Two
abandoned larger nuclear
reactors in process of
SOURCE: Central Intelligence Agency,
World Fact Book