One Kim to Rule them All?

Following his criticism from Kim Jong-il in the autumn of 1992, Kang Sok-ju received orders to undergo revolutionary instruction. He spent one month cleaning manure on a pig farm outside the city before being recalled to Pyongyang by Kim Jong-il a month later. The Italian ambassador and his travelling party had arrived in the DPRK shortly after Kang’s return. Moreover, Kang’s relationship with Kim Jong-il was certainly not very good at the time. It was then that Kim instructed Kang to mobilize the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and Wangjaesan Light Music Band and arrange performances from them. The two bands brought Kim Jong-il a great deal of joy. This gave Kang the opportunity to demonstrate once more his loyalty to the regime.

Kang placed European Bureau chief Kim Heung-rim the responsibility of guiding the Italian delegation. Choe Son-hee and I were selected to work as the interpreters. Choe translated for the ambassador’s wife, while I translated for the Ambassador Rossi and the director. Choe has been seen fairly frequently on South Korean television and became somewhat famous. She is now in charge of Foreign Ministry’s relations with the United States.

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Choe Son-hui, N.K. diplomat on U.S. affairs

The day before the Italian delegation arrived, Kang held a meeting in his office. There, he gave Kim Heung-rim and me the following instructions:

“You must be well aware of the great interest that both the Supreme Leader and Kim Jong-il have in the successful completion of this project. To cut a long story short, I will have to provide regular reports to our comrade leaders on the Italian ambassador and his delegation. The Supreme Leader and Kim Jong-il will also want detailed information about each specific member of the travelling party. This will include, immediately after their arrival here, information on their taste, hobbies, and familial relationships. It is also possible that our leader will request that Jon Hee-jeong at the Foreign Ministry also be kept up-to-speed with the delegation’s movements. However if you report anything to the Supreme Leader before reporting it to Kim Jong-il, there will be big trouble. Don’t forget this. The internal reporting orders of the Foreign Ministry require reports be first made to Kim Jong-il before they reach the Supreme Leader. Keep this in mind at all times.”

I knew that since the late 1980s all information was to be first reported to Kim Jong-il, however hearing it here now still struck me as somewhat surprising. From Pyongyang Airport to the Koryo Hotel it is about a 30 minute car ride. I travelled with the foreign delegation and travelling party and spent this time getting to know them and using various techniques to ascertain their personal information. Ambassador Rossi and his wife spoke in Italian during the trip. Whilst I could not possibly understand what they were saying, I did detect that his wife was perhaps not fluent in Italian. I therefore asked the wife where she was born in Italy. She replied that wasn’t Italian but Egyptian. She also told me that she was a cousin of the then Secretary of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

When we arrived at the Koryo Hotel and went through the formalities of checking-in, I had the opportunity to talk with Foreign Ministry director Mario Filippo Pini. During this, it struck me that he possibly understood Korean. When I asked him if he could speak Korea, he replied that he knew a little of the language. I then continued and asked him where he had learned Korean and discovered that his wife was Korean and thus he had picked up bits and pieces of the language.

“Your visit to the DPRK must be known by quite a few people. You must have a good relationship with the South Korean Embassy in Rome…?” I asked him.

“I’m married to a Korean, yes. But in terms of politics regarding the Korean Peninsula we treat both the North and South equally. Before we came to Pyongyang, I met with the South Korean Ambassador to Rome. He asked about the purpose of our visit here and to share the results of our trip with him when we return.”

I then asked him the name of the South Korean ambassador based in Italy. He told me it was Lee Ki-joo. While talking to him, however, the hotel receptionist was making rather a large deal about wanting me to take a phone call. Jon Hee-jeong was waiting for me on the line. When told once more that I was not to report to Kim Il-sung, I evaded the situation by declaring that it was time for me to take the delegation to their rooms. And then I would report all the necessary information regarding the travelling party to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

After my report had been confirmed as having been received by Kim Jong-il, I received a phone call from Jon Hee-jeong. Jon had always had a very calm personality and never raised his voice to anyone. However as soon as I picked up the phone, I was greeted by a very agitated, loud, and frustrated voice.

“What is your name and title? Why didn’t you pick up the phone? When did you join the Foreign Ministry? Do you know how much of a hard time the Supreme Leader is giving me waiting for the report?”

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Secretary of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Of course he too must have known that all internal reports were to go to Kim Jong-il first. However with Kim Il-sung breathing down his neck, it was no surprise that he was both frustrated and angry. “Sorry” I replied. “I didn’t realize there was a phone call and was busy securing the rooms for the travelling Italian delegation.” Later, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were both pleased to discover that one of the travelling party’s wives was the cousin of the United Nations General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Ghali was known to possess quite prominent anti-American sentiments. Both father and son felt affronted about something: the fact that the Foreign Ministry director Mario Filippo Pini’s wife was Korean.


