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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
With North Korea and the U.S. expected to sit down for working-level talks in the next few weeks, chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil last Friday issued a statement welcoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s new openness to exploring a “new method” in diplomacy.
But more significant than the statement was the long-awaited confirmation by the DPRK that Kim Myong Gil is now serving as its “chief delegate” in working-level negotiations with the U.S.
All eyes will now be on Kim (60), then, to see whether he can succeed where his predecessors failed and secure a deal with the U.S. that provides the North with sanctions relief and security guarantees.
Conversations between multiple former U.S. government officials and other sources by NK News this week — as well as analysis of his CV — suggest he may have a fighting chance.
Kim, described variously as erudite, courteous, and an “honest broker,” has extensive hands-on-diplomatic experience in bilateral and multilateral nuclear negotiations.
He first rose to prominence during talks with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) over a light-water reactor (LWR) project following the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework.
He later led the North Korean delegation to the Six-Party Talks’ Working Group on Economy and Energy Cooperation, before being appointed minister at the DPRK Permanent Mission to the UN.
That role saw Kim play the role of de facto DPRK ambassador to the U.S., representing North Korea’s position on major issues as a rare conduit for international media.
After he stepped down from that position and left New York in November 2009, he largely disappeared from the spotlight and kept a low profile.
What, then, brought him back to the table? And why was he tapped to lead North Korea’s working-level negotiations team?
PORTRAIT OF THE DIPLOMAT AS A YOUNG MAN
After graduating from Kim Il Sung University, Kim Myong Gil began his career in the DPRK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 1982, cultivating his expertise in the U.S. and engaging in nuclear talks in both bilateral and multilateral frameworks.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that Kim Myong Gil participated in expert-level talks between the DPRK and KEDO in 1995 following the signing of the Agreed Framework in October 1994.
In August 1998, Kim became part of the DPRK delegation to the sixth round of four-party talks — held between China, North and South Korea, and the U.S. — accompanying colleagues Kim Kye Gwan and now-first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui.
In May 1999, Kim attended U.S.-North Korea meetings in Rome — talks aimed at curbing the DPRK’s missile development and the implementation of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework, according to South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo.
Kim Myong Gil began his career in the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1982
Notably, Kim then served as chief delegate to the fifth round of U.S.-North Korea missile talks in July 2000 in Kuala Lumpur.
One diplomat who spent significant time with Kim around that time remembers him as “smart, forthcoming, courteous, and extremely well informed.”
“I know Kim well and first met him back in 1998 when he was Ambassador Ri Gun’s deputy in the DPRK UN Mission in New York,” Evans Revere, who served as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. State Department, told NK News.
Revere says he worked closely with Kim between 1998 and 2000.
“Although I never negotiated directly with Kim, I got to know him well and even hosted him and his boss at my home in Virginia once — the first time, I believe, that DPRK diplomats were ever hosted in this manner by a U.S. official.”
THE AXIS OF EVIL YEARS AND SIX-PARTY TALKS
Relations between North Korea and the U.S. soured under the George W. Bush presidency, but Kim continued to sporadically visit the U.S.
In October 2004 — a month ahead of the presidential election — Kim Myong Gil and other North Korean officials flew to the U.S. to participate in a closed-door seminar hosted by Harvard University.
That event saw them meet with several former U.S. officials, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, including former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Michael Armacost
The following week, the U.S. State Department admitted that it had made contact with North Korean officials in New York, saying the principal topic of discussion was “monitoring food assistance.”
Kim engaged in meetings in both bilateral and multilateral frameworks
Kim was appointed Minister at the DPRK Permanent Mission to the UN in New York in October 2006.
It was a tense time for DPRK-U.S. relations: KEDO’s executive board had decided to terminate the LWR project just months earlier. Partly in response, North Korea had in July and October test-launched the Taepodong-2 long-range missile and conducted its first underground nuclear test.
One month after his appointment, AP was granted an interview with the new minister, in which he said progress in Six-Party Talks would depend on a sincere attitude from the U.S. and condemned the recent passage of a human rights resolution.
Throughout this time, Kim engaged in meetings in both bilateral and multilateral frameworks.
December 2006 saw him attend the second session of the fifth round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing. In March 2007, he was present at the first meeting of the “working group” on North Korea-U.S. normalization of relations — a follow-up measure to the two countries’ February 13 agreement.
More follow-up measures to that deal were the first and second-round meetings of the Working Group on Economy and Energy Cooperation, which took place respectively in March and August 2007.
In November that year, Kim also participated in U.S.-North Korea financial talks over the normalization of financial relations and the North’s illicit financial activities.
MAINTAINING A HIGH PROFILE
Throughout all this, Kim had been an unusually approachable and open member of the DPRK diplomatic community, more keen to take questions from the press than most of his colleagues.
His profile grew following the Bush administration’s decision to freeze North Korea’s bank accounts at the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in 2007, speaking to Seoul’s Yonhap News Agency about the move in April, May, and June that year.
