Twenty years ago, on July 8, 1994, Kim Il Sung suddenly died – 17 days before what would have been the first inter-Korean summit. The weeks leading up to Kim’s death – even his funeral itself – were rare moments of opportunity missed by South Korea and the United States. Over two decades, he was first succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, until his death in December 2011, and then by his grandson, Kim Jong Un. However one assesses Kim Jong Un, present DPRK regime dynamics and the North’s intentions toward the South, the lost opportunities of a generation ago could once again present themselves. The junior Kim could find himself in a position to effect dramatic shifts in the trajectory of the North’s strategic policies, much as was the opportunity of his grandfather upon whose legacy he stands.
As I wrote for NK News in 2012, I met Kim Il Sung in his final weeks as part of a delegation of former heads of state and government led by a Washington-based NGO, the Summit Council for World Peace.* In April 1994, he appeared in reasonably good health for a man of 82. However, I later learned the North Korean leader suffered from heart disease** and that he knew he may not have much longer to live. By this point, most of Kim’s power had been assumed by his son, who evidently had complete control over domestic policy, but the father made the key decisions on the DPRK’s relations with South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the U.S., which were critical for its foreign policy.
THE GREAT LEADER’S LAST DAYS
Kim Il Sung knew that only he could make the strategic changes in North Korea’s relationships with the South, as well as with the U.S. and Japan. This could not be left for his son to attempt after his demise. When I met Kim, he spoke fondly of Kim Jong Il, calling him a filial son who daily tape-recorded reports on what was happening in the country because his father had difficulty reading. But only the founder of the North Korean state could change the trajectory of the country’s relations with its neighbors so that the entire leadership and population would be obliged to follow.
In his final years, Kim Il Sung had seen the collapse of the Soviet Union (preceded by the USSR’s recognition of the ROK), China’s establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea, and the rise of the DPRK nuclear issue into crisis proportions by May 1994. He was quite aware that China, led by Deng Xiaoping, had embarked on a serious economic transformation creating a different socialist system than the communism of the past, where central economic control was loosened but the communist party retained political control. He observed that while communism in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, the party remained in power in China. He likely realized he could not have his son inherit an uncertain and unstable international environment if these trends continued without the North undertaking its own dramatic policy initiatives to ensure its survival, in a new era, continuing socialism with DPRK characteristics but accompanied by careful economic reforms.
By 1993, the gravity of the nuclear issue caused the United States to begin its first ongoing high-level diplomatic engagement with North Korea, represented by Amb. Robert Gallucci. From my 1994 meeting with Kim Il Sung, it did not appear he had detailed knowledge of the DPRK’s nuclear program and was dependent on others to inform him. Publicly, he denied their program had anything other than peaceful intentions, and that the use of nuclear weapons would only destroy the entire Korean Peninsula. However, Kim was shrewd enough to realize he could turn a brewing crisis into a strategic opportunity.
From 1991, North Korea had issued several invitations to former President Jimmy Carter to visit Pyongyang. Each time Carter sought to accept the invitation the State Department shot down the idea, whether it was James Baker or Warren Christopher. Finally, in early June 1994, Carter made another appeal to President Clinton. Vice President Al Gore interceded for Carter and obtained Clinton’s reluctant approval for Carter to make the trip as long as he did so in a private capacity.
When Carter arrived in Pyongyang in mid-June at the height of the nuclear crisis, he built on the foundation of a discussion held a week earlier between scholar Selig Harrison and Kim Il Sung that broached the idea of freezing the North’s nuclear program in exchange for proliferation-resistant light-water reactors. To Carter’s surprise, Kim agreed to shut down the program in exchange for the LWRs, as long as the U.S. compensated the North for “lost energy production” through the provision of heavy fuel oil. Moreover, Kim agreed to meet with South Korea’s President Kim Young Sam for the first-ever inter-Korean summit.
With the assistance of the Summit Council, Carter fortunately brought a CNN film crew to Pyongyang, which enabled him to go live on international television to announce he had arrived at an agreement with Kim Il Sung that defused the nuclear crisis. Carter’s announcement also prevented the planned U.S. dispatch of 10,000 additional troops, along with stealth fighters, long-range bombers, an additional carrier battle group to the region and the evacuation of American civilians from the South. Carter’s visit preemptively limited the Clinton administration’s policy options, making a military response not credible and ensuring Russian and Chinese resistance to UN Security Council sanctions. Moreover, Carter in effect was telling the world that Kim Il Sung was a reasonable man who accepted a nuclear freeze, and that negotiations with the paramount leader in any society were preferable to confrontation and heightened tensions. Carter personally believed, as did many others (however reluctantly), that his visit prevented a second Korean War. Carter believed that power should be subordinated to diplomacy in solving conflicts among nations.
