Partial list of Americans who met Kim Il Sung

The late DPRK President Kim Il Sung is said to have met thousands of foreigners, but few Americans. Those Americans include:

Affiliation at time of meeting; year(s) met; (d) = deceased

• Harrison Salisbury, New York Times (interview with Kim), (article), 1972 (d)
• John M. Lee, New York Times, 1972 (d)
• Selig Harrison, Washington Post (article and interview with Kim), 1972, Carnegie Endowment, 1994 (d)
• Rep. Stephen Solarz, 1980, 1991 (d)
• Ralph Clough, SAIS, 1980, 1991 (d)
• Stanley O. Roth, House Foreign Affairs Committee, 1991 [likely met Kim as accompanied Solarz; Roth as Assistant Secretary of State for EAP also met Kim Jong Il in 2000]
• Rev. Billy Graham (with Dr. Stephen Linton), 1992, 1994 (for Graham’s accounts of meeting Kim, see Ch. 34 in Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham)
• Former Rep. Richard Ichord, American Freedom Coalition (AFC), 1992 (twice in May & June) (d)
• Former Rep. Bob Mathias, AFC, 1992 (d)
• Amb. Douglas MacArthur II (the General’s nephew), AFC, 1992 (d)
• Max Hugel, former Deputy Director, CIA, 1992 (d)
• [The two AFC delegations that met Kim in May and June 1992 included 40 participants, among them former U.S. congressmen, governors and other senior officials]
• Dr. Robert Grant, AFC, 1992
• Gary Jarmin, AFC, 1992
• Dr. Thomas J. Ward, AFC, 1992
• Larry R. Moffitt, AFC, 1992
• Dr. William J. Taylor, Jr., CSIS, 1992, 1994 (d)
Josette Sheerhan, Washington Times, 1992 (article and interview with Kim), 1994 (written interview with Kim)
• Vicki Yokota, Washington Times, 1992
• Rep. Gary Ackerman, 1993
• [Ackerman was accompanied by two congressional staffers; not clear if they attended meeting with Kim]
• Dr. C. Kenneth Quinones, State Dept., 1993
• Eason Jordan, VP, CNN International, 1994 (twice in April & June)
• Mike Chinoy, CNN, 1992, 1994 (see Ch. 11 of China Live: People Power and the Television Revolution)
• Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt (USMC, Ret.), 1994
• Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Summit Council, 1992, 1994 (5 times total)*
• Dr. William Selig, Summit Council, 1992 [also met Kim Jong Il]
Dr. Mark P. Barry, Summit Council, 1994
• Former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, 1994
• Richard A. Christenson, State Dept., 1994
• Nancy Konigsmark, Carter Center, 1994 (d)
• Amb. Marion Creekmore, Carter Center, 1994

*=also attended Kim Il Sung’s funeral in July 1994, and twice met Kim Jong Il

Does not include the names of any U.S. citizens who were part of CNN’s crews in its 1992 and 1994 visits in which they met Kim Il Sung, nor the names of any Communist Party USA (AKFIC) members who may have met Kim (AKFIC at least got a written response to interview questions); CPUSA head Gus Hall once received a box of presents from Kim. For names of several Korean-Americans who met Kim, likely among at least dozens, please confer Dr. Myers’ comments below.  


On Trump – or any sitting president – meeting Kim Jong Un: The importance of senior-level engagement

This week, Donald Trump has been criticized for saying if elected president he would be willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. While this is ample fodder for social media and soundbite newscasts, it is foolhardy to disparage the value of direct contact and negotiation with the top leader of North Korea. Unlike other countries, in North Korea if the top leader makes a strategic decision in a public manner, then the echelons of leadership must fall into line.

We should remember that former President Jimmy Carter met Kim Il Sung in 1994 in the conviction it would be a mistake for the U.S. not to negotiate with the main leader of an adversarial and despised nation who alone could resolve a serious issue. Although Carter went as a private citizen, Kim Il Sung received him almost as if he were the sitting president. Also, President Clinton wanted to go to Pyongyang before the end of his term in January 2001 (and after meeting Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, the North’s #2, in the White House in October 2000) but was unable to do so mainly because of 36 days of uncertainty as to who won the 2000 presidential election and because the United States had not concluded negotiations on a missile agreement with the North.


KPA Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok met President Bill Clinton at the White House in October 2000.

President Barack Obama meets with former President Bill Clinton in the Situation Room of the White House, including (from left ) NSC Senior Director for Asian Affairs Ambassador Jeff Bader, Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, NSC Advisor General Jim Jones and Vice President Joe Biden, August 18, 2009 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with former President Bill Clinton, after his return from North Korea, in the Situation Room of the White House, August 18, 2009 (official White House photo).