Securing Italian Money (pp. 29-31)

Still reeling from the betrayal of the Soviet Union and China, more bad news was to visit the DPRK. In November 1992, the Italian government proposed discussing the establishment of bilateral relations between the two countries and said it would send the Italian Ambassador to China Oliver Rossi and Foreign Ministry director Mario Filippo Pini to Pyongyang.

South Korea had established diplomatic relations with the DPRK’s main allies, the Soviet Union and China, whereas North Korea had failed to do so with the United States, Japan and other established Western nations. So, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent reports to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

“The establishment of diplomatic relations between the ROK and China will provide a new impetus for future DPRK foreign relations. Despite us spending a lot of time declaring to the international community our own independent foreign policy, we were often seen as little more than a satellite state of the Soviet Union and China. Now, however, the Soviet Union has collapsed and China has entered into relations with South Korea. Thus, we now have an opportunity to demonstrate just how independent our country truly is. Moreover, our external status will likely be strengthened by these developments in the future. From now, we will have greater opportunities with the United States and it will also speed up development in our relations with European, Asia, and Latin American countries.”

Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il both agreed to push ahead with this plan. Prior to this in September 1992, Carlo Baeri ‘Chairman of the Italian Foreign Financial Exchange Group’ (translator’s note: the name of this organization has yet to be verified) had been invited to discuss the possibility of offering a loan of $100 million dollars. With the fall of the Soviet Union, 11 new countries had gained independence in the same year and there was much concentration on establishing diplomatic relations with them all. These would help in diplomatic terms following the disappearance of the Soviet Union, but they provided little in terms of practical or tangible support.

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Portrait of North Korean author Ri Ki-yong

It was against this particular backdrop that the Italian government had offered to send an ambassador to Pyongyang. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were naturally both ecstatic to hear such news. In Italy, Lee Jong-hyuk served as the North Korean delegate to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and he was considered by many to be rather astute in the world of business and finance. Lee Jong-hyuk is the son of North Korean writer and current vice chairman of the North Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, Ri Ki-yong. He would often appear in meetings with the South.

Italy’s parliament has traditionally been dominated by both socialist and communist parties. Following the end of the Cold War, the Italian Parliament had frequently called on the administration to establish diplomatic relations with the DPRK. It was now time for the government to decide whether or not it would issue the $100 million dollar loan to the DPRK. The outcome of this would no doubt change the diplomatic atmosphere between the two countries. Full of expectation, Kim Il-sung said the following:

“Italy is a Western European country that acts with a great deal of autonomy. Them sending an ambassador here will not be a case of them just coming to test the waters and nothing else. With the admission of both the ROK and the DPRK to the United Nations, the era of the Two Koreas has well and truly begun. Italy’s position seems to be that of remaining equidistant between both South Korea and North Korea and developing both relationships simultaneously. If we act correctly now, we’ll likely be able to establish diplomatic relations with Italy. I’ll even meet the Italian ambassador myself.”

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The Wangjaesan Light Music Band takes it name from Mount Wangjae – where Kim Il-sung reportedly held anti-Japanese guerrilla meetings

Kim Jong-il, also clearly excited by what was unfolding, provided us with the following instructions:

“The Supreme Leader has very high hopes for his meeting with the Italian ambassador and his associates. The Party is to provide all the necessary support as we work towards establishing diplomatic relations with Italy. If we need to wine and dine this group of people to secure the $100 million dollar loan, then so be it. Place them all in the top floors of the Koryo Hotel and provide with them nothing but the best in terms of cars and food. Don’t just provide them with performances at the Mansudae Art Theatre. Instead, the First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju will personally take them to the WKP’s Magnolia House for a meeting there. I will arrange performances by the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and Wangjaesan Light Music Band.

The question that the Italian ambassador and his colleagues were most curious about was what type of economic relationship they would be able to forge with us. So, I will inform Room 39 (Department of Finance and Accounting) and have them taken to the Muncheon Smeltery in Gangwondo so that they can see our gold storage. When they see this, their mouths will surely fall open and their dollars will be ours. When you take them there, use the helicopter. Taking the car will only present problems in showing them the reality of our situation and the roads, and we can’t allow that to happen.”

Who was Responsible for the Division of the Korean Peninsula? (pp. 26-29)

On May 27th 1991, the DPRK’s Foreign Ministry announced its intention to join the United Nations. However as we pushed ahead with the idea, a problem surfaced. If the DPRK applies for membership to the UN, it creates a contradiction. From the very outset, the dual membership of both Koreas would be seen as promoting the permanent division of the Korean Peninsula. Yet, it was getting harder and harder to wait for the Republic of Korea to submit its application. Moreover if the Republic of Korea applied first and was accepted, there was still a chance the United States could veto the DPRK admission and that would be disastrous.

