A quiet envoy to the hermit kingdom of North Korea

A Korean-American scholar named Kun A. 'Tony' Namkung plays a significant behind-the-scenes role in exchanges between the US and North Korea. 

David Guttenfelder/AP
Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, right, tries on 3-D glasses as he looks at North Korean-developed computer technology during a tour of the Korean Computer Center in Pyongyang, North Korea last month. At left is Kun "Tony" Namkung, a North Korea's expert and member of the traveling delegation.

In an atmosphere of North Korean threats and rhetoric, a mysterious Korean-American plays a behind-the-scenes role that may be more significant than that of the better known actors in the drama.

His name is Kun A.“Tony” Namkung, a self-styled “independent scholar and consultant,” and he’s been offering advice to high-level US missions to North Korea ever since the first nuclear crisis that nearly plunged the US into armed conflict with the North in the early 1990s.

Most recently, Mr. Namkung was the central figure in arranging two missions to North Korea last month – first when he accompanied Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and the former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson to Pyongyang, and again at the side of Associated Press Vice President John Daniszewski as the AP marked the first anniversary of the opening of its Pyongyang bureau.

Namkung stringently denies, however, that he’s an advocate, much less an  apologist, for North Korea. “The general impression is that I’m not at all critical of the North Korean regime,” he says. Rather, “my purpose is to act as a back channel,” he explains. “It’s like pulling teeth as you might imagine.”

Long-time Korea-watchers find Namkung’s role and outlook puzzling, to say the least.

“He is smart sophisticated and subtle, as one might suspect of a person who has grown up in a number of very different countries,” says Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, author of numerous books and studies on North Korea. “The North Korean side has considerable trust and confidence in him. If they did not, they surely would not have allowed him so many visits and so much travel in their country.”

Fixer and go-between

How Namkung, soft-spoken and suave, came to assume his role of inside fixer and go-between on missions to Pyongyang goes back to his origins in Shanghai as the grandson of a Presbyterian theologian, from a prominent Korean family, who had gone there to escape Japanese colonial rule.

An older sister, he says, nicknamed him “Tony” after the movie star, Anthony Quinn, and he adopted “Anthony” as his middle name. Moving to Japan with his family after the war, Namkung went to the US while in his teens, graduating from Calvin College, a Christian college in Michigan, and earning a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley before teaching at universities.

After serving for a decade as deputy director of Berkeley’s Institute for East Asian Studies, Namkung was at mid-career when he first visited the North in 1991 with a delegation from the Asia Society in New York. He emerged as an influential figure at a time when North Korea was brandishing threats very similar to those emanating these days from Pyongyang. 

An unofficial intermediary in attempts to get the North not to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, Namkung takes credit for drafting North Korea’s promise, in a joint communiqué with the US in 1993, in which the North said it was ready for “consultations” with the International Atomic Energy Agency “on outstanding safeguards,” including IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities.

On the basis of the confidence he had built in Pyongyang, Namkung says he convinced the North to admit Jimmy Carter for talks in June 1994 after the North Koreans asked him about the former president's relationship with Bill Clinton, in the second year of his presidency.

Namkung’s response was unequivocal. “We were on the brink of a major crisis,” he says. “Nothing was more important than to try every angle to keep going down that path, a situation not unlike the one we are facing at this very moment.  I advised the North Koreans to invite Carter as a last-ditch attempt to stave off a major confrontation and certain war on the peninsula.”

The result was that North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the North’s current leader Kim Jong-un, agreed in talks with Carter on a boat in the Daedong River to “freeze” the nuclear program. The crisis worsened after Kim Il-sung died several weeks later, but the US and North Korea came to terms in Geneva in October 1994 on a “framework agreement” under which the North shut down its nuclear program and accepted IAEA inspectors.

Two years later, Namkung formed an enduring relationship with Mr. Richardson, then a New Mexico congressman. Together they negotiated the release of a deeply troubled American, Evan Hunziker, captured by the North Koreans after swimming across the Yalu River from the Chinese side.

'I float trial balloons'

In the years after Richardson’s election as governor in 2003, Namkung advised him not only on North Korea but a wide range of Asian issues. The Richardson-Namkung relationship was crucial in the release in 2009 of a pair of American television journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, picked up by North Korean soldiers while filming along the North’s Tumen River border with China.

“I was informed within a day or two of the two female journalists' capture that they would be released upon completion of a judicial procedure that might take several months,” says Namkung. “During the entire period of their captivity, I worked hard to ensure that they were treated properly and would be released in due course.”

While Richardson “remained in close contact with the families,” he says, “I contributed a great deal to their eventual release.” Indeed, he says, he and Richardson were about to “go get the detainees” when Bill Clinton “entered the scene with the backing of the administration and the North Koreans were forced to accept him, a superior envoy, at the very last minute.”

Namkung denies that he and Richardson work together on more than an occasional basis but serves as “consultant” for the Associated Press on its bureau in Pyongyang, staffed by two former employees of Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency. He does not discuss how much freedom the AP has to report from Pyongyang or what advice he gives on AP coverage from inside North Korea that rarely mentions such issues as the North’s human rights record or abuse of political prisoners. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph was changed.] 

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.’ ”

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