Interview: North Korean Expert Evans J.R. Revere

Photo Courtesy: Albright Stonebridge Group[1]

With the growing tension on the Korean Peninsula, the need to understand the North Korean government is more crucial than ever. It is also important to take into consideration what has worked and been tried in the past with regards to U.S. diplomatic efforts towards North Korea.

Executive Editor Garrett Redfield recently had a chance to talk to North Korean expert, Mr. Evans J.R. Revere. Mr. Revere has had a very distinguished foreign service career, having just retired from the Department of State in 2007. During his diplomatic career, he served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and in that capacity he helped direct the U.S. response to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia.  He has also had extensive experience dealing with North Korea and has served as deputy chief of the U.S. team negotiating with the DPRK and as the U.S. government’s primary day-to-day liaison with the DPRK.

Currently, Mr. Revere is a Senior Director at the Albright Stonebridge Group (which is chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright), a leading global strategy firm, where he advises clients with a special focus on Korea, Japan, and China.  He is active in several Track II dialogues involving U.S. relations with the PRC, Taiwan, Japan, and the two Koreas.

Mr. Revere also organized the historic 2008 concert in Pyeongyang by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

He is fluent in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, and served in the U.S. embassies in Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul. He is a graduate of Princeton University, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.


GARRETT REDFIELD: Former U.S. Ambassador Donald Gregg once mentioned that in talking with North Korean General Ri Jang Bok about the U.S. withdrawing its nuclear weapons from South Korea that the General responded that North Korea felt the U.S. was being disingenuous in trying to make North Korea put its guard down. Considering the deep mistrust between the United States and North Korea, what would it take for the U.S. to gain the trust of the North Korean leadership?

 MR. EVANS J.R. REVERE: I think it’s virtually impossible, quite frankly. You’re dealing with a highly, highly ideological regime that actually uses the antagonistic relationship that it has with the United States and the idea of a threat from the United States, and the idea of possible imminent war with the United States as we’re seeing right now, as a means of mobilizing its people gaining their full support for the regime. And it focuses the peoples’ energy on something other than their own starvation, than their own lack of food, their own lack of resources, etc. and focuses that energy and that anger on that situation on the United States, and depicts the United States as the sole cause of any sufferings that they’re going through, any difficulties that they may be experiencing, any shortcomings that the society or the economy has, they’re our fault. And so we are a very useful device quite frankly, for the North Korean regime number one.

Number two, the regime is fundamentally weak and a lot of what you are hearing in terms of the bluff and the bluster and the bombast that’s coming out of North Korea is not a manifestation of their strength it’s actually a manifestation of their weakness. It’s sort of like the neighborhood bully who really doesn’t pack a punch but can talk a really good game and threaten others. It’s that kind of behavior we’re seeing from the North Koreans. And in that sense the ongoing crisis with North Korea which has been going on for a long time quite frankly, is an effective device that the regime uses to intimidate its neighbors, intimidate us to the extent that they can, get others to contribute to their economy, directly or indirectly – including the Chinese I would add – get the support of members of the international community for them. And so this antagonistic relationship is something that is frankly useful.

Having said that, there have been a number of efforts over the years to engage the North Koreans to try and build a relationship of trust to try to resolve some of the fundamental issues between us. And I won’t say we haven’t made any progress, I have been in a number of these talks myself and thousands of hours across the table from North Koreans and we’ve managed to make some progress. But I wouldn’t say its progress based on trust building. It’s progress based on achieving understandings and agreements that are in both sides interests. You know Ronald Reagan used to use the term trust but verify, I’d like to use the term don’t trust but verify when dealing with North Korea. And I’m sure that’s the attitude they have as well.

But the gap between the two countries is just too big. The gap between their ideology, their world view- this is a country for sixty plus years has taught its people a profound hatred towards the United States and once again the demonization of the United States and has convinced its people that we spend every waking hour planning their demise. They really do believe this, the average person. They think that we do nothing other than think about how to destroy them as a country. And so that gap, I don’t see how you bridge that. I’m not saying that we can’t reach agreements with them. We have in the past, but they’re agreements not necessarily based on trust but based on shared interest, mutual interest. And so there are some accommodations that might be reached. Even those now are highly problematic even in the current environment.


 GARRETT REDFIELD: Let’s say that North Korea can no longer use the U.S. to prop up its regime. What then would the North Korean government look to, to justify its integrity?

 MR. EVANS J.R. REVERE:  That’s a very good question. We have been the centerpiece of their world view for many years. I think the North Korean regime without an enemy, the North Korean regime without the ability to demonize the South, the United States, South Korea, etc. would be compelled to turn its attention to bettering the lives of its people and would have to go down the path of reform. For them to go down the path of reform would put the very existence of the regime at risk. The North Koreans are in a, pardon the expression, damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. It is a place in desperate need of reform: economic reform, structural reform, social reform, political reform, fundamental economic reform. The Chinese have been trying for decades to push them down the path. The problem for the North Korean regime is they have observed very carefully, what happened in China. They want no part of that reform because they realized they would pay a price for opening the society up. Removing the controls, the rigid controls on your population are necessary allowing farmers and workers to have more decision making authority, all the things that the Chinese did, which were problematic when they were first tried in China, but eventually succeeded, all those things require a completely different approach to running your country.

