Catalytic Diplomacy
Proposing Ideas in Beijing
Street scene, Pyongyang, 1991
Street scene, Pyongyang, 1991 [See larger]
In Beijing in October 2003, I met with a high official of the Foreign Ministry with responsibilities for North Korea. I had met with him earlier in the year during the previous trip to China. At that time, I had presented to him a letter with seven points and suggestions and provided a briefing. (Appendix) At that time, he thought that NGOs like ours could be “helpful.” The main task for China seemed to be to prevent the situation from deteriorating and to try to keep everyone calm.

On this occasion, he felt that China could only “promote dialogue and communication,” but he agreed that “suggesting ideas” was possible as well. The process would take time and needed patience. The goal was to keep the DPRK in the talks and to avoid a breakdown of the talks. The Chinese side did support unification in the Peninsula.

I provided the Foreign Ministry with a memo of October 12, 2003, calling for mediation by China, for an interim freeze of reprocessing, for soliciting help from South Korea in the negotiations, and for a U.S.-PRC hotline, and I urged that China start thinking about unifying Korea under the South with the American forces removed. (Appendix)

Follow the Lead of President Carter

I had earlier learned from Bob Gallucci, dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, the inside story of how former President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang may well have avoided war in the Peninsula. In sum, President Carter had worked out an agreement with the North and then placed a call to the White House from Pyongyang. The call arrived, it so happened, during a meeting that President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Defense Secretary William Perry were having to discuss escalation moves they felt reluctantly obliged to take in the crisis (e.g., shoring up troop levels and moving relatives of the military out), all of which might lead to reciprocal escalations from the North.

Gallucci, who was instructed by President Clinton to take the call, reported to the group that Carter had sketched his proposal and said he was delivering it on CNN in five minutes. The President said: “You told him not to do that, didnt you?” to which Gallucci had responded: “Look, he is a former president, I couldn’t do that.”

The group then repaired to the television to watch CNN. Subsequently, they decided they had no choice but to try to “make lemonade” out of a deal they would earlier have described as a lemon. So Carter defused the crisis with a preemptive publicized proposal.

After I described this interesting vignette to the Foreign Ministry official, I suggested that “following the lead of President Carter” might be a useful approach for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. If, in a future such crisis, China reached a suitable compromise with the North, they could announce publicly that they and the North Koreans were prepared to do such and such if the United States would do such and such. I was told: “This is a very good idea.”

An Expert on North Korea

I talked to a woman who had lived in North Korea and followed the situation closely. She confirmed that the North Koreans had wanted to become “best friends” with the United States but were now disappointed. They had hoped to follow the example of China in 1972 and to improve relations with some Kissingerian visit.

She thought the generals in the North would be harder to negotiate with than Kim Jong-Il because they are the descendants of other generals who fought the Americans in the Korean War. Without Kim Jong-Il, there would be chaos in the North and not more of the same under one of his sons.

Could Collapse Mean War? Four Experts

With so many Bush administration experts waiting for the North to collapse, it seemed useful to explore what that might entail. (Note)
In June 2004, I returned to China to discuss North Korea (and, of course, Taiwan). With regard to the 1961 China-North Korea Friendship Treaty, two experts on North Korea said it was definitely in force but its terms of giving “support and assistance” in case of attack were now interpreted differently. For example, an attack by South Korea would not today be considered an external attack and would not be covered! And a new condition would exist that the other party caused the attack (e.g., the United States would have to attack with no reason).

They said the North had a rule called “super-strong tactics against the strong,” which meant “raise all raises.”

Asked if Kim Jong-Il had been an assassination target of a recent train wreck, they said that some thought so.

Generating Trust: The Hard-Line/Soft-Line Swap

I met with an official in the Foreign Ministry on North Korea and expounded on five ideas.

I said: "The major problem in the North Korea talks is the issue of trust. How can we build trust? Consider the situation of a poor man who asks a bank for a loan. The loan is refused because the person has a poor credit rating and the bank has no ‘trust’ that the loan will be repaid.”

“How could this be solved? Perhaps the man has a rich friend whom the bank does trust. Perhaps the rich friend could ‘underwrite’ the loan by assuring the bank that he will personally ensure that the loan will be repaid. This would turn trust in the rich person into trust in the poor person.” This got their attention.

I went on to describe how China could cut a deal with the United States in which the United States would swap a soft line for a Chinese hard line.

What if the Chinese considered guaranteeing North Korean implementation of any agreements it reaches with the United States by promising to take a hard line with the North Koreans if they do not fulfill their commitments? China provides so much of their food and fuel that it can do this. What if it said to the United States that it would provide this guarantee if this would help resolve the key problem of “trust” and lead the United States to negotiate more flexibly?

And how could this threat of putting pressure on North Korea be explained to the North by China? China, I suggested, could say: “We have persuaded the Americans to overlook some problems of trusting you by assuring them that we will put pressure on you if you do not fulfill your commitments. But, of course, since we both know that you will not, in fact, fail to fulfill your commitments, this is no problem for you.”

For concreteness and to avoid any misunderstanding, I had written this out on a separate, otherwise blank, piece of paper:
America agrees to take a softer line in dealing with North Korea in return for China agreeing to put pressure on North Korea if, in future, it violates any agreements reached later.

China explains this to North Korea. It says that it has told the United States that it would put pressure on North Korea if North Korea violated future agreements in order to persuade America to negotiate fairly. It tells North Korea that this is not important for North Korea because, of course, North Korea will abide by its agreements.
The official said this idea was very valuable. (On returning home, I thought this idea so promising, and so well received, that I discussed it with a senior member of the National Security Council, who also seemed, on discussion, to appreciate it.)

I had some other ideas.

Second, I proposed that China host a six-party summit to provide an opportunity at which the American president would shake hands with Kim Jong-Il. I described how the attitude toward China had changed enormously the moment Americans saw President Richard Nixon having tea with Chinese leaders.

He called this “very interesting and a real possibility.” The eventual situation depends on the top leaders, he said. But he suggested the summit should be linked to peaceful order in the region, economic issues, and political relations between the nations—not just North Korea. The handshake would be a historic moment and would mean one more set of friends and one less enemy. He called this a bold idea and a very good idea.

I redescribed my idea titled “follow the example of Jimmy Carter,” which I had explained in our last meeting in October and which he had greeted with some enthusiasm.

I said that today, eight months later, it was possible to imagine South Korea joining with China in working out such a middle-ground position—and forcing agreement to it—because the South Koreans and the Chinese now had a much greater common view of the problem and South Koreans were becoming more anti-American. Moreover, Japan might help in this today also because Japan was moving toward recognizing North Korea. He seemed to find this interesting.

He said China would adopt reasonable elements of these ideas and he hoped that there would be no intellectual rights problems.


Whether the efforts in the “Seeking Dialogue with Pyongyang” chapter to send a high official to Pyongyang had any internal reverberations inside the White House, I cannot say. Perhaps some readers might contribute relevant thoughts. But the idea seems to have been right and timely, and the effort was appreciated in many quarters. At the least, it provided a talking-vehicle for getting me through many doors, after which other important relevant subjects were discussed.

The efforts chronicled in the “Deterring Sale of Fissionable Material” chapter seems to have been timely and successful. Pyongyang was put on notice that the sale of its fissionable material could not be done in the assurance of secrecy. And, thus far, no other practical method of deterring Pyongyang from selling such material has been unearthed, since the material is not heavy or large.

The Chapter on "Proposing Ideas in Beijing" shows a variety of ideas worth keeping in mind. In particular, the idea of trading a U.S. "soft-line" for a Chinese "hard-line" seems valuable.

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