As a former President, Bill Clinton did meet Kim Jong Il in August 2009 in the process of retrieving two American journalists detained by the North. When he then reported to President Obama about his recent trip to the North in the Situation Room in the White House (see photo above), it was about as close as the Obama administration got to senior-level negotiation with the North. Otherwise, we’ve had nearly eight years of “strategic patience.” There have been some Track II dialogues; a few well-known North Korea experts spent extended time in Pyongyang; and yes, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper went to Pyongyang in November 2014 to retrieve two more American detainees — but nothing like from mid-2005 when Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill and others at least had ongoing dialogue with their counterparts from the North.

Of course, government-to-government contact on the bureaucratic level is always important and necessary. But probably more than any other country, North Korea’s regime dynamics don’t work like the rest of the world. North Korea is a country run as a family dynasty. When Kim Jong Un publicly makes a major decision, there can be no outward dissent among the elite. Bureaucratic politics always play a part in North Korea, but a strategic decision made by the top leader is not subject to challenge by his subordinates.

Frankly, after the Workers Party Congress held earlier this month, Kim Jong Un is more secure than ever in his leadership. This is a very good argument for senior-level engagement by the Obama administration or the next administration, whether Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Back in 2005, after the September 19th Joint Statement, my colleagues in Washington articulated three main principles that should undergird American efforts to engage and negotiate with North Korea. These principles were based on significant contact with senior North Korean officials since the early 1990s. While that was 11 years ago, and it can be argued much has changed since then, these principles seem to me no less relevant today as a decade ago. I have adapted them below:

1. North Korea insists that for its society’s political culture, senior-level engagement is first needed to resolve the nuclear issue. Through meetings between the top DPRK leader and a senior U.S. leader (i.e., the President or his/her authorized senior representative like the Secretary of State), a relationship can be made and general agreement reached. Detailed talks at lower levels can then proceed based on the framework established at the top. When the necessary trust is established with the top leader himself and he publicly gives his word, then, in DPRK political culture, he must fulfill what he promised because his word signifies the utmost commitment to his people, which he cannot break. The U.S., to be successful, must obtain his personal assurance.

North Korean denuclearization requires a firm guarantee of DPRK security. Without such a guarantee, the DPRK feels it is being asked to strip naked and be defenseless. To them, nuclear weapons are a means of guaranteeing the nation’s security. But an alternative, minimal security guarantee also can come, they believe, through converting an enemy into a friend. Friendship, or normal relations, between the two countries, can be secured through engagement of the senior leadership. U.S. diplomats, in international relations, represent the authority of the nation’s senior leadership, but this is not well-accepted in North Korea’s unique political culture.

The U.S. should not unwarrantedly reward North Korea. But due to its regime structure, North Korea’s ability to comply in strategic matters is paralyzed without prior senior-level engagement. Because of differences in political culture and dynamics, future progress with the DPRK is likely to be impeded, where North Korea may either boycott future talks or its negotiators will over-demonstrate regime loyalty by making endless demands, appealing to hardline military elements in their leadership.

Engaging the North on a senior level also separates the DPRK top leader from objecting hardliners, providing him maneuvering room to undertake a more practical direction rather than prolong ideological confrontation. While no senior representative of the United States should journey to Pyongyang to be exploited by the North, there are innovative ways senior-level engagement can be accomplished without risk.

2. The U.S. should adopt a policy of embracing equally both Koreas. China has relations with each Korea. The U.S. should also have normal relations and influence with both Koreas. South Korea, our alliance partner since 1954, already somewhat distanced itself from the U.S. in recent years; it can happen again. Normalizing American relations with North Korea will in fact help prevent the North from achieving its ambition of overrunning or causing upheaval in the South. U.S. help in the improvement of North Korea’s overall position can also serve to improve North Korean human rights. It is in the U.S. interest to recognize an outstretched hand, if and when offered, and grasp it while holding onto the ROK’s as well.

The U.S. should promote change through participation and engagement, rather than confrontation and punishment, for the survival of the Korean peninsula. Otherwise, the U.S. can lose influence in the entire Korean peninsula.

3. To deal effectively with North Korea, the United States must prioritize its issues in addressing them to the North. We should not at the same time pressure North Korea on denuclearization, its illegal activities and human rights violations — even though they are separate matters — because simultaneous demands cause them to overreact and perceive these as signals of possible steps toward war. By making multiple demands at the same time, they panic that the overwhelming pressures are intended to cause their system to collapse. The DPRK then digs in its heels and becomes belligerent. Instead, the U.S. should first resolve the nuclear issue. Then it can more effectively and naturally deal with the vital issues of human rights and criminal activities.

North Korea requires an approach of firmness and discipline, coupled with fairness, rather than disengagement and confrontation. No matter how rightly motivated, a policy of confrontation risks pushing North Korea to the brink, with potential destruction to the entire Korean peninsula as the unintended consequence.♦

This article will appear in updated form as a commentary in the September 2016 issue of the International Journal of World Peace.