Therefore, we discussed the order of membership applications with both China and the Soviet Union. They both confirmed that the United States still supported the dual-application of both Koreas to the UN but could provide nothing in the way of guarantees. Eventually, the DPRK secured an agreement that both China and the Soviet Union would only approve South Korea’s application providing the North had already been accepted and the US didn’t oppose it.

Kim Jung-il reported to Kim Il-sung that it would be the DPRK who would submit their application first. At first, Kim Il-sung was furious and worried that it would result in just the South being admitted. However, with a sigh, he eventually concurred and gave his assent. Thus in July that year, the DPRK made a surprise move and submitted its application for membership to the United Nations ahead of the ROK. This came as quite a surprise to both South Korea and the United States. The issue of the DPRK and ROK’s admission was passed by the Security Council in August and unanimously accepted at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

South Korea and the international community cheered loudly at this announcement. However for us, it was most certainly not something to be pleased about. It was reported to the citizens of North Korea in a brief news report. Kim Il-sung’s lifelong policy of being steadfastly opposed to the two Koreas joining the UN had been taken away in a flash. Moreover, Kim Il-sung bore the responsibility of the permanent division of the Korean Peninsula because it was the DPRK that had submitted their application first.

Yet my doubts remained. Why was it that South Korea, which had always aggressively promoted the simultaneous enrollment of both Koreas to the UN, filed its application after us? Was it about assigning responsibility for the permanent division of the two countries? I really have no idea.

At the time, the DPRK Foreign Ministry was greatly worried that it would be the ROK who would submit their application first and then use the United States’ veto power to restrict ours. We knew of course that the Roh Tae-woo government would support our application because of their widely-stated ‘Nordpolitik’ approach. However, we remained unsure about the United States’ position as they had begun raising concerns about the nuclear threat of our country. Kim Jong-il had fought for an agreement with China and the Soviet Union that when the two Koreas were accepted into the United Nations, the DPRK would receive diplomatic relations with the United States. This was the second principle of Kim Il-sung’s that would be broken as he never wanted this to happen either. This negotiated approval would see China and the Soviet Union recognizing the Republic of Korea and the United States and Japan recognizing the DPRK.

Until that time, all textbooks in North Korea were opposed to joint membership in the UN and the fabrication of a “Two Koreas” principle. Therefore it required great skill and manipulation to cope with this latest change.

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Official Text of the December 1991 inter-Korean Basic Agreement

For example, in the case of East and West Germany, those two countries signed a basic treaty and joined the United Nations under the guise of being part of a special relationship rather than two separate states. However, unlike Germany, North and South Korea joined the United Nations not without a particular treaty or convention in place, but instead only the Korean Armistice. It also took a great deal of persuasion of the North Korean citizens that the two Koreas were not, in fact, two countries. This issue was ultimately settled in December 1991 when the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation was signed. Also known as “The Basic Agreement”, it defines inter-Korean relations as “recognizing that their relations, not being a relationship between states, constitute a special interim relationship stemming from the process towards reunification.”

Although this was akin to closing the stable door after the horse had bolted, it did provide an opportunity for the DPRK to better rationalize the concurrent admission of the two Koreas to the United Nations.

The remaining problem was how to use China and the Soviet Union’s support to instigate diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan. Only then would the cross-agreement that Kim Jong-il had made vis-à-vis the North’s and South’s relations with other countries come into play. However, the Soviet Union had already established diplomatic relations with South Korea and was responding rather uninterestedly. China responded that it was doing its best to work on the cross approval of South Korea and North Korea by the respective countries but neither the United States nor Japan were interested in pursuing it further.

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Chinese President Yang Shangkun in September, 1991

The Soviet Union, which was ultimately dismantled in the same month that the two Koreas signed the Basic Agreement, was no longer there to support the DPRK. Moreover, China then established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea without first receiving any signal as to whether the United States would do the same regards the DPRK. In particular, China did not seem willing to mediate any diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea and instead seemed to be siding with America. Furthermore, they began to rub salt in the wounds by insisting that they diplomatic relations with the United States would only be possible once the nuclear issue was resolved.

Two Koreas and the United Nations (24-26)

Kim Il-sung eventually cancelled the Pope’s invitation to Pyongyang and the DPRK’s diplomatic isolation worsened as a result. In the 1990s, Kim Il-sung began to experience what would be one of the last tragedies of his life. It was in 1991 that he received a sudden and unexpected piece of news from China.