When Carter crossed the DMZ back to South Korea, he met with President Kim Young Sam, who readily accepted the proposal to hold a summit with Kim Il Sung, which was soon scheduled for July 25, 1994. In the meantime, the U.S. formally confirmed with the DPRK Carter’s agreement with the North Korean leader and began a months-long negotiation culminating with the October 1994 Agreed Framework and the establishment of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). This agreement held, with difficulty, through 2002, when it finally fell apart due mutual accusations of non-adherence to its terms.
The immediate aftermath of Carter’s visit was highly auspicious for South Korea. For Kim Young-sam, a historical opportunity had fallen into his lap. He was to become the first South Korean president to meet with the North Korean leader. If Kim Il Sung was able to change the strategic trajectory of the North’s relations with the United States, a successful inter-Korean summit could conceivably yield numerous mutual benefits leading to ongoing inter-Korean engagement, exchange and commercial activity.
DEATH OF AN AGREEMENT
On July 7, my colleague, Antonio Betancourt, Summit Council’s secretary general, was in Pyongyang to discuss details with North Korean officials of opening an office there that had been agreed upon in principle. The next day he was scheduled to meet with Secretary Kim Yong Sun, the No. 3 figure in the North, to sign the agreement. However, the next morning, Kim’s staff people informed him that the meeting with Kim Yong Sun could not take place at that time. So Dr. Betancourt departed for Beijing at noon on July 8, but upon arrival at the airport, he was met by DPRK embassy officials who told him that President Kim Il Sung had died overnight. Now he knew why his scheduled meeting that day with Kim Yong Sun was cancelled.
Betancourt remained in Beijing and went to the North Korean embassy to offer his condolences. But shortly afterward, he unexpectedly received an invitation to attend Kim Il Sung’s funeral where he would become likely the only U.S. citizen to attend. I was in Washington where I alerted CNN International that Betancourt would be in Pyongyang for the funeral. Since no foreign TV crews were permitted to cover the funeral, CNN got hold of Betancourt by phone in Pyongyang (calls to the North in those days had to be routed through Canada), and he was interviewed live by Larry King, describing the atmosphere in Pyongyang on the day of the funeral.*** My colleague, who had met Kim Il Sung five times, later conveyed his condolences directly to Kim Jong Il in a reception after the funeral.
The inter-Korean summit scheduled for July 25 obviously could not take place, but it did not mean a summit was impossible for later that year. Kim Young-sam had a choice to make: With the North Korean leader’s death he could use this historic moment of opportunity and do the correct diplomatic courtesy – offer condolences for the person he was to meet in the summit – or he could assume, as his key advisors argued, that Kim Jong Il would not last long, and appease right-wing voters, mirroring their hatred of the North. Kim Young-sam not only refused to offer condolences, but his prime minister labeled the deceased North Korean president a “war criminal,” the ROK government blamed Kim Il Sung for starting the Korean War, and the military was put on high alert. Naturally, North Korea went ballistic and the possibility of building mutual trust at that time dissipated.**** At the United Nations, flags were at half-mast, and President Clinton and other world leaders extended their condolences, but Kim Young-sam not only declined to, but barred condolence visits to the North and even their private expression by citizens.
Alternatively, he could have made a statement along these lines:
“President Kim Il Sung, whom I was scheduled to meet in 17 days, has unexpectedly died. I therefore will travel to Pyongyang to pay my respects. This decision is something that transcends politics but is a most natural deed between people of the same ethnicity and between compatriots.”
Kim Young-sam should have gone to Pyongyang for the funeral and changed the trajectory of South Korea’s relations with the North. There, he at least would have had a courtesy visit with Kim Jong Il and received a commitment that the inter-Korean summit, after sufficient time to prepare it, would take place in the near future. Instead, because Kim Jong Il did not inherit his father’s posts, the ROK president presumed the summit was aborted and felt cheated. His actions in July 1994 rubbed salt in the North’s wound. The lasting personal impact upon Kim Jong Il of Seoul’s offense against his late father should not be underestimated. And, it blatantly showed how the ROK’s northern policy was submerged in domestic politics.