He even openly invited then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill to visit Pyongyang in an interview with Yonhap in May that year.
In an interview with Voice of America (VOA) and the AP in July 2007, he confirmed the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and that his country was ready to “disable” the nuclear reactor if the U.S. lifted sanctions and removed it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Kim had been an unusually approachable and open member of the DPRK diplomatic corp
Kim also appeared more open to engagement with the rest of the world than most North Korean diplomats, taking part in an event marking the 50th anniversary of the New York-based Korea Society in May 2007 alongside high-level U.S. State Department officials including Christopher Hill and Sung Kim.
Kim and his family in September that year toured Washington, DC with permission from the U.S. State Department. That same month, he took part in an event at which former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung delivered a speech, later sharing his thoughts on the speech with media.
In January 2008, Kim Myong Gil delivered a speech in English at a film festival dedicated to films from North and South Korea at the University of California San Diego (UCSD).
Later in the year, as a new U.S. presidency loomed, Minister Kim and then-director general of the North American Affairs Bureau at the DPRK MFA Ri Kun met a policy team from the incoming Obama administration in New York.
The North Korean officials also met with Frank Jannuzi, a key foreign policy adviser to the administration and Policy Director of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at a forum of Korean peninsula experts hosted by Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in November.
DIVERSIFIED COMMUNICATION CHANNELS
Kim Myong Gil has also used his relationship with former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson — long a top interlocutor between Washington and Pyongyang — as a communications channel with the U.S.
After meeting Kim in August 2009, Richardson told press Pyongyang wanted a “new format” and direct talks with the U.S. That meeting also led to a visit to Pyongyang by the governor in December 2010.
“Having negotiated with Kim when he visited me in New Mexico, I found him to be a consummate professional and an honest broker who knows the United States well,” Richardson told NK News this week.
“His appointment gives me hope that an agreement with the U.S. can be worked out.”
Kim also during this time engaged in 1.5-track dialogue with the U.S., including participating in the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) in October 2009 in San Diego alongside colleagues Ri Kun, Choe Son Hui, and Kwon Jong Gun, a then-senior researcher at the Institute for Disarmament and Peace.
A day before the NEACD, Kim attended a meeting between Ri and Sung Kim, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks.
“His appointment gives me hope that an agreement with the U.S. can be worked out.”
Kim stepped down from his position at the UN in November 2009, keeping a comparatively low profile in his new role as director general at the DPRK MFA.
As part of the North Korean delegation led by then-foreign minister Pak Ui Chun, he attended the 19th Meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 2012 — the DPRK’s first participation in an international multilateral event following Kim Jong Un’s ascension to power.
In August 2015, Kim was appointed as North Korea’s Ambassador to Vietnam, with South Korean media widely reporting a photo of Kim and then-South Korean Ambassador to Vietnam Kim Do-hyun at an event making the 73rd anniversary of the UN.
Kim’s last hurrah as ambassador came in February this year, when he hosted Kim Jong Un at the embassy during the second DPRK-U.S. summit.
ADVICE FROM FORMER NEGOTIATORS…
Now chief negotiator, how might Kim Myong Gil approach upcoming talks with the U.S.?
Evans Revere believes that Kim’s geniality has likely remained strong, but stresses that personal style may not be an important variable in future talks.
“I’d be willing to bet that the affability that he always manifested back when I worked with him is still there, but it would be a mistake to think that he is anything but absolutely dedicated to accomplishing the goals that the leadership has set out for him,” Revere told NK News.
“In that regard, individual personality and personal style are unlikely to count for much in any forthcoming negotiation with the North Koreans, since the DPRK side’s agenda, approach, and targets have been carefully and specifically laid out for them,” he continued.
“It would be a mistake to think that he is anything but absolutely dedicated to accomplishing the goals that the leadership has set out for him.”
“Let’s also keep in mind that no North Korean negotiator is going to give more, or demand less, than Kim Jong Un already has in his previous discussions with President Trump.”
One source — a longtime U.S.-DPRK interlocutor who asked not to be named — said the new chief negotiator may have little choice but to play hardball.
“[He’s] definitely not a hardliner but he has to be tough at the table,” they said.
“On the sidelines, he can be flexible, so if the U.S. has a deal in mind, it should be discussed on the sidelines.”
Biography of Kim Myong Gil (Source: South Korean Ministry of Unification)
1982 Begins career at the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)
1985 Serves at the DRPK Embassy in Jamaica
1990 Official, American Affairs Bureau at the DPRK MFA
1996 Counselor, DPRK Permanent Mission to the UN in New York
2001 Researcher, American Affairs Bureau at the DPRK MFA
Unidentified Year Deputy director general, American Affairs Bureau at the DPRK MFA
October 2006 Minister, DPRK Permanent Mission to the UN in New York
November 2009 Dismissed
Unidentified Year Director General, the DPRK MFA
August 2015 DPRK Ambassador to Vietnam
The 19th paragraph has been amended
Jacob Fromer contributed reporting
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: VNU University of Social Sciences and Humanities