Dr. Barry first guest on the “North Korea Podcast by Jack Hands”


sbtEhyx6_400x400Dr. Mark P. Barry was the first guest on the new weekly “North Korea Podcast by Jack Hands,” speaking on North Korean sanctions and meeting Kim Il Sung with a Summit Council delegation. It is available on iTunes or you can listen to it at the embedded link above.

Follow Jack’s podcast on Twitter here. His podcast is now hosted by the esteemed The Diplomat site.

From War to Peace: A Permanent Solution to the Korean Question

“From War to Peace: A Permanent Solution to the Korean Question,” by the late Amb. Woonsang Choi of Kyunghee University. Reposted from the International Journal of World Peace, March 2007, of which Dr. Barry is Associate Editor.

‘Gorbify,’ ‘Cubify’ and Wi-Fi: An alternative road map to Korean reunification

Raul Castro-Obama

Cuban President Raul Castro meeting President Obama in 2015.

[Worth re-reading Mansourov’s article from last fall at this time of heightened tensions in Korea, while Obama has announced his trip to Cuba in March. Reposted from The Washington Times, October 15, 2015]

By Alexandre Mansourov

Independence, military-first, and socialism — these were the slogans under which, on Oct. 10, North Korea lavishly marked the 70th founding anniversary of its ruling party — the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) that ruled the northern half of the Korean peninsula with an iron fist for almost seven decades. Just a single word was uttered about the prospect of unification of the Korean nation along the lines of if we go or they come — the single-hearted unity and force of arms will be our only allies.

Independence, military-first, and socialism — these were the slogans under which, on Oct. 10, North Korea lavishly marked the 70th founding anniversary of its ruling party — the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) that ruled the northern half of the Korean peninsula with an iron fist for almost seven decades. Just a single word was uttered about the prospect of unification of the Korean nation along the lines of if we go or they come — the single-hearted unity and force of arms will be our only allies.

The current North Korean regime does not want Korean unification. We should make no mistake about that. Pyongyang has too many problems of its own: the backward and stagnant economy, the hollowing out military, growing international censure and diplomatic isolation. The recognition of this harsh reality forced its leadership to put on the back burner its long-cherished dream of “communizing” or “turning red” South Korea through the expansion of the Juch’e revolution by war to the southern half: the Kim regime is simply not able or willing to unify the peninsula even on the terms acceptable to the North.

Hence, the aging one party dictatorship wants to stay independent and be left alone so that it can continue to run its garrison state as it wishes and to rule the people of North Korea without any foreign interference. And if the sovereign government of the DPRK which officially represents the North Korean people as recognized by the United Nations and the international community publicly says no to the unification call, then any South Korean attempts to unify the peninsula without its consent may be interpreted as a raw land grab by an aggressive neighbor, no matter what moral, historical and national security justifications its territorial claims may be based on.

The DPRK is not a problem that will solve itself. The Republic of Korea and the United States must show leadership and be more creative than just to deter, neglect or intervene in North Korea. To deter and contain is tantamount to simply business as usual with no prospect for shaping change inside the North at this crucial time of transition. To neglect or disengage is equal to doing nothing, yielding the playing field to others at the expense of the allied interests on the peninsula. To intervene is potentially extremely costly, painful, and unnecessary, whatever the rationale for and/or method of intervention. The only right choice is to follow the Reagan model, vigorously engage and press hard the enemy across all lines of contact because proactive multifaceted engagement offers the most potential for effecting a fundamental change in the North’s behavior, although it may be politically difficult to advocate in Washington.

Opponents of engagement assert that all deals Washington has ever made with Pyongyang have been broken, nothing sticks, be it the last century’s Geneva Agreed Framework or the latest “Leap Day agreement.” But, this is almost natural, given the complete lack of mutual trust and deeply-seated insecurity on both sides. It does take a village and a leap of faith to bridge the existing divides between our countries. Disengagement and preaching to the choir have failed so far and will bear no fruit in the future.

In contrast, President Park’s hallmark “trustpolitik” envisioning constant probing, direct negotiation and bargaining without any preconditions is the right approach to facilitate a new beginning in the long-stalled South-North Korea relationship, because it is designed to develop mutual trust and respect, extend the shadow of the future and increase potential gains from cooperation while raising the price of provocations. The “trustpolitik” is aimed at encouraging responsible behavior and frustrating threatening behavior in the strategic field, which is a good enough reason in its own right to justify engagement with Pyongyang.

North Korea is a learning, thinking, and increasingly open, receptive, and diverse system. We, too, need to learn to leverage the growing transparency, responsiveness, and multi-mindedness of the North Korean system by directly reaching out to Kim Jong Un and other important actors and communities a la President Obama’s new Cuba policy, enlarging a constituency for change inside the DPRK, accelerating our message distribution, and seeking to influence the new socio-economic forces and agents of change, especially the supreme leader. Even despite their cyber threats, we need to open the Internet doors widely to the North Koreans, not to block their access to the World Wide Web.

