Kim Dynasty Sat Down With a U.S. Leader Before, With Few Results
Posted March 9, 2018 10:56 a.m. EST
BEIJING — If President Donald Trump meets with Kim Jong Un, it will not be the first time a top U.S. official has negotiated face to face with a member of the Kim dynasty.
At the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, his secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright, flew to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, and spent six hours trying to persuade Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, to suspend his missile tests.
I was among the large group of reporters who traveled with her on the plane, joining a retinue that included the State Department’s nuclear and North Korea experts.
The trip was announced on short notice; nobody knew what to expect as we left Washington in October 2000, shortly before Clinton was to leave office.
The atmosphere was upbeat over the prospect of a breakthrough on curbing the North’s missile development, which would hand Clinton a signature foreign policy achievement at the end of his presidency.
Then, like now, there had been face-to-face meetings between the leaders of the two Koreas. To set the stage, the liberal president of South Korea at the time met with Kim several months before Albright landed in Pyongyang.
In North Korea, Kim flattered Albright at every turn. He hosted her at a lavish dinner replete with French wine. She presented him with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. He also surprised her by inviting her to a mass propaganda show at a sports stadium.
Albright’s aides knew that she might be put in an awkward spot by sitting next to Kim as the stadium erupted in a frenzy over a highly choreographed performance by well-trained dancers and gymnasts celebrating the 55th anniversary of North Korea’s Communist Party. But they decided to risk her appearance at the event, fearing that rejecting Kim’s invitation would anger him.
The two sat together in the first ring of the stadium. Halfway through the show, an image of a ballistic missile launch was superimposed on the wall of the stadium in front of her — showcasing the very weapon Albright had come to persuade the North Koreans to stop producing.
It was an incongruous and embarrassing moment. Albright had made democracy in dark places her leitmotif but was put in the position of watching, and applauding, a propaganda spectacle by a tyrannical Communist regime.
Afterward, she said that Kim had turned to her as the image of the missile was displayed and “quipped” that the launch of the Taepodong 1 missile that was being shown was the first such test of the weapon — and would be the last.
Albright was asked by reporters if Kim had given her an “unqualified pledge” not to test any more missiles. The secretary said that she took his words to be “serious,” but she stopped short of giving definitive answers about her talks.
Much of the discussion in Pyongyang focused on technical details about a moratorium on the North’s missile testing and production. A follow-up meeting in Malaysia between U.S. and North Korean technical experts built on the progress at the talks.
On Albright’s return to Washington, the Clinton administration debated whether to accept an invitation for the president to go to Pyongyang to close a deal under which the North would curtail the development of longer-range ballistic missiles in return for billions of dollars.
But as the results of the contentious 2000 presidential election dragged on, the administration ran out of time, and Kim, it turned out, had other ideas. North Korea would not give up its shorter-range missiles, which posed direct threats to Japan and South Korea, major U.S. allies.
Furthermore, Kim declined to give assurances of concrete results in advance of a Clinton trip to Pyongyang and insisted on doing the negotiations “on the spot” there.
And Clinton at the time had another tantalizing prospect: trying to broker a Middle East peace deal between the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak. That did not succeed either.
Many would later view the Albright-Kim meeting as a propaganda victory for the North Koreans, as the formalities of her trip revolved around paying respects to the Kim dynasty. She visited the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader, and stopped briefly at his bier.
She also visited a kindergarten where U.S. food donations were served under a United Nations program, giving the impression that North Korea’s widespread malnutrition from a nationwide famine was under control.
The warming relations under Clinton were short-lived. President George W. Bush came into office two months after Albright’s visit, and while his secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, sought to follow up with Pyongyang, Bush instead deferred to Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser. She demanded a review of North Korea policy and put the Albright advances on ice.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Bush denounced North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq, a move that swiftly ended contact with Pyongyang.