“Following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the ROK, the balance of power in the Northeast Asian has been significantly altered. China has thus also decided to enter into diplomatic relations with the ROK to ensure that the recent reorientation of the Northeast Asian power structure does not favour the United States alone. However, relations with the ROK cannot simply be established without reason. Moreover, China’s recognition of South Korea, which at the time was not even a member of the United Nations, will pose legal problems. Thus, China is seeking to establish diplomatic relations with the ROK only after both Koreas have been admitted to the United Nations. Therefore, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) should abandon its strong resistance to the “Two Joseons” (Two Koreas) policy, and instead begin trying to undertake concurrent enrollment to the United Nations with the ROK.”

Not long afterwards, the Soviet Ambassador to the DPRK informed us that his country would be adopting a similar stance. It seemed clear to us that both China and the Soviet Union had already reached agreements with both the United States and the ROK concerning simultaneous acceptance of the two Koreas to the United Nations. Kim Il-sung had been opposed to the notion of “Two Joseons” his whole life, believing it to be little more than an imperialist scheme to foster division of the country. There was, therefore, little wonder that this latest news greatly alarmed him. On the other hand, Kim Jong-il saw all of this as somewhat of an inevitability, yet there would be much difficulty persuading his father of such a perspective.

As the DPRK refused to entertain such propositions from China and the Soviet Union, their combined pressure slowly intensified. They informed us:

“Let us hope our comrades will slowly cool such rhetoric and perspectives. In September 1991, both South Korea and the United States will move to have South Korea admitted to the United Nations at the General Assembly Meeting. However, if you agree to the simultaneous ascension to the United Nations of both Korea, it might become possible to come closer to the United States. Moreover if you simply refuse, it will likely result in just the ROK joining the United Nations. In such a situation, the South will ultimately come to be recognized as the only legitimate government on the Korean Peninsula. This must be prevented at all costs. Thus, the simultaneous entry of the two Koreas to the UN is inevitable.”

Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze (center) with US President Ronald Reagan in the White House

Thus, when the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze visited North Korea in September 1990, Kim Il-sung informed him that he had now decided to cooperate with the South in this matter. What was even more alarming, however, was Shevardnadze’s assertions that such progress should not be delayed any further. In October of the same year, at the first high level inter-Korean talks, Kim Jong-il proposed that the two countries join the United Nations on a single seat. However, the South Korean government was strongly opposed to this suggestion. This, in turn, got back to China. The DPRK’s attempts to block simultaneous entrance of the two Koreas to the UN by engaging in talks with the South as a delaying tactic ultimately resulted in failure.

In May 1991, we received a notification from the Maltese Government (Guido de Marco), the then chair of the United Nations General Assembly. It informed us that while holding the position of chair of the United Nations General Assembly, the Foreign Ministry of Malta was hoping to visit the DPRK, meet with Kim Il-sung, and finalize the issue of joining the United Nations. A committee was formed inside the North Korean Foreign Ministry and I was chosen to operate as both a translator and guide for the Maltese delegation. Things were now progressing as Kim Jong-il had envisioned them. Not long later, the Foreign Ministry received an order from Kim Jong-il.

“The Supreme Leader has made a decision to accept the joint membership to the United Nations. Now, we must obtain funds from both China and the Soviet Union. We must ensure that if we go ahead with this that both China and the Soviet Union will work to help us establish diplomatic relations with the United States.”

Kim Jong-il Fears Christianity (pp. 21-24)

Duties and roles were shared and carried out within the established committee. The Foreign Ministry was to handle aspects related to the papal visit while the United Front Department (UFD) was in charge of the religious nature of it. Coincidentally, I was part of the latter organization. However, the attitude of the workers in this department left little to be desired. They spent the day reading books, chatting, and simply waiting to go home. Were a member of the Foreign Ministry to act in such a manner, they would be severely reprimanded immediately.

After seeing this behavior continue for a few days, I asked them why they didn’t work and prepare for the task ahead. They answered thus: “Kim Jong-il has already concluded that the Pope’s visit to the DPRK would be problematic domestically. We can’t really make any more progress; however, the problem is that this was instructed to us by Kim Il-sung so we have no choice but to stay here. Try to smooth this over with the Foreign Office.”

Ultimately, with all power and authority residing with Kim Jong-il, the Pope’s visit to the DPRK remained impossible. Despite this, I believed that a papal visit to Pyongyang would go a long way to alleviating the country’s diplomatic isolation.

Nevertheless, the department in which I worked was operating in such a way and said, “If the Pope comes to the DPRK, the United Front Department and the State Security Department will have to consider the following things. Currently, the Foreign Ministry has no idea whether there are any Christians in the country or not – moreover, if there are any, we have no clue how many there might be. If the Pope does visit, and the number of Roman Catholics in the country increases, who will then be responsible for this?”

