In the ornate Reves Room of the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary, I was sitting at the dinner table next to Ambassador Li Gun, North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations and the public face to the Western World of that isolated and strategically important country. This was quite a few years ago, but the scenario remains the same.
Li, who rarely made public appearances, visited the college and met for an off-the-record roundtable discussion with a select group of students, faculty and community members.
Ambassador Li reviewed the recent history of relations between North Korea and the United States, with emphasis on continuing the policy of engagement, the possibility of academic exchanges between the two nations and the importance of reciprocal responsibilities assumed under the Agreed Framework nuclear agreement.
One of the architects of that agreement was Mitchell Reiss, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Reiss, as the chief negotiator for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, an agency responsible for a $6 billion project that was set up to entice North Korea to adhere to its commitment to freeze and ultimately eliminate its nuclear weapons program, spent more time in North Korea and interacted more with high-ranking North Korean officials than any other American diplomat.
During Ambassador Li’s visit, Reiss served as vice-provost for international affairs at the college and director of the Reves Center.
The project Reiss was involved in was ultimately abandoned, and North Korea resumed its nuclear weapons development program. But Reiss gained a unique understanding of the forces governing the world’s most secretive and intransigent regime.
In the wake of so many failed negotiation efforts with North Korea to secure an agreement that would guarantee a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, most published reports describe the North Korean leadership as irrational and unpredictable.
But Reiss disagrees. “The father of the current dictator, Kim Jong-un, was willing to negotiate. He saw the nuclear program as a bargaining chip,” Reiss said in a previous interview with the Gazette. “Kim Jong-un sees his nuclear weapons as his only insurance policy against regime change.”
My interaction with Ambassador Li during the dinner at the Reves Center also confirmed that the right incentives could intice the North Korean regime to be more conciliatory and accommodating.
I mentioned the reconciliation between the United States and Mao Zedong that China started with a ping-pong match between the two countries athletes. I asked Lin whether North Korea’s outstanding gymnastic athletes couldn’t play a similar role in U.S.- North Korea relations. He immediately instructed his secretary sitting at the table to take notes.
Alas, a year or two later, Lin Gun, as North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, meeting with James Kelly, who at that time was assistant Secretary of State, told him that North Korea already has some nuclear weapons and it is “up to you whether we do a physical demonstration or transfer them.”
Now, President Trump’s approach to the North Korean leader is to promise him future prosperity if he gives up his nuclear weapons. But even if Kim Jong-un would be willing to do so — an unlikely prospect — the regime elite, the recipients of all the privileges in that impoverished country, would prevent it.
Thus, according to experts, all that can be expected from a Trump-Kim summit is a lessening of tensions between the two countries, temporary accommodations and “kicking the can down the road,” just as in the past.
One day, a North Korean “Gorbachev” may emerge and make the Korean peninsula a nuclear-free zone.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected column. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.