Stephen Bosworth, ‘consummate diplomat’ brought his values to the table

Special to WorldTribune.com

DonKirk3By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com

American ambassadors to South Korea pursue a fine line between defense of the U.S.-Korean alliance and pursuit of North-South reconciliation.
If they seem hell-bent on military goals, they’re accused of trying to push Korea into a war that nobody wants. And if they appear overly eager for talks, they appear unrealistic about the North’s intentions.

Stephen Bosworth, as ambassador to South Korea during most of the presidency of Kim Dae-Jung, gave every impression of enthusiastically supporting DJ’s Sunshine policy of reconciliation with North Korea. At the same time, he had to defend U.S.-Korean relations against attempts by anti-U.S. forces to undermine not only the alliance but the U.S.-Korean friendship.

Stephen Bosworth, U.S. diplomat.
Stephen Bosworth, U.S. diplomat.

That was a tall order, but Bosworth, who died last Sunday in Boston at the age of 76, managed to mingle toughness and realism with a passionate desire to come to terms with North Korea on its nuclear program. He did so not only as U.S. ambassador but again several years later as U.S. special representative on North Korea. If he never got anywhere in renewing a moribund peace process, he gave it his best shot. He never stopped trying.

If ever a person seemed to believe in the message, “Give Peace a Chance,” immortalized by John Lennon during protests against the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, it was Bosworth. So committed was he to the struggle, he was still talking about it when he saw Tony Namkung, a long-time consultant on North Korea, for lunch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in late October.

“I could tell that he had weakened,” Namkung said in an email, evoking memories of the Track II meeting in Singapore a year ago of influential people anxious to promote talks with the North. Soon, however, as Namkung related, “Our conversation turned to North Korea.”

Bosworth was characteristically realistic about the prospects. “I don’t think the U.S. government will move,” he told Namkung. “And the North Koreans themselves haven’t helped matters. How can we achieve a diplomatic solution without each side trying to understand the other side’s position?”

As Bosworth spoke, Namkung perceived “the outward virtues of humility, sincerity, and decorum” that he always displayed ­ “the same inner core that informed his love of nation, his long service in its behalf, and the values of democracy, human rights, and freedom he always brought to the negotiating table.”

Bosworth’s realistic pursuit of an idealistic goal set him apart from one of his ambassadorial predecessors, Donald Gregg, who has defended North Korea’s need to have nukes for self-defense while blaming the U.S. for all the failures.

Bosworth also differed from a later ambassador, Chris Hill, who represented the U.S. at six-party talks chaired by China and attended by representatives from North and South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Hill for years fantasized the North finally yielding to diplomatic pressure and promises. He has said North Korea’s negotiator, Kim Kye-Gwan, misled everyone, and that the North Koreans betrayed nuclear accords reached in 2007.

In his eagerness to press for a long lasting deal with North Korea, Hill ran roughshod over diplomats who expressed doubts, stifling the careers of several who warned that six-party talks were going nowhere.

Evans Revere perception of Bosworth is that he is far more astute in his outlook toward North Korea than all the others who have dreamed of reaching a deal with the North.

As deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Seoul while Bosworth was ambassador, Revere in an email said that he “marveled at his steadiness, judgment dignity and temperament” as he “focused on getting the job done and getting it done right, which he always did.”

He was not only “the consummate diplomat” but also “one of the most decent human beings I have ever met.”

My own memories of Bosworth go back to the People Power revolution in the Philippines in 1986 when Bosworth had the delicate duty of persuading long-ruling Ferdinand Marcos to flee to Hawaii with his family and cronies. I ran into him again many times in Seoul, Washington and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where, as dean, he hosted a lavish luncheon for Kim Dae-Jung, his wife, Lee Hee-Ho and aides several years after DJ had completed his five-year term as president.

Bosworth was unstinting in his praise for DJ, whom he had met many times in the Blue House, but was frankly pessimistic about getting anywhere as long as the North was exporting missiles to Iran and cooperating on nuclear technology.

“Formal diplomacy with North Korea has come to an abrupt halt,” he acknowledged after stepping down from his final diplomatic post as U.S. representative on the North. Still, he predicted “a process of watchful waiting over the next few months” to see if the North would return to talks. Sadly, Bosworth was still waiting when he died.

Donald Kirk has been covering efforts at peace and reconciliation with North Korea for decades. He can be contacted at: kirkdon4343@gmail.com.

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