When journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were imprisoned in North Korea for 140 days last year, the world’s attention was again directed to the mysterious country that was created in 1948 after World War II amid an intensifying struggle for supremacy between two opposing forces on the Korean peninsula.

While former president Bill Clinton wound up in the television glare as the liberator of the two journalists, it was Calvin alumnus K.A. “Tony” Namkung ’67, working with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson through “back diplomatic channels,” who paved the way for their release.

“I knew very soon after the arrest of the journalists that they would be safe, would not be imprisoned long term, were relatively comfortable and eventually would be released,” he said.

That’s certainly an element to this attention-grabbing story not often heard in media accounts.

“The North Koreans are a fiercely proud people. They don’t kowtow to anyone,” said Namkung. “They certainly aren’t going to announce these things to the world, but they will use back channels to convey important messages to the U.S. government, which they did in this case.”

President Clinton was a last-minute change to the negotiations. It is Namkung’s view that current North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, having recently suffered a serious stroke, wanted to seize this moment to reach a political accommodation with the U.S. while he still had time.

“He’s preparing to anoint his son as successor,” said Namkung. “This was the perfect opportunity to communicate a message to President Obama at the highest level. He thought he could do this best through President Clinton, the same president whom he had almost met during the final year of Clinton’s presidency.”

North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has developed a reputation as a rogue state, totally closed off from the rest of the world and under the influence of an unpredictable and dangerous leader. Trying to understand the country and its motives has vexed many world leaders.

“North Korea is, as Winston Churchill once called the Soviet Union, ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,’” said Namkung.

He has made it his business and his calling to dig more deeply into the motivations of North Korea. He has visited the country 30 times, developing many contacts and establishing the trust of government figures there, although they would be the first to acknowledge that he does not identify with their system. They see him instead as an honest broker.

“It’s a very difficult task,” said Namkung, “and one with very few rewards.”
He is the owner of Murray Hill Consultants, LLC, an advisory services firm assisting corporations on both sides of the Pacific in the areas of corporate strategy, market access and governmental relations. After Calvin, Namkung received his PhD at the University of California-Berkeley and served as deputy director of that school’s renowned Institute of East Asian Studies. Numerous other institutes and think-tanks with which he has been affiliated appear on his résumé.

The Calvin grad’s skill in this challenging arena is highly regarded.

“Dr. Namkung, for many years has been my senior adviser on Asian affairs and personal friend,” said Gov. Richardson. “He has traveled with me to North Korea on various missions and in other capacities. He is one of America’s foremost experts on U.S.-Asia relations as well as on the principal Asian countries of Korea, Japan and China themselves.”

Calvin professor of history Dan Bays, director of the college’s Asian studies program, calls Namkung a “public intellectual.”

“Tony is one of those persons whose intellect and intellectual pursuits usually get confined to academia, but he has chosen to use his formidable gifts in the world of global business and politics. His work is quite impressive,” said Bays.

Richardson added that Namkung is “one of our best minds on Asia and a most effective practitioner of back-channel diplomacy in a part of the world that continues to seek to overcome the legacy and conflicts of the past.”

Namkung calls what he does in North Korea “track two diplomacy,” to differentiate it from “track one”—the official negotiations between countries. Track two meetings bring together academics and government officials acting in their unofficial capacity from both countries and provide a venue for “unofficial” contacts between governments on the sidelines of such meetings.

He was invited by Calvin to speak at the college’s annual January Series earlier this year and he chose the topic “The Theology behind Smart Diplomacy with North Korea (archive).” Namkung takes the surprising view that North Korea was founded by a person with a strong religious—even Christian— perspective and that the country, since 1990, has been trying to find a way back into good standing with Western nations, such as the United States.

This is a viewpoint rarely heard in official diplomatic and political circles, or in the media or popular discourse.

“North Korea is misunderstood like no other country in the world,” Namkung said. “Certainly, its closed society, nuclear weapons development and seemingly contradictory messages between engagement and provocation have made it hard to gain a clear view of what motivates its leadership.”

In his January Series lecture, Namkung walked listeners back to North Korea’s founding and central leader, Kim Il-sung. It turns out that his parents were extremely devout Presbyterians, he himself taught Sunday School and he developed a deep knowledge of the Bible. For example, in the early 1990s, Kim had a robust exchange with a visiting Christian pastor on the Book of Leviticus.

“Pyongyang [the North Korean capital] used to be known as the ‘Jerusalem of the East’ because of the large number of Protestant churches in the city,” said Namkung.

The Korean independence movement, sparked by Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, was led by Christians like Kim’s family well before there was a “left” and a “right” in Korean political circles.

What later separated Kim Il-sung from other Christians who also desired to throw off Japanese rule was his taking up of arms against the Japanese occupation, a decision that thrust Kim and many other Koreans into decades of exile and guerilla warfare in Manchuria. Thus began the political division of Korea that resulted in two different countries on the peninsula, with the Cold War cementing this rift.

But the origins of both North and South Korea go back to the Protestant-led Korean independence movement against Japan. And it is this realization that will provide the answers to the eventual reunification of a people previously unified for centuries.

