Article by Peter Maass

Open Sesame

The New Republic  |  June 12, 2000
North Korea opens up.

In early 1995, Tony Namkung received a phone call from a diplomat at the North Korean mission to the United Nations. Would it be possible, the diplomat asked, to arrange for the magician David Copperfield to perform in Pyongyang? Namkung, a resident scholar at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank, was one of the few people in America who could be sure such a call was not a prank. He was on good terms with the North Koreans at the mission, often going out with them to dinner or movies and frequently serving as a conduit for messages between them and U.S. officials and politicians. He made a few calls and learned that Copperfield was performing his magic in Las Vegas, so he arranged for a few complimentary passes, booked several rooms at the MGM Grand, and flew to Vegas with two North Korean diplomats.

The North Koreans, bedazzled on their first visit to America’s gambling capital, were delighted with the show and went backstage afterward to meet Copperfield (along the way, they bumped into Neil Sedaka). The man of secrets and the men from a country of secrets got along well; Copperfield said he would be glad to perform in Pyongyang. A few months later, Jonathan Hochwald, one of Copperfield’s producers, went to North Korea to scope out the facilities. The North Koreans were so excited they talked about erecting a statue of Copperfield. “They really wanted to make it happen,” Hochwald told me.

North Korea, in its bizarre way, was trying to open to the world. And it’s still trying. Although the Copperfield deal eventually foundered over finances, now, after a flurry of unexpected diplomatic moves, the curtain is being raised in Pyongyang on an even more surprising act. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, is scheduled to play host from June 12 to June 14 to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, in the first inter-Korean summit. Both sides have much to gain. The North, its moribund economy devastated by floods and famine, desperately wants aid and investment from its onetime enemies. The prosperous South, many years distant from the rule of military hard-liners, hopes to overcome the tense division of the peninsula. All of which begs the question: Is North Korea serious about joining the community of peaceful nations? Or does the country simply want more aid to perpetuate its Stalinist, bomb-making ways?

American hawks say it’s the latter. As proof, they cite recent history. In 1994, under then-President Kim Il Sung, North Korea nearly provoked a regional war by appearing to extract weapons-grade plutonium from its nuclear reactor, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It pulled back from the brink only after the United States, Japan, and South Korea bought it off with the promise of two new nuclear reactors and 500,000 tons of heating oil per year until the new plants came online. In 1995, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans began starving to death in a protracted famine. Kim Il Sung’s successor, his son Kim Jong Il, who until then was known chiefly as a reclusive playboy, refused to allow foreign aid workers free access to the countryside and diverted some of the food aid to the army. In 1998, North Korea rocked the world again when it launched a three-stage missile, thus proving its ability to strike far beyond its shores. Last year Pyongyang officially agreed to refrain from further missile tests, but it’s anyone’s guess what’s happening in its (literally) underground laboratories. Rather than breathe life into a dying rogue regime, the hawks want to tighten the noose.

Here’s where supporters of engagement—including the U.S. State Department—have a strong counterargument. Backing North Korea’s government into a corner might undermine it in the long run, but that could take many years, since the regime, which is so repressive that it lacks a dissident movement, has proved far more resilient than expected. Meanwhile, without economic carrots from the United States and its allies, Kim Jong Il’s government will have every incentive to continue developing and selling to other countries and rogue groups its missile technology—the only thing it has that anyone would want to buy.

More importantly, note the engagement boosters, there is good reason to believe that Kim Jong Il has changed his tune—in other words, that there is a real chance for a more peaceful relationship with his government. In the early years of his rule, this argument goes, Kim Jong Il had only a weak grip on power, with few of his own people occupying key posts in the government and the military. Most Korea experts gave the younger Kim a year in office before his regime collapsed, perhaps in the manner of Ceausescu’s Romania. The famine made Kim’s position more precarious, virtually ensuring he would not risk rocking the boat with a new policy of opening to the West.

But Kim has emerged from the famine firmly in charge and has begun taking some of the very steps the West has long called for. About 150 representatives of international governmental organizations have recently been allowed to set up camp in North Korea. In the past few months, Pyongyang has agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations with Italy and Australia. North Korea also wants to join ASEAN’s Regional Forum and is involved in slow-moving talks with the United States and Japan on a range of issues, including missile proliferation, that stand in the way of diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has been carrying on a back-channel exchange of letters with Kim Jong Il. “They seem to have seen the light and are ready to get serious about trying to find a way of working with the South, with Japan and the U.S.,” a senior U.S. official told me.

The North Koreans are likely motivated more by selfinterest than by goodwill. Since taking office in 1998, South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung has pursued a “sunshine policy” of increasing economic and cultural exchanges with North Korea in hopes of convincing the government that it has more to gain from engaging the West than from spurning it. For example, the North earns $1 billion a year in tourism revenue from Hyundai, which sends boatloads of South Koreans on closely supervised visits to North Korea’s scenic Mount Kumgang. The best sign that Kim Jong Il has gotten the message is his agreement to meet with Kim Dae Jung at the summit. While no one is yet calling Kim Jong Il another Deng Xiaoping, he no longer appears to be a combination of Hugh Hefner and Dr. Evil.

This puts the United States in a delicate position. Although the Clinton administration has provided more than $200 million in annual aid to North Korea in recent years, until now it has steered clear of dramatic political moves, partly because it will win no political points for making nice with a regime understandably despised on Capitol Hill. But, if the summit goes well, the ball might soon be in the administration’s court. The sort of economic aid North Korea desires can only come from international institutions like the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank. Of course, North Korea will need to agree to the financial transparency demanded by these lenders—which, if you buy the logic of those who support permanent normal trading relations with China, may promote political change. The administration, on the other hand, will need to decide whether to bite the political bullet at home and remove North Korea from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism—after all, the United States isn’t in the practice of approving loans for states on that list—thus paving the way for full diplomatic relations.

Of course, rapprochement with North Korea is morally distasteful at best. But if the South Koreans—who have fewer illusions about the North than anyone in Washington—believe it is worth a try, America shouldn’t stand in the way. Détente with Pyongyang is undoubtedly a risky policy, but the truth is, when you’re dealing with a government like North Korea’s, any policy is.