Seoul should encourage the emergence and growth of those agents of political change in the DPRK who are proud pan-Korean patriots, not xenophobic North Korean nationalists, and who are interested in reunification, not independence. The ROK government needs to offer a new “Northern Partnership” to the North Korean elites by combining its “trustpolitik” diplomacy with the peninsular version of its traditional “Nordpolitik” approach. The “Northern Partnership” is an alternative model of the common pan-Korean future to be achieved via inter-Korean reconciliation and integration (a la the EU “Eastern Partnership” project), which should replace its current approach based on the avalanche-style unification by absorption.

The West embraced Gorbachev, and now the Soviet Union is no more. The West embraced Deng Xiaoping, and now China is a lot more capitalist and a lot less communist. We need to “Cubify” (apply our new Cuba model to) North Korea and “Gorbify” Kim Jong Un, not blockade it and vilify him. It is in the interest of the ROK and United States to relieve the pressure off Pyongyang and energetically engage its new leadership in order to take away any justification for their siege mentality. We need to find a way to shape Mr. Kim’s new thinking and guide his behavior toward better ends. Seoul and Washington should seek to exploit the new opportunities presented by Kim Jong Un’s thaw while mitigating the associated geopolitical risks and uncertainties. It is springtime in Pyongyang, albeit not of the Arab flavor, and it will be a shame if the allied blockade and disengagement from North Korea at this crucial juncture were to delay reunification, freeze inter-Korean relations, and result in a return of cold winter in the North.

Whether it is “principled” or “tailored” or “proportionate” engagement (i.e., current buzzwords in town) is not that important as long as we engage the North’s supreme leader directly, enticing him to more responsive and responsible behavior. Kim Jong Un keeps surprising us. He keeps raising the bar and public expectations. We need to stun, outsmart, and “do Cuba” on Mr. Kim, embracing him, not just standing there with an open fist or poking him in the eye. And, if we are able to Gorbify Kim Jong Un, to offer the North Korean elites something more than just kangaroo trials and re-education camps in the post-unification Korea, to give the North Korean “core class” a meaningful stake in reconciliation and association with the South, then only time will tell whether there will be an independent and sovereign North Korea or not at the end of the engagement road.

It is in the national interest of the Republic of Korea and the United States to vigorously engage the DPRK now in order to eliminate the growing threat posed by its nuclear weapons, missiles, and cyber arms and to expedite the fulfillment of the long-cherished dream of the South and North Korean peoples and America’s ultimate strategic objective in Korea — peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula on the terms acceptable to the entire Korean people.♦

Alexandre Mansourov is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute in The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also CEO of Great Falls Solutions International, LLC.

“Pres. Park Should Put Aside the Dresden Declaration and Return to Trustpolitik”

Interview with Dr. John Merrill, former Chief, Northeast Asia Division, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, State Dept. 

By Jemin Son, Washington D.C. Correspondent
Posted on : 2015-09-08, Kyunghyang Shinmun

“When a few submarines were missing, we got worried. What the heck are they doing?”

One of the daily tasks of Dr. John Merrill, who analyzed North Korean intelligence at the U.S. Department of State for nearly thirty years, was to identify the movements of the North Korean submarines. Last month when the North and South Korean military nearly clashed, he was surprised at the release of information that North Korea moved more than fifty of its submarines. He said mentioning a regime collapse before a military power armed with nuclear weapons and possessing the ability to simultaneously mobilize fifty submarines was not only unreasonable but also dangerous.


Dr. John Merrill, retired veteran North Korea intelligence analyst in the State Department said, in an interview with Kyunghyang Daily News, President Park had the third time’s the charm and hoped she and her counterpart in the North would take good advantage of the unexpected opportunity after a crisis. (Jemin Son/Washington, DC)

Merrill who retired from the State Department about a year ago met with a Kyunghyang Daily News reporter at the the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University on August 31, and said, “Collapse is a ludicrous thing to wish for. I know everyone wants the problems to go away, everyone is tired of them, but who would want the collapse of a nuclear weapon state?” “There’s only one situation in which North Korea would use nuclear weapons, leaving aside the possibility that someone attacks them. That possibility is, if it is pressed into a corner and thinks if it doesn’t use everything it has, it’s going to be destroyed. If North Korea sees the collapse coming, and it thinks the collapse has been brought about by somebody else, the chances of their resorting to nuclear weapons use rise astronomically. Do we really want to pressure the North in this situation?” he asked.