Since birth, I had been taught that religion was bad. This anti-religious attitude was reinforced through North Korean movies such as Choi Hak-shin’s Family and Songhwangdang. If there were Christians in the DPRK, I could not believe that they would dare to say so.

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Movie fan Kim Jong-il inspects some cameras

At that time, North Korean Catholics were supposed to be taken to the Vatican as it had demanded, “If there are any real Catholics in the DPRK, bring them here.” The Ministry of People’s Security had searched the resident registration lists and found those that had declared their faith before the Korean War broke out. In doing so, the Korean Catholic Association (KCA) thus found an old grandmother. The KCA went to her and asked whether or not she still believed in God. The grandmother assured them, “How can you ask if I believe in god when we have both the Supreme Leader and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) here?”

“You may speak freely. We are looking for someone that still believes in god so that we can send them to the Vatican City in Rome. If we are able to find a devout believer, it will be of great help to both the Workers’ Party and the nation.”

The grandmother replied warmly, “When God enters someone heart, he never leaves.” The party worker asked the old lady how she had managed to maintain her faith over all these years, so she took them to her house. It was then easy to see by the way things were arranged and the unmistakable atmosphere that this was clearly the place of a religious person. Having confirmed that the lady was still a believer, the party worker said to that she should visit the Vatican for the benefit of the revolution.

The old lady looked to the sky and replied: “God, I have prayed hard my whole life and this is how you have rewarded your faithful.” The party worker tried to remind her that her trip to the Vatican was for the benefit of the revolution, but it was no use. She was convinced that she had been called by god. However, she still pleaded with them not to tell her son as he was as yet unaware that she had prayed here every night.

The old lady thus followed the North Korean delegation to the Vatican and there testified that the DPRK had both religious freedom and people maintained personal chapels in their homes. In front of the Pope, she expressed her reverence for the Catholic Church. Those in the Vatican declared that they were able to see the genuine faith of a believer in the eyes of the old lady.

Through this, the WPK had inadvertently reduced the level of fear associated with religion. This is why those associated with the United Front Department were uncomfortable with the invitation that was being proposed to the Pope. If he were to visit the DPRK, it might spark a Catholic upsurge in the country. Thus, the committee arranged to work on a the Pope’s invitation to Pyongyang was quietly dissolved a mere two months after it had been inaugurated.


The Road to Nuclearization (pp. 18-21)

Kim Il-sung: “Invite the Pope to Pyongyang”

My first steps as a public official in North Korea came after returning from my second spell abroad studying in China. On October 25, 1988 I was officially appointed to the Foreign Office (at the time the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and placed in charge of affairs for the European division responsible for Britain and Ireland. While Seoul was still gripped by the fever and emotions of the 88 Olympics, the DPRK was preparing to host the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students. I was 27 years old at the time.

Having witnessed the festivities and change in the Mangyondae district, I vowed then and there to devote my passion and energies to my socialist homeland. However, I knew that the somewhat excessive preparations for this festival had damaged the country’s economy. What I did not know was that this economic struggle would coincide with the fall of the Eastern Bloc and result in an arduous march for our people.

At the time, Kim Yong-nam was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but it was around Kang Sok-ju, the first deputy (equivalent to South Korea’s First Vice Minister), that the power was truly centered. The Foreign Ministry’s rules were noticeably strict. While power always eventually resided in the military, because of the prevalence of many diplomats there was a reasonable amount of open-mindedness in the organization. Consequently, I received a lot of advice from my senior colleagues.

A deep impression of the atmosphere and life inside the Foreign Ministry remains with me today. Every Saturday morning, party members would engage in a “self-criticism meeting” during which they would criticize both themselves and the party rather actively. With publications of the works of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jung-il, the ‘Doksongsilgi’ (Records of Virtue), as well as other memoirs of anti-Japanese fighters, everyone participated in a discussion of these with great vigor and seriousness. Now it is possible for party members to come and copy sections of these works, but that would have been unthinkable at that time.

Kim Il-sung: Reminiscences with the Century (Volume 1)

Every quarter, these “self-criticism” meetings would take place and we would have to reflect on own behavior in front of the group. Members would also stand up and take turns criticizing each other. Regardless of whether or not people had prepared or not, we all enthusiastically took part in the criticisms. People would often use these moments of criticism and reflection to demonstrate their own personal loyalty and obedience to the party. Around 1992, Kim Jong-il reviewed the behavior of vice deputy Kang Sok-ju through the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). While Kang was receiving his criticism, some women burst into tears and demanded that he be punished. Kang was sent for one month’s revolutionary training in an agricultural workplace as punishment.

