Iran Nuclear Talks and North Korean Flashbacks
With the Iran nuclear talks nearing a Nov. 24 deadline for a deal, U.S. chief negotiator Wendy Sherman is under pressure to bring almost a year of bargaining to fruition. While U.S. policy rests ultimately with President Obama, and the most prominent American face in these talks is now that of Secretary of State John Kerry, the hands-on haggling has been the domain of Sherman. On the ground, she has been chief choreographer of the U.S. negotiating team. The President has been pleased enough with her performance to promote her last week from Under Secretary to Acting Deputy Secretary of State.
The talks themselves have been doing far less well, marked by Iranian demands and U.S. concessions. This summer the U.S. and its negotiating partners agreed to extend the original July deadline until November. Tehran’s regime, while enjoying substantial relief from sanctions, is refusing to give up its ballistic missile program and insisting on what Tehran’s officials have called their country’s “inalienable right” to enrich uranium.
The Obama administration badly wants a deal. This week The Wall Street Journal reported that last month Obama wrote a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which “appeared aimed both at buttressing the campaign against Islamic State and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal.” Speaking to reporters in Paris this week about the Iran nuclear negotiations, Kerry said “We believe it is imperative for a lot of different reasons to get this done.”
So, now that crunch time has arrived, what might we expect? If precedent is any guide, it’s worth revisiting Sherman’s record from her previous bout as a lead negotiator, toward the end of the second term of the Clinton administration. Back then, Sherman was trying to clinch an anti-proliferation missile deal with another rogue despotism, North Korea.
That attempt failed, but only after then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, together with Sherman, had dignified North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il with a visit to Pyongyang in late October, 2000. These American top diplomats brought Kim the gift of a basketball signed by one of his favorite players, Michael Jordan. Kim entertained them with a stadium display in which tens of thousands of North Koreans used flip cards to depict the launch of a long-range missile.
Less well remembered was the encounter shortly before Albright’s trip to Pyongyang, in which the State Department hosted a visit to Washington, Oct. 9-12 of 2000, by one of the highest ranking military officials in North Korea, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok. The centerpiece of Jo’s trip was a 45-minute face-to-face meeting at the White House, in the Oval Office, with President Clinton. It was historic, it was the first time an American president had met with an official of North Korea’s totalitarian state.
And it was a deft piece of extortion by North Korea, which had parlayed its missile program — including its missile trafficking to the Middle East, and its 1998 test-launch of a missile over Japan — into this lofty encounter in which the U.S. superpower was pulling out all the stops in hope of cutting a deal before Clinton’s second term expired in Jan., 2001. By 2000 (or, by some accounts, earlier) the Clinton administration was also seeing signs that North Korea was cheating on a 1994 denuclearization arrangement known as the Agreed Framework. Eight months before Jo arrived in Washington, Clinton had been unable to confirm to Congress that North Korea had abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, Jo’s visit rolled ahead, with Sherman enthusing in advance to the press that “Chairman Kim Jong Il has clearly made a decision — personally — to send a special Envoy to the United States to improve relations with us.”
Officially, Jo was hosted in Washington by Albright. But it was Sherman, then the Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, who orchestrated the events, squired Jo around Washington and briefed the press. It was Sherman who had helped prepare the way while accompanying her predecessor, the previous North Korea policy coordinator and former defense secretary, William Perry, on a trip to North Korea in 1999.
Jo arrived in Washington on Oct. 9, staying at the venerable Mayflower Hotel, where Sherman went to greet him. The next morning Jo and his delegation began their rounds with a courtesy call on Albright at the State Department. Then, before heading to the White House, Jo engaged in a symbolically freighted act. According to an account published some years later in the Washington Post by the senior State Department Korean language interpreter, Tong Kim, who was present for the occasion: “The marshal arrived in Washington in a well-tailored suit, but before going to the White House, he asked for a room at the State Department, where he changed into his mustard-colored military uniform, with lines of heavy medals hanging on the jacket, and donned an impressive military hat with a thick gold band.” Perhaps it did not occur to anyone at the State Department that North Korea was still a hostile power, a brutal rogue state fielding one of the world’s largest standing armies, and that this donning of the uniform on State premises was not just a convenience, but an implied threat. Or perhaps the zealous hospitality of the occasion just over-rode any thought at all. In any event, it was in his uniform that Jo went from the State Department to the White House.