This is also why Merrill is relieved that the latest crisis, which is compared to the 1962 Cuba missile crisis, was settled through dialogue. He does not see the latest settlement as a victory of any one party. Instead, he said “third time‘s the charm,” referring to President Park Geun-hye, who was faced with this incident after suffering from the Sewol incident and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak.

Merrill said that with the latest incident, President Park unexpectedly got a chance to return to her ‘trustpolitik’ policy. He said, “Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the Dresden Declaration,” but also added that he did not want to criticize President Park. “Because I understand that the president has to think about her conservative base.” He said he wished President Park would put the Dresden Declaration of March 2014 aside, for it seems to assume a “reunification by absorption,” and return to trustpolitik.

Merrill said that what was necessary to keep this chance alive was for the two Koreas to move quickly. If North Korea launches a satellite around the time of North Korea‘s military parade commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10, it is highly likely for the latest agreement to end up in the trash can. We asked Merrill, who had analyzed North Korean intelligence for thirty years, whether or not North Korea would launch a satellite. He said, “There‘s still less than a 50% chance that the North will not launch the satellite.” Yet, he continued that before the latest agreement it was almost certain that Kim Jong Un would launch the satellite and said, “In the new atmosphere, if Kim Jong Un makes progress with South Korea and if he wants to show a good impression to the outside and obtain something, then I think it is conceivable that he might postpone that satellite launch.” He mentioned how First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong Un had publicly endorsed the latest agreement as the grounds of his prediction.

In 2012, the U.S. and the North had signed the Leap Day deal on February 29, but the agreement was soon destroyed after North Korea launched a satellite in less than two months after signing the agreement. When asked whether the current situation is similar to that in 2012, Merrill said things are different. “The Leap Day deal was one made by Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un only oversaw the agreement for a few months after Kim Jong Il‘s death. So he clearly had not, at that time, consolidated his control. And we know this, because on military side there’s been purge after purge after purge…. Now he seems to have consolidated his control over the military.” If the inter-Korean agreement is implemented smoothly and the two Koreas can discuss resuming tourism to Mount Kumgang, Kim Jong-Un may consider putting off the launch of the satellite so as not to destroy the pleasant relations with the South and no one in North Korea could dare criticize [such a decision]. But for things to turn out like that the Park Geun-Hye government will also have to respond to the North’s conciliatory gesture and make the North trust the South. A South Korean military official making remarks provoking the North will only pour cold water on the current atmosphere.

Merrill said the U.S. would not pull the brakes on the two Koreas talking of resuming tourism to Mount Kumgang. He quoted an English proverb, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and said that if inter-Korean relations improve, this will provide an opportunity to improve North Korea-U.S. relations, and that Washington would also welcome this. President Park will meet President Obama at the White House on October 16 and Merrill said that if Park explained to Obama that she had thoughts to engage in economic activities with the North, that it would be difficult for anyone in Washington to oppose this.

However, recently, President Park received a warm welcome when she attended the military parade on the seventieth anniversary of China‘s victory in World War II, while North Korea’s envoy Choe Ryong Hae received a rather cold welcome and returned to the North without meeting any Chinese figures. When asked if this would act as a negative factor in the reconciliation of the two Koreas, Merrill said, “Choe Ryong Hae is not in the same as President Park Geun-hye, so it’s hard to make a comparison how China received them. But I do agree that pressure tactics can backfire. I don’t think Park’s visit by itself amounted to that, but Seoul needs to be sensitive to its multiple audiences, including North Korea.”

As for whether the South Korean government achieved the goal of gaining China‘s support for its North Korean policy with the president’s attendance at the military parade, Merrill said, “China was sending a signal to Pyongyang with Park’s warm and high-profile treatment. But North Korea remains important to China as a buffer state. It does not want to see American power on its doorstep or a North Korean collapse that could lead to regional conflict.”

John Merrill is a Harvard-trained Korean history major who married a South Korean woman, and joined the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) under the Reagan administration in the late 1980s and retired as the chief of its Northeast Asia Division. He is a critic of the Obama administration‘s policy of strategic patience toward North Korea and is almost the only figure in the U.S. government who claimed that the U.S. should continue engaging North Korea even after the Leap Day deal was breached by North Korea’s satellite launch.♦

[Minor edits/corrections by Dr. Barry.]

Korean version of original article.

A Score Card: The First Three Years of Kim Jong Un’s Rule


Below is an excerpt of a summary of a forum on “A Score Card: The First Three Years of Kim Jong Un’s Rule” which took place December 17, 2014 at the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs in Washington, DC. It is based on a presentation and discussion led by Dr. Alexandre Mansourov, Korean affairs specialist and adjunct professor at the U.S.-Korea Institute of SAIS, The Johns Hopkins University.

