Tony Namkung ’67 has spent the better part of his career keeping the peace between North Korea and the U.S. and, ultimately, North Korea and the rest of the world. Namkung describes what he does in North Korea as “Track II diplomacy,” that is brokering “unofficial” meetings between academics and government officials, helping to keep communication open and defuse crises. While, officially, he is a visiting scholar at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
Looking back, he never pictured himself in this role as a behind-the-scenes diplomat. In fact, he never set foot on the Korean peninsula until he was well into his 30s. Born into a Korean family, but growing up in Shanghai and later American-occupied Japan following WWII, Namkung came to Calvin in the 1960s, earning a degree in history and later a PhD in Japanese history from the University of California, Berkeley. “I grew up in the American enclave in Tokyo,” he said. “We went to the American pharmacy for our drugs, we went to the American bowling alley for entertainment, we went to the Ernie Pyle theater to see American movies. I felt myself an American.”
He assumed he would become a Japanese history professor, which he tried for a year. Namkung said it was his mentor, Robert Scalapino, a renowned Asian studies scholar, “who awakened the ‘Korean-ness’ in me.”
More than 30 years ago, Scalapino asked Namkung to serve as the deputy director of the then-new Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “Under his auspices we sponsored a number of meetings with the Soviets and with the Chinese from the mainland about their Asia policies,” said Namkung. “...It was here that I cut my teeth on ‘unofficial/official’ exchanges with unfriendly countries.”
Throughout this time, Namkung said “a latent sort of consciousness of his origins awakened,” and he began to travel to Korea and study both North and South Korea intensively, eventually taking his family to live in South Korea for three years. Having become one of the world’s foremost scholars on Korea, Namkung has spent the last three decades involved in Korean affairs, particularly in trying to resolve the huge differences that exist between the U.S. and North Korea, and occasionally the U.S. and South Korea.
He has visited North Korea more than 75 times, organizing secret meetings between officials of the countries involved and even being actively involved in the mediation. Namkung first demonstrated his call to action at Calvin, where he co-founded the Social Action Club. “Our first project was to help migrant workers on the farms of northern Michigan,” he said.
“Calvinism taught me that it was not enough to hide your light under a bushel and find a gateway to heaven for yourself; you have to become active in the world and try to make a change,” he added. “And I believe that it is our job as peacekeepers to try to mediate disputes and resolve differences between not only nations, but between groups of people and individuals.”
He believes that there has been much progress in the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, and “the ideal outcome would be for the two Koreas to live in peace for the next generation or two,” he said.
That would be a lasting tribute to this backstage liaison. Namkung is currently writing his memoirs: “Those who read it will be quite surprised to learn that there has been this mysterious figure lurking in the shadows all of these years.”