In 1950, an intense desire for a unified Korea led Kim to an ill-fated invasion of South Korea, a disastrous war and permanent isolation from the West. Later, the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the economic and social transformation of China loosened ties to those countries, former two Cold War allies. Eventually, North Korea stood alone.

“No country found itself closed off so thoroughly,” said Namkung.

However, Namkung believes that Kim Il-sung, as an aging leader disappointed in the outcome of history and the difficulties of managing an economy so isolated, made a decision around 1990 to make peace with the West. This was when he began to talk about the Christianity of his youth. It appeared that a fundamental reversal of policy was taking place.

In North Korea at the time, Namkung understood the sea change around him and contacted the U.S. State Department.

“I conveyed my feelings to government officials,” he said, “but they thought I was joking.”

Movement did occur. A far-reaching non-aggression pact between North and South Korea was signed. Attempts to normalize relations with the United States began. There were even overtures to Japan, the main target of North Korean fury, with Kim reversing the official stance of the country that had promoted an “undying hatred of Japan.”

Namkung had a hand in crafting the first U.S.–DPRK Joint Statement of 1993, allowing both sides to pull back from the brink amid tensions created by North Korea’s nuclear program. President Carter’s dramatic trip to North Korea in 1994 produced the first real agreement between Washington and Pyongyang.

 “The emergence of South Korea as a viable, energetic democracy was also a factor, as was a fear of a resurgent China, in North Korea’s ‘turn to the West,’” said Namkung.

Since then, he has been involved in scores of private discussions with North Korean officials, including negotiations to have the remains of the 7,000 Americans still missing from the Korean War returned.

As recently as 2008, Namkung and Gov. Richardson worked to gain access to likely areas of war dead. Six sets of remains were returned to the United States, but future progress was halted due to another in the series of diplomatic disagreements between the two governments. In all, 400 sets of remains have been returned, and a third of these have led to specific identifications.

“The kind of work I do doesn’t result in peace busting out all over,” he said. “It requires enormous patience. There’s not a lot of appreciation; it’s a thankless job. But I’d like to think I’ve helped maintain the peace.”

Namkung recalled the words of the pastor of the Korean church in Tokyo that he attended as a boy: “You’re going to work to reunify the Korean people someday.” As he gets older, he realizes that this has been the driving force behind his actions over several decades, even as he realizes it will probably not happen in his lifetime.

He’s well-suited to the challenge.

Namkung is Korean but was born in Shanghai (where Korean Christian patriots had set up a government in exile) and schooled in Tokyo at the Christian Academy of Japan (CAJ). The Christian Reformed Church is one of the sponsoring denominations of the school, and Namkung fondly recalls Calvin alumni Martin Essenburg ’57 who was his headmaster and John De Hoog ’61 who was his biology teacher and basketball coach.

After graduation and a year at a college in New York, Namkung looked up some of his CAJ classmates and found a number of them at Calvin. He transferred here and remains grateful for the excellent education he received at the hands of great teachers.

“It was Professor Edwin Van Kley who steered me into Asian studies,” recalled Namkung, “and the classes with Charles Miller, Nick Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga were invaluable. I also remember classes with Howard Rienstra and Dirk Jellema. At Dr. Van Kley’s urging I applied for and received a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship and a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship. I was on my way.”

He recalls a humorous encounter at UC–Berkeley with then-chancellor Roger Heyns ’40.

“I went up to the chancellor one time and said, ‘You won’t believe this, but I graduated from Calvin College.’ He said, ‘You’re right, I don’t believe you.’”

While Namkung is engaged in many projects involving a variety of Asian countries, it is his interaction with North Korea that remains his central passion. And he is optimistic that the world’s relationship with North Korea will change for the better someday.

“In reality, so much has happened since the ’90s. We’ve made enormous progress, and there’s no turning back—for North Korea or for us. We can’t go back to the Cold War,” he said—and then added, “but that doesn’t mean they aren’t pretty ornery.”

After all of these years of painstaking work, Namkung said he grows more reflective and credits Calvin for giving him a wider view of what might be possible for a person of faith with an interest in making a global difference.

“Calvin opened up the world for me,” he said. “I learned about being an involved Christian in the world. Since then, because of my experiences, I have wrestled with how I can fit faith with what I know about the world. But as I get older, I am pulled back to my roots. I think it’s my Christian education that allows me to try to be an honest broker in search of peaceful solutions.”

Four observations about dealing with North Korea

Tony Namkung’s 20 years of experience working in back-channel diplomacy efforts inside North Korea have led him to these four suggestions for the United States in negotiating with the enigmatic country:

  1. Recognize that we have a long-term strategic interest in seeing North Korea engaging in full and open interaction with the world.

  2. Recognize that North Korea is firmly established and entrenched; despite its internal challenges, it will not collapse easily—or in the near future—from within.

  3. Do not let the nuclear issue dictate all conversations with that country.

  4. Play a more integral role in fostering inter-Korean dialogue.