Conflicting U.S. views on conflict resolution with N. Korea: What if there is no solution?

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DonKirk3By Donald Kirk,

Donald Gregg, U.S. ambassador to Korea as the country was making the transition to democracy in the early 1990s, did not take kindly to my column [A former U.S. diplomat’s inexplicable defense of Kim Jong-Un] in which I quoted him, accurately, as praising Kim Jong-Un “for improving the North Korean economy and downplaying nuclear threats and nuclear weapons development.”

The timing of publication of Gregg’s commentary was newsworthy in itself. It appeared on websites in Seoul and Hong Kong on Jan. 12, six days after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6.

Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg in Beijing after a 2014 visit to North Korea.
Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg in Beijing after a 2014 visit to North Korea.

In an email to me, however, Gregg said “I wrote the article you refer to in early December, at the request of the East Asia Foundation.” Unfortunately, he claimed, it ran “the day before the North Koreans fired their fourth blast.” The article was actually published a week later, but that detail did not stop him from wishing “you had done a bit more checking before writing what you did.”

What to check? When an article by such a prominent person appears, it’s immediately quotable. The question is why Gregg didn’t alert the recipients of his article that he would like to update it in light of the test. For that matter, why did the editors delay publication for so long — and why, as they were about to run it after the test, did they not ask him for timely revisions?

The answer to such questions, in part, is that the article reflected Gregg’s view, tests or no tests, that the U.S. is at fault for conducting military exercises, issuing tough demands and threatening North Korea with nukes loaded onto ships and planes in the western Pacific.

Gregg has come to accept North Korea’s nuclear program for defense against a perceived American threat.

While “Kim Jong-un seeks serious dialogue with Washington,” he wrote in The New York Times soon after the North’s third nuclear test in February 2013, “he will push toward full nuclear status for Pyongyang unless he becomes convinced that the United States means him and his country no harm.”

Pity Kim Jong-Un – the poor guy had to face President Park Geun-Hye’s “hard-line predecessor,” as Gregg characterizes President Lee Myung-Bak, before her inauguration shortly before the third test. Gregg hoped that Park’s “trustpolitik” toward the North would go somewhere. I wonder what he thinks of her now after repeated rejections of her proposals in cascades of vulgar insults. And I wonder what he thinks of Kim Jong-Un in view of the execution of his number two, Uncle Jang Song-Thaek, and numerous others, high and low?

Gregg in a follow-up email to me said he remained “very annoyed” by my “misrepresentation” of his article, but he doesn’t say where or how he was misrepresented, and he didn’t respond to my requests for comment in the aftermath of the fourth test.

Against the background of all that he’s been writing for the past 20 years, often for the sympathetic New York Times, I would assume he’s sticking by his extraordinary hope of the North adopting “a non-threatening posture” despite “predictions of collapse” and “Western focus on human rights violations.” Or would he be a little skeptical as Kim Jong-Un boasts of his nuclear prowess?

For a reality check, one might turn to Evans Revere, deputy chief of the mission at the U.S. embassy several years after Gregg had departed and later principal deputy assistant secretary of state for the region.

“North Korea is without question an urgent and dangerous problem for the U.S.,” Revere remarked at a conference in Seoul staged by the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy and the Brookings Institution. “The fact North Korea has threatened to use nuclear weapons,” he said, is something the strategists “will have to plan for in a contingency.”

No matter what, Revere thinks “the U.S. will have to greatly increase pressure on North Korea.” He suggests, among other things, “economic measures” via the banking system, limiting the North’s “access to foreign exchange” –complemented by “much more explicit warnings to the North.” Oh yes, he also believes “we should increase the tempo of military exercises” and “increase the focus on the North’s terrible human rights.”

These are fighting words ― and anathema to all that Gregg believes. It’s as though he and Revere were engaged in a contest of wills, the former a believer in ever more dialogue, the latter convinced that sheer power is needed to bring the North to heel.

Could it be that both are wrong, that there is no solution, through dialogue or force?

Revere had it right when he remarked, “We’ve tried threats, accommodation dialogue – all efforts have failed.” Gregg’s confidence in “reconciliation” after the North achieves “a satisfactory level of deterrence” ― whatever that might be ― is a formula for disappointment.

Donald Kirk has been following the ups and downs of dialogue with North Korea since first visiting Seoul in 1972 to cover talks between the Red Cross organizations of both Koreas for the Chicago Tribune. He’s at