Brief summary

Domestic score card: The regime is stable, the system is resilient, and the economy is better today than it was three years ago. There is no question that the system of governance in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea is still one-man rule. There is no second-in-command there. Anyone who has tried to assert him- or herself as the second-in-command was cut down in size and eliminated time and again. The North Korean economy is doing better today than three years ago. Reasons may include: (1) growing trade with China and Russia; (2) three years of good harvest; (3) increased domestic construction; (4) increased production of fertilizer; (5) increasing electricity production; (6) consumption “boom”in Pyongyang and in the provincial cities; and, (7) a growing middle class.

International score card: North Korea has been pursuing an emboldened foreign policy including a re-engagement with Japan, expanding trade with China, and rebuilding its traditional ties and partnership with Russia. Regarding South Korea, whether the North has given up on the Park Geun-hye administration remains to be seen. As the South Korean presidential term comes to an end in 2018, some experts predict that Seoul will be increasingly desperate to achieve some progress with the North. The same goes for the Obama administration, which ends in 2017. The U.S. administration may likewise become determined to show some progress for Obama’s two terms of office. The bottom line is that in the past three years, Kim Jong Un has proved to be a survivor, basically using the power of the North Korean system skillfully to his political advantage.

All of the above should be understood against the backdrop that most North Korean experts in the U.S. and South Korea did not even allow the possibility that he would take over, and once he did, they dismissed the possibility that he would stay around for more than a year or two. Now that the three-year mourning period is over, Kim Jong Un is likely to unveil a series of new social-economic policy initiatives and possibly to make some adjustments in the structure of the North Korean system of government, just like it was done by his father who also waited three years after the death of Kim Il Sung before instituting any policy changes and adjustments in the system of governance.



Welcoming the participants, Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director of the Office of Peace and Security Affairs, UPF International, Washington, D.C., said three years have passed since Kim Jong Il died on this very date, Dec. 17, and his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, succeeded him as ruler of North Korea. Today marks the official end of the mourning period for Kim Jong Il. Could the fourth year of Kim Jong Un’s leadership present the possibility of a start of a new era in North-South and U.S.-DPRK relations, considering the recent unilateral release of three American captives and the visit to Pyongyang by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — or is “there enough evidence to hold Kim Jong Un accountable for massive human rights atrocities comparable to the Nazi-era,” as charged by UN human rights investigator Marzuki Darusman?

Dr. Betancourt put forth a set of questions for the forum. “What has Kim Jong Un accomplished in three years? What has he failed to accomplish? What will he need to do for the future? What are the assessments of inter-Korean relations, and bilateral relations with China, Russia, Japan, and the U.S.? Lastly, what possible innovative solutions will break the logjam in North-South relations, including proposals for a summit between Kim Jong Un and President Park Geun-hye by the 70th anniversary of liberation from Japan next August?”

We offer the following excerpts from Dr. Mansourov, a leading expert on North Korea (DPRK):

“Let me start by giving you my bottom line up front. The regime is stable, the system is resilient, and, believe it or not, the North Korean economy is better today than it was three years ago. The North Korean people have a better life today than they did three years ago when Kim Jong Il died.

There is no question in my mind that we have to deal with one-man rule in North Korea, it is the rule of Kim Jong Un. He is the decider, the modernizer, the commander-in-chief, and the architect-in-chief. He is the person who makes the decisions in North Korea. There is no second-in-command. Anyone who tried to assert him- or herself as a second-in-command was cut down in size and eliminated time and again. I regard all senior officials around Kim Jong Un as basically the pawns of the supreme leader.

There is no collective leadership in North Korea, and no matter what other people may tell you, the people around him can only give him advice. Hence, we have the system of collective advice, but not collective leadership.

Kim Jong Un was able to solidify and consolidate the “unified guidance system” where all reports are directed to him. He maintains control over the country through the key institutions — the party, the military and the security services. Over the past three years, we observed a visible shift from the “Military-First” (Songun) policy, as practiced by his father Kim Jong Il, to the so-called Pyongjin Line, i.e., the strategic course on parallel construction of the economy and nuclear weapons.

We still have to deal with essentially the family-based regime and take into account the first family politics. We saw how ruthless Kim Jong Un could be. He eliminated people perceived as mounting a political challenge to him, those who sought to muscle away the power he had inherited from his father. Jang Song Thaek, his powerful uncle who was married to the only daughter of Kim Il Sung, and was in the shadow of Kim Jong Il for almost 40 years. He did everything to amass his power, including setting up his own private cabinet, his own party within the party, his own security force, and his own reporting line (guidance system) that was meant to enable him to run the country on his own. But, Jang failed to consolidate his power, and, in the end, Kim Jong Un took him out.

