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Should the U.S. Government be Talking to Kim Kye-gwan?

by Scott A. Snyder
July 28, 2011

North Korea's envoy to the six-party talks Kim Kye-gwan (C) speaks to the media after a meeting with a Chinese foreign ministry counterpart in Beijing, February 11, 2010.

North Korea's envoy to the six-party talks Kim Kye-gwan (C) speaks to the media after a meeting with a Chinese foreign ministry counterpart in Beijing, February 11, 2010. (Courtesy Reuters/Jason Lee)

Kim Kye-gwan, DPRK’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs arrived in New York yesterday for his first visit to the United States in four years, and for his first meeting with a senior representative of the U.S. government since the visit of Special Representative for North Korean Affairs Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang in December of 2009. Despite the relative lack of contact in recent years, Vice Minister Kim and his delegation are all too familiar with his American counterparts; he has been the main North Korean interlocutor with the United States for at least fifteen years.  

Prior to my first visit to Pyongyang in May of 1991, a colleague joked with me that “you never meet the same North Korean twice.” That observation was exactly wrong. U.S. government officials always meet with the same North Koreans over and over again, trapped in the diplomatic equivalent of Groundhog Day. During our 1991 visit, we met with many North Korean foreign ministry officials who have gone on to play principal roles in negotiations with the United States for over two decades. We did not meet with Kim Kye-gwan during my first trip to Pyongyang, but he is very well known to U.S. officials, having served as a primary interlocutor over the course of the past two decades with Thomas Hubbard, Charles Kartman, William Perry, Wendy Sherman, Jim Kelly, Chris Hill, and now Steve Bosworth. The results have been lacking, and not as a result of a lack of effort, skill (or, in the view of some, a result of a lack of incentives offered) by U.S. counterparts. 

I support regular, high-level diplomatic contact with the DPRK based on close coordination with our South Korean allies primarily for the following reasons: 

  1. The North Koreans need to hear firm statements of the U.S. position on North Korean issues directly from American diplomats and not just through the media;
  2. A lack of direct contact between the U.S. and DPRK might give China overconfidence that it can manipulate the situation on the ground in North Korea to the exclusion of the United States; and
  3. The exchange of views need not necessarily lead to negotiations if the timing is not right.

The lack of satisfactory results at the negotiating table underscores that negotiations by themselves are inadequate to achieve the U.S. objective of denuclearization, regardless of what the U.S. offers in return. This raises the question of whether Kim Kye-gwan is the right counterpart for U.S. negotiators. His longevity in the job shows he has earned the backing of his leadership, but from a U.S. perspective, the result of negotiations with Kim Kye-gwan has been an abject failure. As long as Pyongyang sends out Kim Kye-gwan as the regime’s face to the United States, there is little reason to harbor expectations that current contacts will yield results different from the past. The United States should insist on a new manand new instructionsfrom Pyongyang if the dialogue is to continue.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by omin

    I guess there are two ways to look at this:

    Perhaps, as you say, the long tenure of Kim Kye-gwan holds little hope for substantive progress out of these talks…after all, It’s crazy to do the same thing and expect different results, right?

    But, I can’t help but imagine how different the past 20 years would have been if we had a more consistent face on North Korea issues.

    There is a larger issue here about how DPRK policy has shifted at State over the years. I am just talking about the diplomats themselves. In a place like Korea, where memories are long, history matters, and consistency of leadership is a primary goal, it must be equally frustrating for them to deal with different interlocutors every time they turn around.

  • Posted by Scott Snyder

    I imagine that Kim Kye-Gwan is delighted every time the U.S. negotiator changes because he knows the negotiating record cold and can take advantage of his new counterpart who is struggling to get up to speed.

    One point I should have made more clearly is that in terms of North Korea’s decision-making structure, the U.S. continues to be managed by the foreign ministry and has had virtually no direct interaction with other actors, including the military, in a regime that touts its “military first” policy as the foundation for its leadership. It is clear Kim Kye-gwan is not the decisionmaker, and given his tight leash he may have more ability to influence the U.S. counterpart than the decisionmakers in his own government. While the record provides ample reason for skepticism regarding the good faith of the North Korean leadership, if the U.S. talks to North Korea that interaction shuold at least be with the decisionmakers rather than a vice minister from a ministry that has little proven capacity to influence decisionmaking within the DPRK system.

  • Posted by Jameson

    Mr. Snyder,

    While I agree completely concerning the need to demand a different kind of negotiating context, I also find myself wondering if these people are not reading these very blogs (CFR + many others), combing over their information, and using it to plan their moves way ahead of US State negotiators. Obviously, that is not possible from our side.

    I am not necessarily suggesting that we disband blogs where we discuss in the most public way probable strategy points, but I do wonder if the DPRK leadership (or workers, who in turn deliver the info to the leadership) in charge of negotiating do not read this very blog — yes, even this very comment — and then are using it to plan many moves ahead.

    In your opinion, what is the possibility that the DPRK complex is gaining huge advantage at the table through this possibly highly orchestrated, systematic and determined overt intelligence gathering process?

    Thank you much,

  • Posted by Scott Snyder


    There is no question that North Korean negotiators attempt to exploit U.S. transparency and benefits from the opacity of their system at the negotiating table. But their limited direct experience and understanding of the U.S. system also can lead to many misjudgments about the U.S. negotiating position.

    I think the bigger problem remains that despite acceptance of the concept of “action for action” at the Six Party Talks, the North Koreans have in practice rejected quid pro quos on denuclearization. Their bottom line remains their desire to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state, while the United States will not accept a nuclear North Korea.

  • Posted by Jennifer Logan

    He’s been there a very long time, which means he is also probably feeling secure enough so that he can stop trying and working harder.

    Maybe a new face would help.

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