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by Eugene D. Schmiel

The unprecedented visit last year by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to North Korea was the culmination of a long and difficult diplomatic process, one which began after the U.S. and North Korea met on a political level for the first time in 1992. Having been the deputy director for Korean Affairs in the Department of State back then, I followed the press reports about the Secretary’s visit with great interest

One item in particular, which probably very few others noted, caught my eye. It came when the secretary presented a unique gift to North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il: an official NBA basketball autographed by the greatest player of our time, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. The incongruity of these three particular personalities coming together to advance diplomacy brought a smile to my face as I thought back to my small role in setting that process, as well as the overall negotiations, in motion.

The following is an updated vignette about my role, which first appeared in a longer form in a book my wife Kathryn and I wrote two years ago. As you read on, you’ll understand why I smiled.

The pervasiveness of American culture, popular and otherwise, is a matter of pride for some, and of sorrow for others—primarily in places like France which have their own views about being a dominant culture. However, the strength of American culture was never so clear to me as when, as the deputy director for Korean affairs, I had my first chance to meet a diplomat from that hermetically-sealed nation, North Korea.

The occasion was an academic conference on the future of the Korean peninsula, a gathering which the United States in those years had allowed North Koreans not affiliated with their government to attend. We had no diplomatic relations, were (and still are) technically at war, and were forbidden to have formal diplomatic contacts. The North Koreans went along wi th this very practical charade by sending foreign and defense ministry officers who were working temporarily at the North Korean “Institute for Peace Studies.”

Plus it was in their interest, given the well-known reputation of the “Hermit Kingdom” for walling itself off from the world, to have at least some of their leadership gain the experience of interchanges with American officialdom. Also, we had heard that the elite regularly stole satellite signals from the mass media, e.g., CNN and ESPN, without paying “capitalist prices” for them. Thus, we conjectured, those few North Koreans who were sent to the United States knew at least a few things about American culture.

When we were advised which three North Koreans were coming to this particular conference, they were of particular interest. One, the equivalent of a deputy assistant secretary of state, was an old-fashioned hard liner. The second was an office director-level diplomat in the “America Department” rumored to have “good English, an intelligence background, and close ties to the Dear Leader Kim.” The third was a youthful interpreter cum watch dog.

My job at the conference was a bit of a challenge. I was replacing the director, who had been called away at the last minute, and I was to comment on various papers, including one by the North Korean office director. Luckily, all of the papers had a great deal in common and broke no new ground. So, unsurprisingly, it was easy to compliment everyone on their agreement with the objective of eventual national unity.

During the coffee breaks between sessions, I began to get to know the North Korean visitors. Surprisingly, the office director was able to get away from the others and exchange a few thoughts with me without his “dear comrades” making sure of his allegiance to the party line. He then took an initiative which it appears, in retrospect, was carefully plotted.

Sipping on his coffee, the official suggested that the solut ion to our differences over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could be resolved by simply having America supply his nation with an alternative, e.g., light water reactors. These were known not only to be more efficient, but also not to produce “fissile material,” an essential element of nuclear weapons. “If you do so, I’m sure we would be willing to abandon our current program,” he assured me, “since, as you know, we cannot extract plutonium from light water reactors to be reprocessed into fissile material for making atomic weapons.”

I told him that was unlikely, given the massive cost of such an endeavor (over $3 billion). In fact, I told myself that it would never come to pass, not only for cost reasons, but also because the Congress would never appropriate funds for anything for North Korea until the latter changed its policies totally. (I faithfully reported the conversation the next day, to considerable indifference in the policy community. For posterity’s case, I’ll note here that three years later that idea became the core element of our policy, as it is today. The only difference is that Japan and South Korea are supplying most of the funding.)

When the conference was finished, having seemingly hit it off well, we agreed to meet after dinner, along with others, in the room of the future South Korean National Security adviser. We were looking for some common ground, including that which we had discussed during the conference. Things were going exceedingly well, I thought, to the extent that the director was even telling jokes (a very rare occurrence for a North Korean). For example, at one point, raising his glass in a toast to President Bush (the elder), he said, with a twinkle in his eye, that with relations between the two of us improving so rapidly, he’d soon have to find housing when his nation’s embassy opened in Washington. He then surprised us all by saying that during his previous visit, a year before for another conference, he had met with President Bush. He proceeded to pull out his wallet, pluck out a picture, and with a cunning smile show us a photo of himself with his arm around a smiling President Bush in front of the White House.

Of course, the picture was of a cardboard-figure Bush and our North Korean friend, a trick which tourists regularly used to impress their friends at home. But the images were so realistic that only a resident Washingtonian would have seen through them, at least right away. We joined the director in laughing at his joke, which significantly eased any remaining tensions.

The discussions proceeded positively until 10:00 when the climax of the evening arrived, unexpectedly, and for completely unforeseen reasons. Looking at his watch, the director suddenly said, “Stop. No more. Michael [Jordan] and the Bulls are on TNT, and I’ve got to see if Scotty [Pippen] has gotten over his latest injury!”

He then moved to the TV, turned it on, and stared transfixed at the opening jump ball of the NBA basketball between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since I’m from Cleveland, we spent the rest of our time together that evening debating not high policy, but high quality basketball shooting and such arcana as whether the NBA should permit use of the zone defense. It was clear from our discussions that he had watched the NBA for many years.

The North Korean director and his colleagues left the next day, and they were probably pleased that they had lain down the appropriate diplomatic markers. (The director remains today one of the leading North Korean negotiators in talks with the United States.). I also was happy to have met them and to have filled at least part of my personal information void about North Koreans.

Later, in 1993, when I was leaving the Korea desk for my next assignment as chargé at the U. S. embassy in Iceland, I was happy to be able to supply my successors with a conversational ice-breaker for the next time our North Korean colleague came to town. “Just make sure,” I told them, “you tell them how Michael Jordan and the Bulls are doing.”

Clearly someone took note. What other reason could explain the coming together in 2000 of that unique diplomatic trinity: Madeleine Albright, Kim Jong-Il, and Michael Jordan?

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