Inside man on North Korea works to keep lines of communication open

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By Donald Kirk,

A dazzling array of manipulators and operators, swindlers and do-gooders and odd-balls parade across the stage of the Asian drama, some long enough for star billing, others relegated to bit roles, maybe 15 minutes or less of fame, before fading into obscurity. Get to know them a little, and you find they’re all different, all with stories.

Among the more intriguing players in the drama has to be Tony Namkung, who’s accompanied so many biggies to Pyongyang that you realize he’s a lot more than a featured performer. The pictures tend to show him in the background, a few steps behind or beside those with top billing.

Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, right, tries on 3-D glasses as he looks at North Korean-developed computer technology in Pyongyang, North Korea last month. At left is Kun "Tony" Namkung.  /David Guttenfelder/AP
Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, right, tries on 3-D glasses as he looks at North Korean-developed computer technology in Pyongyang, North Korea last month. At left is Kun “Tony” Namkung. /David Guttenfelder/AP

On two recent missions to Pyongyang – those of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and of The Associated Press Vice President John Daniszewski – the captions sometimes did not even identify him.

He too, however, is a star, never more so than when he’s arranging for talks with North Koreans, angling for the release of captured Americans, or, lately, smoothing the way for the AP to operate on a highly circumscribed basis out of an office in Pyongyang.

How Tony gets to come and go so often to and from Pyongyang is a mystery that only he can tell, but he let me know he thinks it was unfair of me, in a recent column, to suggest that he didn’t show real concern about human rights abuses. It’s not that he’s not concerned.

Rather, he’s got to maintain lines of communication, mostly beyond public view, if he’s going to get anywhere in breaking down barriers. Like the human rights advocates who expose abuses in the North, Tony is also a crusader but of a different type. In the end, he says, the goal is to defuse tensions.

One of Tony Namkung’s extraordinary qualities is his highly diplomatic modus operandi. His criticism of whatever I wrote about him was far from an attack. In fact, he wound up thanking me for my “interest” in “the Korean Peninsula.” You could tell by his tone in conversation and emails why he’s so successful as an unofficial envoy.

Rarely have I encountered one so soft-spoken when clearly rather disturbed by a journalistic dig. Tony does not carry the title of ambassador, but in my personal experience I don’t recall a more persuasive diplomat.

Tony’s story goes back to his birth in 1945 in Shanghai, the offspring of a prominent Christian family from Pyongyang that had fled there to escape Japanese rule. As a child Tony grew up in post-war Japan, then went to the U.S. and got his doctorate from Berkeley.

His mentor in those years was Robert Scalapino, a Berkeley heavyweight known for his conservatism.

Tony did not visit South Korea until he was 34 and was 46 before he went to Pyongyang as president of the Asia Society in New York.

Someday, hopefully Tony Namkung will reveal the inside stories of his many encounters with North Korean interlocutors. He’ll have a lot to say about getting the North in June 1994 to welcome Jimmy Carter for a historic meeting with Kim Il-Sung in a boat on the Daedong River.

The “Great Leader” died in July, but the meeting set the stage for North Korea to agree in October of that year on the “framework” agreement under which it promised to give up its nuclear program. Don’t blame Tony for the breakdown of the agreement or the ongoing crisis. He did what he could.

Tony again displayed his negotiating skills in working with Bill Richardson, the former congressman, U.N. ambassador and New Mexico governor, in obtaining the release of wayward Americans in custody in Pyongyang.

Most spectacularly, he labored for freedom for the TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, picked up in 2009 on the Tumen River border and held for 140 days. True, Bill Clinton swooped down to pick them up, but Tony, and Bill Richardson, laid the groundwork.

Whenever Tony gets around to telling the story of his adventures, he should say what he’s done to get the AP a foothold in Pyongyang and explain the larger mystery of how the AP covers the North.

Nate Thayer, best known for having obtained the only interview with the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, gets at the backstory in a devastating critique, “Google Chief’s Teenage Daughter Blog Puts AP North Korea News Bureau to Shame: A Comparative Analysis.”

Some day maybe Tony will reveal why a 19-year-old neophyte was able to tell a whole lot more about what it’s really like there than did the AP in all its chirpy perky upbeat coverage.