These periods of self-criticism are at the core of maintaining a slave society in North Korea. Self-censorship and mutual censorship create human beings that conform unfalteringly to the system. But this was something I would only come to learn later in life; at the time, I believed these “self-criticism” systems to be the basis or a desirable party life. These quarterly “self-criticism” meetings at the Foreign Ministry have changed a great deal over the years. These days, there are many people that doze off during them. At the time, however, such things would have been completely inconceivable as the atmosphere was always far too stiff. People were far too seized by communist fervor to look anywhere else but straight ahead.

On January 9th, 1989, about a year after I had entered the Foreign Ministry, the Berlin Wall, a symbol of division between the East and West, was brought down. Around this time, North Korean diplomacy was in crisis. Eastern European countries collapsed one after the other and the Tiananmen Square protests reached the news in June of that year. The DPRK had hoped that the international system would be more accommodating following the World Festival of Youth and Students, however as the 1990s began there was a great reversal and the situation became far more pressing.

The Republic of Korea and the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations in September, 1990. German Unification began in October of that year and, in the same month, the Republic of Korea and China agreed to establish a bilateral trade agreement. The Roh Tae-woo administration’s Nordpolitik was beginning to pick up pace. It was seemingly only a matter of time before China and the Republic of Korea also solved the problem of establishing diplomatic relations. The North Korean Foreign Ministry could do little but look on aghast. A series of sleepless nights ensued with those inside the Ministry unsure how best to deal with the rapidly changing situation.

In December of the following year, the Soviet Union – which had served as a protective shield for the DPRK – finally fell. However, few people actually believed that socialism had been defeated. The prevailing thought was that little in terms of systemic or ideological ground had been lost in the confrontation with South Korea. It was merely seen as a temporary setback resulting from the sudden collapse of the USSR. However, the DPRK was now isolated. China would be the last remaining hill on which North Korea could lean, but they too established diplomatic relations with the ROK in August of 1992. Now, the DPRK and its foreign affairs had become surrounded on all sides. It would not be an overstatement to say that when China and the ROK entered into bilateral diplomatic relations, the Foreign Ministry could do little but look on and weep.

Kim Yong-nam with Russian President Vladimir Putin

On particular anecdote will bring to light the sense of urgency felt by Kim Il-sung at that time. He made contact with the Pope in the Vatican City, Rome. Whenever Pope John Paul II visited foreign countries, it always made the news. Thus, it was hoped that if he were to visit Pyongyang it would surely help signal the end of the current diplomatic isolation. Kim Il-sung instructed Kim Yong-nam to begin taking the necessary measures to make this happen and the necessary committee was formed in 1991. I became a member of the committee tasked with this undertaking.

Interview: November, 2018

What follows is a rough summary – rather than direct translation – of the interview Thae Yong-ho did with the Newstapa organization in South Korea, November 2018.

The link to the video interview will be placed at the bottom.

Welcome any corrections of misunderstandings I may have made. Opinions not my own.

Confucian culture is prevalent in North Korean society. And because the Kim family are seen as gods in that society the idea of a younger brother ruling, while also having an older brother, therefore causes a form of culture clash or cognitive dissonance.

This was the reason for Kim Jong-nam’s assassination. It is why Kim Jong-chul is in danger.

Kim Jong-chul is interested in the arts and music, and is talented, but is unable to explore these, which is a tragedy. Kim Jong-chul’s artistic nature makes him rather indecisive. However, Kim Jong-un is very decisive and quick to pass judgement.

Thae hears all the time from South Koreans that the two Koreas share the same DNA, and the same history, therefore they can understand each other. But he feels they differ because of the economic and political developments.

Where South Koreans have fought bravely for democracy, standing in front of tanks and opposing autocratic rule, the North Koreans have lived like slaves. The difference is the South Koreans have a resistance DNA that cannot tolerate injustice. North Korea, however, remains a “concentration camp”.

North Korea essentially doesn’t change. It’s using the same people in North-South negotiations that have been there since 1991. Consider how much South Korea changed in that time, in terms of both people in the negotiations and the wider society and politic.

All North Koreans know about the political prisons inside the country – from the children up. If people do anything wrong, they know they will be taken there. There are different types of law in the country. Constitutional law as well as party law. And if a citizen does something against the party or the politics, they will be taken to these political prison camps. But people do not know, and cannot know, what they might do that would be considered anti-party.

When trying to explain this type of country and system to people in the United States, they find it hard to believe or fathom. South Koreans however, in general, believe they understand it on the assumption that they too had human rights problems in the past. However, the two are not comparable. They do not understand the extent to which it happens in North Korea.

While there may be evidence of market reforms in the country, because of the oppressive nature of the organizational structure of the country, these will not work as quickly as they have done in places such as Eastern Europe.