Let me make my position clear. Most people say, “What a horrible human being Kim Jong Un is! He took out his own uncle. How could he do that?” In my opinion, Jang’s purge was an act of courage on Kim’s part. Why? Because Jang Song Thaek was a horrible man. His hands were drenched in blood. He was in charge of the North Korean gulag. As the director of the Administrative Department of the WPK Central Committee, he supervised the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of People’s Security, and other principal organizations within the North Korean repressive apparatus. He was the person who signed all execution orders and all the torture orders. He was the North Korean analogue of Stalin’s henchman, Lavrenti Beria, who was chief of the secret police apparatus and administered the Soviet Gulag. Everybody in North Korea knew Jang Song Thaek was a frightening human being. With his removal, North Korean citizens no longer have to live in the fear of arbitrary executions and prosecutions.

In the past three years, Kim Jong Un step-by-step dismantled the guardianship system created by Kim Jong Il to ease his son’s way to power: he removed Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, Jang Song Thaek, and others. He has solidified his position as the supreme leader by surrounding himself with the people he trusts, including party secretary Choe Ryong-hae and his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, who was recently appointed as vice director of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Domestic score card

The North Korean economy is doing better today than three years ago. Because it’s not a transparent system, it’s hard to know why. Three years of good harvests may be a factor, increased civilian consumption, residential construction boom, growing domestic production of fertilizer, a loosening of the strictures of collectivized agriculture, growing number of foreign tourists, increased electricity production. There is a construction boom in Pyongyang and in the provincial cities, business, residential apartments, and roads.

The North Korean economy is recovering slowly. It is also due to the growing trade with China. Despite all the political difficulties, trade with China remains on the uptrend. China is North Korea’s most important ally and trading partner as well as the primary source of arms, energy, and food. In 2013, trade between the two countries grew by more than 10% from 2012 levels to $6.5 billion. A lot of it is not being reported. The economic recovery and social development in North Korea should not be compared to that in South Korea or the West; the benchmark used is the conditions that existed three years ago inside North Korea.

At the same time, North Korea continues research and development work on its nuclear and missile capabilities. They’re spending more on the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. In that sense, their capabilities must be getting better and more sophisticated. Whether the Pyongjin Line of parallel economic construction and nuclear armament is sustainable in the long run nobody knows, but in the past three years it has been working.

The middle class is growing. Obviously, new technology is spreading in North Korea. Generational change is under way and it’s accelerating. These may be the sources for the new policy initiatives in the years to come.

That said, the regime is still very rigid and paranoid. The country continues to be very much isolated, despite increased economic exchanges with China and improved relationships with Russia. Isolation, the oppressive apparatus, the fear and paranoia of the outside world, as well as the regime’s ideological rigidity are all major obstacles to change.

Looking into the future, now that the three-year mourning period is over, I expect Kim Jong Un to unveil a series of new political initiatives and social-economic policy measures, just like his father did in 1998, three years after Kim Il Sung’s death,

Foreign policy score card

We observe that Kim Jong Un’s government has been pursuing an emboldened foreign policy in the past three years. North Korea is rebuilding its traditional partnership with Russia. It has reengaged with Japan. It is basically maintaining a steady economic cooperation with China, despite the fact that the political dialogue is lagging behind.

The question whether the North has given up on the Park Geun-hye administration remains to be seen. Some people say they have given up on her. Others say no. As her presidential term draws to a close by 2018, the North Koreans may try to knock on Seoul’s door once again in the belief that President Park will be increasingly desperate to achieve some progress with the North and with the hope that they can squeeze more concessions from the South. As she becomes more politically vulnerable at home, they will try to raise the price of cooperation.

North Korea continues to threaten the U.S. with nuclear arms, missiles, and cyber weapons.

Have they given up on the Obama presidency? Probably, yes. They may have decided to wait him out or they may try one more time to squeeze some concessions from the United States at the last minute before President Obama leaves office in 2017.

The bottom line is in the past three years Kim Jong Un has proved to be a survivor, basically using the power of the North Korean system skillfully to his political advantage.

This should be understood against the backdrop that most North Korean experts did not even allow the possibility that he would take over and once he did, they dismissed the possibility that he was to stay around for a few years. He keeps beating our expectations.

Look at recent events surrounding the President’s new Cuba policy. This marks the beginning of the end of the communist regime in Cuba because what held the Castro brothers in power for so long was the U.S. embargo and isolation of them. Within five years, there won’t be any communist regime in Cuba. The floodgates have been opened.

North Korea’s biggest fear has never been a nuclear threat from the U.S. What the North Korean leaders probably fear the most is the prospect of the Allies’ lifting all embargoes and sanctions, and re-engaging Pyongyang across the border on all accounts and opening up the North because, if that were to happen, then the Kim regime would lose the rationale for its existence. It will not be able to withstand that kind of influx of Western ideas, capital, and technology.

