The release of Merrill Newman was a sane gesture on North Korea’s part and came as a relief to me, as Newman and I are contemporaries and I have traveled to North Korea “informally” five times.
Newman’s balanced statement two days after his return home sheds clear light on concerns in Pyongyang. Newman stated, “For the North Korean regime, the Korean War isn’t over, and even innocent remarks about the war can cause big problems if you are a foreigner. … I should have been more sensitive to that.” I take this as a cautionary statement for any other Americans interested in visiting Korean War battlefields in the North. Newman went on to say that the words in his “confession,” read on television in Pyongyang, were not his and that reading it seemed to be the only way to gain his freedom.
During the Korean War, I trained South Korean commandos who were dropped into China and North Korea by the CIA. The North Koreans soon learned who I was, as my name was extracted from an American captured by the Chinese. When I served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, North Korea dropped leaflets denouncing me.
Still, in 2002, in the wake of President George W. Bush’s disastrous “axis of evil” speech, I felt compelled to write to North Korea, citing our need to talk about issues that divided us. I was encouraged to do so by then-President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for holding a 2000 summit meeting with the North Korean leader.
Two weeks later, the North Koreans invited me to come to Pyongyang. In my repeated visits, I have held substantive talks with their leading diplomats. I have never made a reference to the Korean War, except to agree with the North Koreans that it needs to be brought to a formal end.
In November 2002, after my second visit, I hand carried to the White House a written offer from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to restart talks with the United States. I was dismissed in 20 minutes by the deputy national security officer, who said, “No, we will not talk to them, that would be rewarding bad behavior.” I regret to say that senior U.S. officials still use that sort of language.
We need to talk with the North Koreans. They have said repeatedly that they will give up their nuclear weapons programs when they are convinced that we want a peaceful relationship. The easiest way to do that is to work out a treaty finally ending the Korean War, a conflict that Newman’s report shows is still raging in their minds.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Undersecretary Wendy Sherman have dealt effectively with the North Koreans and know them well. I fervently hope that they can transfer their negotiating skills from Iran to North Korea. The table is set for significant progress, if we are willing to devote sustained, high-level efforts to such an important objective, paving the way for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula by signing a peace treaty with Pyongyang.
Donald P. Gregg, chairman of the Pacific Century Institute, was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993.