The Internet and Human Rights (pp. 172-174)

In the first half of 2001, the EU presidency was held by Sweden. It also remains the only country in the world with three representatives on the Korean Peninsula: In Seoul, in Pyongyang, and in Panmunjom. The Swedish embassy in North Korea also acts as a symbolic representative of the United States which has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. While the representatives in both Seoul and Pyongyang might seem rather obvious, there will no doubt be those curious about the Swedish representatives in Panmunjom. They exist there as part of the Military Armistice Committee (MAC).

Sweden prides itself on the rather unique relationship it has with the Korean Peninsula and always pays particular attention to the problems that arise while happily playing the role of mediator. In early 2001, Swedish Prime Minister Hans Göran Persson, in his capacity as chairman of the European Union, proposed leading a delegation of the various European members to visit both Koreas.

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Swedish Prime Minister, Mr. Hans Göran Persson in Pyongyang

Entering North Korea at that particular time was not really that serious a matter. In January of that year George W. Bush had been elected president and the Neo-Con perspective was beginning to gather momentum. Kim Jong-il once more emphasized the need for the DPRK to solidify its relations with western countries before American policy focused its attention on North Korea. In such an atmosphere, it was a given that Kim Jong-il would immediately accept such a proposal from the Swedish Prime Minister.

Kim Jong-il addressed the Foreign Ministry: “The current US government’s policy will not be as it usually has. This will be the first time in the history that western leaders will have visited our Republic, so we are to take advantage of this opportunity to integrate ourselves with the international community before the US begins carrying out broader cooperation on its proposed sanctions. Therefore, prepare and submit all documents and reference materials in advance of this summit and talks as soon as possible.” A task-force was constructed and I was appointed to head it.

The archives at the Foreign Ministry were reviewed and we had our representatives based in Sweden send in daily reports. These concerned politics, economy, culture, and military, of course, as well as those on popular actors, singers, alcohol, places of interest, customs, and all sorts of other information collated together. These were summarized and sent for Kim Jong-il to see who then studied the materials presented by the Foreign Ministry with a great enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, the North Korean Embassy in Sweden asked for permission to install internet capabilities. After all, using the internet is far different from having to go to a library every day in an effort to collect data. Data retrieval and the ability to search a variety of documents is incredibly fast and therefore far more efficient. Until that point, Internet access was prohibited at the North Korean embassy. Having already experienced life in Sweden, I explained the potential advantages of the internet to First Vice President Kang Seok-joo. Minister Kang wrote about an official report of internet use and presented this to Kim Jong-il.

Upon being presented these reports, Kim Jong-il granted permission for internet use. This particular decision in the first half of 2001 was the first time overseas diplomats had been allowed to use the internet. Of course, overseas use of the internet would have been unavoidable in the long time and so would have perhaps been instigated in the future regardless. However, in highly-restrictive and closed societies like North Korea, policy changes regarding things such as internet usage do not come around frequently and thus I believe this was a rather special opportunity. To this day, internet use inside the DPRK is still prohibited.

Chris Patten: European Commissioner for External Relations

Hans Göran Persson visited North Korea on May 2nd, 2001 and stayed for 1 night and 2 days. Chris Patten (Baron Patten of Barnes), the European Union’s European Commissioner for External Relations accompanied him. Their visit signaled a change in North Korea’s human rights policy.

Prime Minister Persson is the first and last foreign visitor to formally raise the issue of human rights in the presence of the North Korean leader. The Foreign Ministry had previously avoided inviting any foreigners likely to raise human rights issues to Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il. Even if such people were able to visit North Korea, they would not even be able to dream of meeting the leader.

However, Prime Minister Persson, who met with Kim Jong-il, raised the problem of human rights and tried to convince the North Korean leadership of their importance at a farewell luncheon despite the topic not being on the official agenda.

“Even if the nuclear issue is resolved, North Korea will not be able to join the international community as long as human rights issues remain,” Persson told Kim. He went on to advise Kim Jong-il that “North Korea’s cooperation with the international community, particularly in the field of human rights, would benefit from a more long-term perspective.”

Ultimately, unless North Korea were to solve its human rights problems it will not be able to receive any support from western countries. This was a particularly galling thing to hear as it sounded like a political attack.

Secret Agents, Art Exhibitions, and the NIS (pp.169-172)

Featured image: The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930) which was displayed at the British Museum during the exhibition of North Korean art

Even with the new hard-line Republican government of George W. Bush now in power, Britain pushed for rapid developments in its newly-normalized relations with the DPRK. In March, 2001 Permanent Under-Secretary John Kerr visited North Korea. Meanwhile, in November of that year, an art exhibition between the two countries was held at the British Museum in London. As part of the North Korean delegation, I played a role in the exhibition that was held. We were joined by Park Hyun-jae who served as the Ambassador to Uganda until his retirement in 2012 and Ri Tong-il who was North Korea’s deputy chief of the DPRK’s mission to the United Nations until late 2016.