EPILOGUE: A LESSON FOR TODAY
In his final years, Kim Il Sung observed that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were transforming China without the communist party’s loss of power. There were strong indications the elder Kim wanted to put North Korea on a new track to be led by his son, emulating certain Chinese reforms but with North Korean characteristics. Had Kim Young-Sam been attuned to the historic opportunities at hand, and had the Clinton administration appreciated the strategic benefits of encouraging North Korean reform, together they could have fostered a supportive environment where reforms could be undertaken by North Korea’s leader. If the Agreed Framework and KEDO had succeeded, who knows where potential DPRK reforms could have led? Kim Il Sung had already instructed Kim Jong Il to negotiate their nuclear program – their only real card – in exchange for significant political and economic benefits. Yet, after the elder Kim’s death, the Kim Young-sam government wrongly believed the North would quickly collapse and chose not to encourage the survival of its existing leadership to potentially engage in reforms.
Kim Il Sung’s untimely death and Kim Young-sam’s failure to realize the strategic opportunity that was at hand have haunted inter-Korean relations over the past 20 years, which remain filled with mistrust. Tense relations briefly ameliorated only after Kim Jong Il’s summit with Kim Young-sam’s successor, Kim Dae-jung, in June 2000. Grandson Kim Jong Un, has yet to meet even his first foreign leader. But a summit with his South Korean counterpart, President Park Geun-hye, could once again provide the opportunity to change the tragic and sorrowful trajectory of inter-Korean relations.
* The Summit Council for World Peace, an association of former heads of state and government, was founded in 1987 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon (who was born in northern Korea).
** The severity of Kim Il Sung’s heart disease, largely unknown in June 1994, is even part of the story line in the currently airing SBS K-Drama, “Doctor Stranger,” popular in the South and also the North.
*** Betancourt, joining by phone a July 20 panel on CNN’s Larry King Live that included former U.S. ambassador to Seoul Donald Gregg, Syngman Rhee (Korean-American leader), and Dr. Stephen Linton (who accompanied Rev. Billy Graham to North Korea), told King that DPRK officials wanted to follow what Kim Il Sung had agreed with Jimmy Carter, but were furious that Kim Young Sam made it a crime for South Koreans to express condolences.
***Bradley K. Martin, in his Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty(2004), writes that Kim Jong Il, in a recorded conversation with pro-DPRK Korean-Japanese officials in 1998, “…called Kim Young-sam “a filthy dirt-bag.” “One thing I feel sorry for him,” the North Korean leader told his visitors, “is that he surrounded himself with bad advisors. When Leader Kim Il-sung passed away, Kim Young-sam could not attend the funeral because of his advisors. I hear Kim himself regrets having bad helpers. When Leader Kim Il-sung died, I discussed with Secretary Kim Yong-sun what to do if Kim Young-sam wanted to attend the funeral, and made a detailed plan to receive him. But he did not come, and we were very upset with him. If he had any wisdom, he would have come to the funeral. If he had come, he might have taken over North Korea and become president of a united Korea. What an idiot!” [p. 510]
Twenty years ago, on July 8, 1994, Kim Il Sung suddenly died – 17 days before what would have been the first inter-Korean summit. The weeks leading up to Kim’s death – even his funeral itself – were rare moments of opportunity missed by South Korea and the United States. Over two decades, he was first succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, until his death in December 2011, and then by his
Dr. Mark P. Barry is an independent Asian affairs analyst who has followed U.S. - DPRK relations for the past 22 years. He visited North Korea twice and met the late President Kim Il Sung in 1994, and has appeared on CNN to discuss North Korea. From 2005-06, he helped found and direct the Asia Pacific Peace Institute in Washington, DC. He also assisted the convening of the first-ever meeting of legislators from China and Taiwan in Tokyo in June 1989, under the auspices of the International Security Council. Dr. Barry has spoken on U.S.-DPRK relations before the Korean Political Science Association, Korea Institute of National Unification, and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, among others. He received his Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and his M.A. in national security studies from Georgetown University. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in international relations and global management, and is also associate editor of the International Journal on World Peace quarterly.