It was an unusual event. On Thursday, July 11, the Asia Society presented a program about the Search for Peace with North Korea. The official title of the program was “Avoiding Apocalypse: Searching for Peace with North Korea.”(1) Such a title is in itself an unusual event for a program about North Korea as it stresses the desire for peace with North Korea, instead of focusing on the all too often claims of the impossibility of progress in improving the US-North Korean relationship.
Former Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson and Ambassador Donald Gregg, former US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, were the speakers with ABC’s Jon Williams in the role of moderator. The program did indeed stand out in the sense that the speakers made a serious effort to propose both the reasons and the possible means to build a dialogue between North Korea and the US.
Governor Richardson opened the program by asking the question, “How do we improve the relationship?” He argued that, “Isolating North Korea doesn’t work.” Instead, he proposed the need for what he called “out of the box diplomacy.”
One such proposal he made was the need for a special UN envoy to help find a peaceful resolution to the Korean peninsula conflicts. He recalled that the UN used to have an envoy, a Canadian, Maurice Strong. Richardson suggested that the current Secretary General, Ban Ki moon appoint an envoy. Richardson also considered the potential of a sports diplomacy, or something along the lines of the NY Philharmonic that had been so successful a few years ago.
Richardson gave as an example of the need for serious attention to the problem of the poor relationship with North Korea, the recent experience of shutting down Kaesong, the joint Korean program which provides 50,000 jobs for North Koreans in factories owned by South Koreans. This is the first time in the history of that program that the bad relations led to the shut down of this program, he noted.
“Some creative thinking is needed,” Governor Richardson argued. Whether that be the appointment of a special envoy, or something else to be done by the UN, or something by the media, some kind of thinking has to evolve, Richardson explained. What’s happening now is not good, he concluded.
Ambassador Donald Gregg’s contributions to the program reflected a similar sense that the US needed to do more to engage with the North Koreans. Gregg spoke about how Syracuse University had set up a program more than 10 years ago providing information technology training for North Koreans. Gregg was critical of the US failure to recognize that the US had the potential to influence the situation, instead of handcuffing “themselves” with policies like “strategic patience”.
Ambassador Gregg related how when Kim Jung Un first came on the scene, Gregg had encouraged the US government to invite him to visit the US. This proposal, however, like others Gregg made to the US government, were not accepted by US officials.
Another example described by Gregg recalled an incident in the early 1990s. Recognizing the antagonism of the North Koreans to the US–South Korean military exercises each year, Ambassador Gregg had gotten the Pentagon to cancel the exercises one year. This was welcomed by the North Koreans and provided an opening for talks. Instead, however, without consulting Ambassador Gregg, the then US Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney got the military exercises put back. The result was that North Korea threw out the IAEA inspectors and a crisis developed. Describing this experience, the US State Department country director for Korea at the time, Charles Kartman commented, “People were looking for clubs not solutions.”
In response to a question about the nuclear umbrella that the US provides to protect South Korea and Japan, Gregg related an incident where North Koreans suggested that they be included under the US nuclear umbrella as a means for them not to feel the need to have their own nuclear program. Ambassador Gregg proposed that there is a need for an understanding to develop between the US and North Korea and that such an understanding can only come as a result of contact.
Governor Richardson proposed that new players were needed who could help develop a relationship between the US and North Korea. He answered positively to a question from the audience about whether ASEAN might be able to play a bigger role. In general, Richardson advocated that the those from the region be a source of help in opening up the relationship with North Korea.
A video of the July 11 program has been put online at the Asia Society. The title is, “Searching for Peace with North Korea”.(2)