Ri Tong Il
Ri Tong-il: deputy chief of North Korea’s mission to the United Nations

There were, of course, many British people at the event, but at least half of the participants were from the Korean diaspora. Even the South Korean Ambassador made an appearance.

The British had informed us that this was to be an event between our two countries, and that was what we believed to be the case right until the moment that we entered the venue. This proved to make it all the more embarrassing. We later discovered that South Korean companies actually sponsored the British Museum. The Korean Ambassador as well as local Korean and Japanese residents had all been invited by our British counterparts to this North Korean art exhibition. This may well have appeared a natural course of events as the event was sponsored by South Korean companies. However, North Korea where possible does not accept the participation of South Korea in events held with foreign countries because this further legitimizes the idea of there being “Two Koreas (Joseons).” If such a situation proves inevitable, permission has to be sought from Kim Jong-il. Despite the difficulty of this situation I was now faced with, I was unable to turn back because the British Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office was with me. This made the entire event rather uncomfortable, to say the least. The congratulatory remarks seemed to go on forever.

After the event, the South Korean Ambassador approached us and held out his hand in greeting. He suggested that we perhaps find somewhere quiet to sit and talk. Until the Kim Dae-jung government came to power in the South, if any of their diplomatic representatives attempted to make contact with us we rebuked them firmly and refused any approaches that they made. They were the principles to which we adhered. After the first inter-Korean summit on June 15th 2000, however, that policy had changed.

In places in which foreign officials or representatives could observe us, we were now to accept the approaches of the South Koreans and respond naturally with a degree of positivity. In this way, the DPRK’s intention was to portray an attitude of effort and cooperation in terms of its exchanges with South Korea. Despite this change, prior approval was still required or – in situations in which contact was made suddenly – a post-report had to be filed.

Now seemingly unable to resist the goodwill and approach made, I left the hall and sat in a chair. The South Korean Ambassador took me by the hand and said:

“Our North Korean policy has now changed. We are now no longer opposed to the North. Through mutual cooperation, we will be able to prosper. As an ambassador to England, there is so much to be learned here. Everything else aside, as ambassador I will be able to arrange for a handful of North Korean students to receive scholarships. So send them. It’s time for North Korea to modernize itself. Please convey to the leadership in the North that we want to coexist peacefully.”

The South Korean ambassador was diminutive and softly-spoken, but his tone was sincere. It was the first time that I had had a conversation with an ambassador from Seoul at an official overseas event. Much later in my position as a minister to the United Kingdom, I would attend a meeting between the North Korean Ambassador Hyun hak-bong and South Korean Ambassador Lim Song-nam.

I returned to the event and met with Ambassador Hwang Jun-guk and spoke with him for a while. However, unlike the discussion I had just had with the South Korean Ambassador Ra Jong-yil, it was neither long nor that serious in tone.

Rah Jong Il
Rah Jong-yil: South Korean Ambassador to Britain

Upon arrival back in North Korea, our delegation reported back on the event as protocol required us but the meeting with South Korean Ambassador Ra Jong-yil at the event was omitted. As many people had been at the event it would not have been a big problem, however it would have no doubt complicated matters somewhat. We would have had to report the entire conversation in great detail, and then the security agency would determine what we had said was true or not and we would be sent back and forth for various interrogations. And yet, this certainly would not have been the first time that a North Korean representative had had a conversation with a South Korean diplomat without reporting it to the security agency. This happens because the security agency are troublesome to deal with and rather frightening – they see things only from the perspective or trying to ascertain the truth of a situation.

When Ambassador Ra first spoke to me, I assumed he was from the National Intelligence Service (NIS). North Koreans in the diplomatic service are trained to understand things as such before they are sent abroad.

“The diplomatic overseas missions of “South Joseon” are affiliated with the National Intelligence Service. They are known as “White Agents”. These particular diplomats are sent overseas by the NIS. They will approach our diplomats warmly, greet us, present a business card, and then offer to have dinner with us. However, a real diplomat from the Foreign Ministry will not approach you in such a manner. So should any representative from “South Joseon” present himself in this way, you should be extremely cautious. Most of them will be agents from the NIS.”

South Korean Ambassador Rah Jong-yil had approached me in a comfortable and free manner. Because he spoke in a manner that was both soft and quiet, I wondered whether he might have been from the NIS. My curiosity was finally sated when in the spring of 2016, while working at the North Korean embassy in London, I became aware of the book he had written “The Way of Jang Song-thaek”. The introductory section detailing the author’s career to-date spoke of his previous work for the NIS. Just as I had suspected. When I finally arrived in South Korea and encountered Ambassador Rah by chance, we both laughed when recounting this story.

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