Following those meetings, Sherman briefed the press. She made a point of mentioning that Jo had
worn a business suit to the State Department. but changed into full military uniform for his meeting with the President of the United States. Sherman chose to interpret Jo’s wardrobe change as happy evidence of North Korean diversity under Dear Leader Kim: “We think this is very important for American citizens to know that all segments of North Korea society, obviously led by Chairman Kim Chong-Il in sending this Special Envoy, are working to improve the relationship between the United States and North Korea and this is obviously an important message to the citizens of North Korea as well.”
Actually, there were substantial segments of North Korean society whose chief preoccupation was finding enough food to stay alive, toward the end of a 1990s famine in which an estimated one million or so had died — forbidden by Kim’s totalitarian state to enjoy even a hint of the freedom that had by then allowed their brethren in South Korea to join the developed world. This was known at the time, but did not figure in Sherman’s public remarks.
On the second evening of Jo’s Washington visit, Albright hosted a banquet for him and his delegation at the State Department. She welcomed the “distinguished group” to the “historic meeting,” and invited everyone to relax and get better acquainted. There was laughter and applause. Jo made a toast — a disturbing toast — in which he said there could be “friendship and cooperation and goodwill, if and when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and our leadership is assured, is given the strong and concrete security assurances from the United States for the state sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
If the State Department’s chief North Korea policy coordinator, Wendy Sherman, noticed a problem with that toast, and its mention of territorial integrity, it seems she did nothing to alert the assembled American dignitaries. The crowd clapped and raised a toast to North Korea’s envoy. It was left to outside observers, such as American Enterprise Institute scholar and North Korea expert Nicholas Eberstadt, to point out, as Eberstadt stressed at an AEI forum in 2008, that North Korea lays claim to the entire Korean peninsula, including South Korea. “Take a look at the maps; take a look at the preamble to the Workers’ Party charter,” said Eberstadt; the real message is, “We can be friends with North Korea if we are willing to subsidize North Korean government behavior and throw South Korea into the bargain too, but that is a pretty high opening bid.”
Jo’s visit ended with a U.S.-D.P.R.K Joint Communique, full of talk about peace, security, transparency and access. There was no missile deal. Kim Jong Il wanted Clinton, leader of the free world, to come parley over missiles in totalitarian, nuclear-cheating Pyongyang. Clinton demurred. In late October, Albright and Sherman went instead. As the clock ticked down on the final weeks of the Clinton administration, Sherman reportedly traveled to Africa with a bag of cold-weather clothes, to be ready in the event of a last-minute summons to North Korea.
In 2001, President Bush was inaugurated. Sherman left the State Department, and soon afterward she wrote an Op-ed for The New York Times, headlined “Talking to the North Koreans.” Sherman noted that “Some are understandably concerned that a summit with President Bush would only legitimize the North Korean leader” — nonetheless, she urged Bush to try it. Bush tried confrontation in 2002 over North Korea’s nuclear cheating, followed by years of Sherman-style Six-Party Talks, including two agreements, in 2005 and 2007, which North Korea punctuated in 2006 with its first nuclear test, and has followed during Obama’s presidency with two more nuclear tests, in 2009 and 2013.
Vice-Marshal Jo died in 2010. Kim Jong Il died in 2011, and was succeeded by his son, current North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, whose regime carried out the 2013 nuclear test, and threatened earlier this year to conduct another. Wendy Sherman rejoined the State Department under Obama, and has moved on from wooing North Korea to the bigger and potentially far deadlier project of negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. Considerable secrecy has surrounded many specifics of these talks, while Americans have been asked to trust that this is all for their own good. In a talk last month at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Sherman said: “As Madeleine Albright once observed — a wonderful Secretary of State, a dear friend, and a business partner to boot at one point in my life — negotiations are like mushrooms, and often they do best in the dark.”
Now, in the Obama administration’s increasingly desperate quest for an Iran deal, comes news that
President Obama is proposing to Iran’s Khamenei, ruler of the world’s leading terror-sponsoring state, that Iran and the U.S. cooperate to fight the terrorists of ISIS. This has a familiar ring. Back in 2000, the visit of North Korea’s Vice Marshal Jo to the White House was preceded, shortly beforehand, by a “Joint U.S.-D.P.R.K. Statement on International Terrorism,” in which both the U.S. and North Korea agreed that “international terrorism poses an unacceptable threat to global peace and security.” Apparently this was all part of the negotiating process of finding common ground. What could go wrong? Not that anyone should pin all this on Wendy Sherman, who is just one particularly active cog in the Washington negotiating machine. But there’s a familiar script playing out here. It does not end well.
Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project