Let’s hope that the President still has some political capital left to dramatically change his policy towards North Korea in the same way he reversed the decades-long U.S. policy towards Cuba. I’m pessimistic to be honest, especially after his Dec. 19th declaration that North Korea was responsible for the cyber attack against Sony Pictures, but the fact that he reversed the half-century old U.S. policy towards Cuba raises my hopes that something like this could be done with respect to North Korea, too. In my judgment, that would be the beginning of the end of the North Korean regime. Nothing else will work. Increasing international sanctions and isolation, dragging Pyongyang through the mud at the United Nations and ICC will not work. Sanctions and embargoes did not work for the past 60 years. If you keep doing the same thing time and again, why would you expect to see different results? You won’t. The U.S. North Korea policy is no exception.”


Discussion points

The UN human rights ruling to refer North Korea to the ICC in The Hague for possible charges of “crimes against humanity.” In response, North Korean diplomats met a UN human rights investigator in late October. According to Dr. Mansourov, the North’s agreement to take part in the meeting was unexpected and took the West by surprise. “My position is that we have to engage them in a conversation on human rights. Let’s talk about it. We have to be specific and tell them our concerns. In the past, they refused to talk to us but now they want to talk to us. They’re saying “these are just ordinary prisoners. We know our prison conditions are primitive, but we don’t have the money to keep them up. These are not political prisoners.” I think the burden is on us to keep pushing them to allow us to go in and verify what they’re telling us – whether it is true or not. My impression is that they are responding differently to our human rights initiatives today. “When the North Koreans say they want to be part of the discussion on their human rights at the United Nations, but the Western nations tell them ‘no,’ this is a mistake. The West thinks Pyongyang is bluffing. Instead of shutting them out, the West should use that as an opportunity at the high level to tell them what the Western countries think about their human rights record and to listen to the North Korean point of view.”

Nuclear and missile capabilities. Research and development work continues unabated and that includes their work on the militarization of the nuclear devices making them lighter, more precise, and more diversified. They continue to accumulate fissile material. They haven’t tested a nuclear device for the fourth time despite threatening to do so a few weeks ago. They keep testing rocket engines, important missile components, and this year alone they fired 111 medium-range missiles and short-range missiles 19 times, so clearly it’s a very active testing program.

The charm offensive. The charm offensive will continue with this young leader who wants to go out in the world and present North Korea differently and resolve some of the outstanding issues. “Next year, we’ll see further movement. The first trip I expect to be to Russia. Vladimir Putin has already invited Kim Jong Un to Moscow to mark the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany on May 9. This would be Kim’s first foreign visit. Putin may return the visit to North Korea on August 15 because it will be the 70th anniversary of the Korean liberation from Japan.”

Japanese abductees. Japanese and North Korean officials held talks in Pyongyang in October regarding the Japanese citizens who were abducted in the 1970s and 80s. Japan believes hundreds were abducted and some may still be alive. Dr. Mansourov says Kim Jong Un wants to see this issue resolved. “He wasn’t even born when it happened. He wants to give them back. Once that is done, he wants to be sure that the Japanese will not change their mind. He’s looking for ways to structure a deal with the Japanese in such a way that they won’t be able to walk away from cooperation under some other excuse (nuclear, missile, human rights, etc.) once they get what they want from Pyongyang on the abductees issue. He doesn’t feel any personal responsibility for the abductions problem. He has given orders to his diplomats to go out and explain the North’s position and resolve the issue. His orders are “Cooperate as much as we can and try to resolve this problem once and for all.”

Divided families. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. Although tens of thousands of people still have relatives in the North, their numbers are dwindling rapidly. By all accounts, in 10 years, there will be no living members of the families that were divided at liberation and during the Korean War on the peninsula. The idea that two Koreas still represent one country because they are united in blood but separated only by ideology will lose ground. There will be no direct blood ties between two Koreas anymore. In essence, only one or two more presidents of the Republic of Korea will have the opportunity to resolve this historical problem and put an end to this long-lasting tragedy of the Korean nation.


Speculation about North Korea has become a routine sport. The reclusive country and tightly controlled media and people continue to worry our government and the experts. But the facts remain, in comparison to three years ago, the North Korean regime is today stable. Kim Jong Un is firmly in command. The economy is recovering and the people are accepting of the legitimacy of his rule and the current status quo. There is no possibility of a coup by the military. North Korea is a resourceful country with a resilient system. On the international arena, the country will be stronger and more assertive in the years ahead. How should the U.S. and the West respond? Should we follow a policy of engagement or isolation? In the view of our speaker and participants, in order to bring about positive change, regime change should not be the objective. Sanctions have not worked for 61 years because North Korea exists in an economic and political world separated from the West. Senior North Korean officials have repeatedly told outsiders that Kim Jong Un will be around for the long term and it is incumbent on the U.S. (as well as Japan and South Korea) to find ways and be open to opportunities to engage them in the international community.

This forum summary excerpted from: Dr. Barry participated by Skype; forum summary prepared by Dr. William Selig with editing by Dr. Barry.