Covering the 1979 world table tennis championships in Pyongyang, I figured out that North Korean observance of the custom of siesta must be the reason my otherwise clinging, ever-attentive handlers were scheduling no meetings or other events for a long while after lunchtime.
Yawning, and saying I needed a nap, I lulled them into riding an elevator to my hotel floor – where I got off – and farther up to their own floor where they took the welcome opportunity to nod off. I ran down the stairway and exited, finding a log that bridged the hotel’s moat. (Yes, two of the three hotels assigned to me in my six visits to the capital are moated.) Thus I was able to spend a gloriously free couple of hours exploring a gritty part of town that wasn’t on the approved sightseeing itinerary.
When I returned, my chief handler angrily accused me: “You must have had special spy training to be able to elude us in that fashion.” He didn’t seem to believe my denial. But did the authorities send me packing? Arrest and try me as a spy? Neither. In short order, I was sitting down for a five-hour, multi-course luncheon interview with the head of foreign policy for the ruling Workers’ (communist) Party, Kim Yong Nam.
The North Korean regime had hoped by hosting the championship tourney to replicate China’s “ping-pong diplomacy” of the early 1970s, with which Sino-US ties were thawed. Apparently, though – and, for Pyongyang, disappointingly – Washington hadn’t dispatched even a single agent disguised as a member of the US sports team’s delegation. Probably the absence of an American interlocutor in that delegation explains why Pyongyang looked to the press to convey Kim Yong Nam’s last-ditch offer to the Jimmy Carter administration.
Kim Yong Nam went on to become foreign minister and continued to have a role in North Korea’s foreign policy. Last week, though, at 91, he was replaced as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, his final post, by a younger but still veteran apparatchik, Choe Ryong Hae.
Holding the SPA presidential title for two decades had made Kim Yong Nam the nominal head of state, the official who hosted visiting VIPs – leaving whichever Kim was the country’s big boss (Kim’s the most common Korean name; the rulers have no close family relationship with Kim Yong Nam) free to plot strategy and/or carouse with the women of the palace Pleasure Corps.
Does this latest personnel move mean anything – or is it just a typical case of an elderly incumbent finally giving way to the inevitable?
At the moment we can’t know for sure but I’m going out on a limb to sketch a possible scenario in which it means Kim Yong Nam’s long-running plan to sell a bill of goods to a gullible US president no longer inspires confidence in Pyongyang. After all, what Donald Trump has called the US “deep state” seems to have maneuvered two presidents, four decades apart, into reversing their uninformed willingness to abandon ground defense of South Korea.
The goal of the North Korean scheme all along was to persuade a US president to bring home the American troops who provided and still provide a “tripwire” defense against a southward invasion by North Korea like the one of June 25, 1950, which started the Korean War.
Carter had made election promises to bring the troops home. Experienced US foreign policy and military hands had their work cut out for them as they sought to sabotage the president’s effort to carry out those promises. By the time I met Kim Yong Nam, though, they were close to succeeding.
Their deep-state struggle against Carter could well explain why no American agents accompanied the US table tennis team. (Why listen to a full-scale North Korean defense of Carter’s plan?) Probably it explains as well the lack of interest Washington showed in my front-page Baltimore Sun story conveying Kim Yong Nam’s offer to leave US “interests” unharmed if Carter would only pull out the troops.
At a Tokyo embassy reception, I met Richard Holbrooke, then assistant secretary of state for Asia and Pacific, who only later was revealed to have been a ringleader of the insider resistance to the presidential whim. I mentioned I’d just come from Pyongyang. Holbrooke looked over my shoulder, spotted someone he was more interested in talking with and strode across the room.
As for Trump, the fact that the president early in 2018 looked so much like a hooked fish may explain why Kim Yong Nam was permitted to take what may have been a premature victory lap, joining the top North Korean leadership delegation to the South Korea-hosted winter Olympics. After that, however, reportedly intense staff efforts to dissuade the president inspired explosive news accounts.
Troop withdrawal wasn’t on the agenda for the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit in February, although some observers noted that Trump could have revived the idea there if he chose. I’ll go out on another limb and suggest that Kim Jong Un would have realized when the US president scuttled that summit that the jig was up: Two American presidents had come so close to going along with the scheme Kim Yong Nam championed – so close, yet so far away. Final score: US Deep State 2, Presidential Foolishness 0.
Kim Jong Un and his advisors may well have decided it was time to retire old Kim Yong Nam and come up with a new policy toward the United States. The big question then, of course, would be: What policy? It’s too early to say, but stay tuned.
Bradley Martin is the author of the acclaimed history Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty