Tony Namkung is a throwback to a northeastern Asian region in the late 19th/early 20th century where Westphalian notions of sovereignty bowed to ideological opportunism, expansionism, and pure hatred. Koreans served both the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists, as well as forming guerrilla bands against the Japanese in Manchuria. A minority made a bargain with the Soviet Union. When the Soviets crushed the Kwantung army in Manchuria and drove down the Korean peninsula, these opportunists, inculcated with the briefest of an education in Marxism-Leninism, became the puppet rulers of a Korean state situated in the only part of Korea the Soviets or imperial Japan thought useful, the industrialized, mineral-rich North.
Kim Il-sung and his fellow opportunists developed a real talent for depicting themselves as the new emperors in the sinocentric world while recognizing the need to take any kind of economic aid from the Soviets, and later the Chinese Communists. Marxist rhetoric became the lingua franca of gratitude in this unhappy family of states each one of which believed itself to be the center of the region, the Marxist movement, and the world. The Cold War simplified this bizarre diplomatic fuzziness, by creating the good guys vs. the bad guys split, which rhetorically was a matter of where one sat, in Pyongyang or in Washington (or, Beijing, Seoul, or Tokyo). The end of the Cold War has prompted a reversion to the norm.
He does not discuss how much freedom the AP has to report from Pyongyang or what advice he gives on AP coverage from North Korea that scrupulously avoids such issues as the North’s human rights record or abuse of political prisoners.
Namkung, however, hardly sees himself as a naïve advocate of reconciliation. “My main interest is not to be painted as a card-carrying member of the engagement crowd,” he says. “I am held in confidence by all parties. I pass messages. I float trial balloons.”
His final wish: “I hope when my epitaph is written, it will read, ‘He helped defuse tensions.’ ”
Namkung, whose family fled Japanese-occupied Korea for Shanghai, is a product of that pre-Cold War region where borders were contested but didn’t really mean much to people whose notion of sovereignty was based on race, ethnicity, and language, if not sheer opportunism. In 2007 Namkung accepted this prudent pro-Chinese line/pro-unification combo.
Namkyung said a key to solving inter-Korean issues is that North Korea achieves economic reforms like China. He advised South Korea to change its North Korea policy toward a more reciprocal approach instead of giving only unilateral aid. “Maybe it won’t happen during my lifetime, but the day will surely come when a unified Korea prospers. I’ll make whatever contributions I can make to it,” he said.
Roger Cavazos has argued that Pyongyang also has its own good reasons to encourage the sort of diplomatic adventures, like the recent visit of Google’s Eric Schmidt. Namkung is the perfect “honest broker” for such non-ideological gambits.
Donald Kirk also gets Tony Namkung half-right, and then argues as if the Cold War never ended.
For an understanding of the dynamics of these visits, one has to look at Tony Namkung, born in China, the son of Korean parents from Japan, who spent his early years in Manchuria before getting to the U.S. Like Bae, Park and Gomes, he’s also a devout Christian with a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. He’s been instrumental in arranging for Clinton’s mission to North Korea and in the release of Gomes, and he also assisted the Associated Press in setting up its Pyongyang bureau. It need hardly be noted that the AP in Pyongyang, like the visitors whom Namkung gets to visit the North, doesn’t delve into “human rights” abuses. Since the AP had the first word on Schmidt’s plan to go to North Korea, Namkung presumably was the source.
Tony Namkung, Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson at Pyongyang International Airport on Jan. 7.
Namkung has been to North Korea about 40 times over the past quarter century carrying out what he sees as a mission of fostering reconciliation and rapprochement. He may deny that he’s “pro-North” though he’s not known to have uttered a critical word about his hosts. While other Christians campaign for human rights for North Koreans risk capture and hardship in China for assisting defectors in getting to South Korea and elsewhere, Namkung prefers the hospitality of North Koreans.
Conservatives have bastardized and fit the human rights meme into the Cold War rhetorical paradigm. Human rights are salient, but very convenient as rhetorical clubs when there’s no other competing interest. In a region where ideology is messy, human rights is a lifeline, literally and unfortunately ideologically. if one wants to understand North Korea, one has to eschew ideological certainty. Conservatives have opted to rally their own troops around the human rights flag. As an opportunist, Tony Namkung is more intriguing.