The Chinese have done a marvelous job of maintaining an authoritarian structure and a market economy, an increasing market economy in a very interesting balance and it’s because fundamentally the Chinese regime has a higher level of self-confidence and a higher level of popular support among the people. Because they have been able to essentially in China, to give the people the following deal: We will allow you to get rich, we will allow you to make your own economic decisions, we will allow you to live virtually anywhere you want, we will allow you all of the freedoms that are connected with making market decisions and market choices, and production decisions, etc. as long as you do not step over certain political lines. And that has generally worked with some interesting exceptions in China of course. The North Koreans don’t have the confidence to go down that path. It is a much more rigid, controlled, totalitarian, authoritarian place than China ever was at its worst. If you talk to people in China during the cultural revolution, if you talk to people who were in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period, North Korea is much worse than either of those places ever in terms of security control, political control, economic control, thought control, etc. and it is a very tightly controlled, a tightly wound place that has much more rigid ideology than either the Soviet Union or China ever did. It is a family run authoritarian regime and to begin to loosen up the controls on the society, on the economy, etc. would begin to undermine some of the basic principles of control and mechanisms of control. And the North Koreans just aren’t going to do that. So that’s the damned if you do aspect of it.

And of course damned if you don’t – if they don’t open up, if they don’t change things, if they don’t begin to reform their economy, they know they’re going to fail. So what you see is the result of this that you see in North Korea, is this what I call muddling through. It’s trying to ride the crest of this wave that might break one way and it might break the other in North Korea. And that’s the North Korea we see today.


GARRETT REDFIELD:  That kind of leads to one of the other questions I had for you. Former U.S. Ambassador Donald Gregg mentioned that when Kim Il Sung was in power, he had a close relationship with Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. And he remarked that Kim Il Sung willingly acknowledged that change needed to happen in North Korea. But upon seeing his counterpart attempt to bring change and being killed as a result, the North Korean leaders have been hesitant to bring about economic change. How much of a barrier has this fear of being executed been in how the Kim family brings change to North Korea?

MR. EVANS J.R. REVERE: It’s hard to read the minds of the leadership there, but if you’re sitting in Pyeongyang and you see what happened in Eastern Europe, and you see what happened in the Soviet Union, you witnessed what happened in China in terms of China’s shift into a different direction, you see the color revolutions going on in various places around the world, this is not a good pattern. It’s a pattern of the collapse of the rigid authoritarian model. It’s the collapse of a – I don’t like to use the word Stalinist to describe North Korea, you know the Stalinist Soviet Union was an entity onto itself – but it’s that sort of system that they have tried to maintain and you see these systems falling one by one around the world, that’s not a good message for you. And you combine that with a point I made earlier about their understanding that they need to change, but that very effort of changing is likely to destabilize their system – this must be a frightening prospect for the North Koreans. It’s one of the reasons why, rather than moving in the direction of reform and opening, they eventually become more rigid in that respect, and more of an outlier in the international community. And it’s in large part a reaction to what they see going on around them. I mean there’s no country on the face of the Earth like North Korea, and there used to be a number of them. They’ve all gone out of business one way or another – some violently, some not so violently. So this does not bold well for the future of North Korea. They understand that. They’re not used to – they see international trends, they got embassies in many of these countries, they understand the overall direction of human kind if you will. And they know, I think, in their heart of hearts, at least the leadership I think knows, they’re on the wrong side of history. And so the problem is how do you manage all of this in the face of increasing isolation? And once again, if you look at North Korea’s behavior in recent years, that’s how they manage it.


 GARRETT REDFIELD: Ambassador Donald Gregg also mentioned that he agreed with a statement from Ambassador Bosworth that there are “those in North Korea who still feel that a peaceful relationship with the U.S. signed and sealed by treaties is a better deterrent than having nuclear weapons.” And that “if we signed a peace treaty with them, if we had an embassy in North Korea, if we removed the sanctions, all the things we were supposed to have done under the 1994 Agreed Framework, that we could get them to sign away their nuclear weapons.” This sort of ties into previous questions and you touched upon it a little bit, but could it still be achieved or are there too many unknowns for how the elites feel under Kim Jeong Eun?

MR. EVANS J.R. REVERE: I think I disagree with every single utterance that you’ve just quoted. It’s a very complicated tale here, but in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was supposed to be the head of that U.S. diplomatic mission in Pyeongyang. That was my assignment once upon a time. It’s not the United States that changed their minds about it, it was North Koreans that changed their minds about it. I was also very much involved in the negotiations with the North Koreans, roughly from 1997 up until 2001. And indirectly involved after that, in which I was able to witness very, very sincere efforts on the part of the United States to put on the table virtually everything that you just mentioned: normalization, economic assistance, security guarantees, a whole range of things were on the table for the taking by North Korea. And yet none of those things succeeded in convincing the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons. Now we can quibble over timing, strategy, and messaging and all that, but the bottom line is that embassies, normalization of relations, formal diplomatic recognition, security guarantees in writing from the President of the United States, economic assistance, agricultural assistance, energy assistance, infrastructure – everything you can imagine has been on offer, and yet we still have a nuclear armed North Korea that is getting more nuclear armed everyday and more capable everyday in terms of its missile and nuclear capabilities. So at a minimum, this leads me to question the seriousness and sincerity of the North Koreans number one.

Number two, at the very moment, at the high point of US – DPRK dialogue on improving relations, on moving towards a better bilateral relationship, on moving towards denuclearization, putting in place a freeze on their medium to long range ballistic missile testing – all of those things were in play and we were working on all of them. And at the same time we had their nuclear weapons program at Yongbyon frozen – the ’98, ’99, 2000 period of the Clinton Administration. At the high point of that dialogue, as we now know, the North Koreans had another nuclear weapons program that was hidden from view. So what does that say about the seriousness with which North Korea was taking this effort by the Clinton Administration to improve relations and resolve all the issues between us?

Beyond that, if you look back over the history of this very problematic relationship, what you see is a North Korea that virtually every instance where they have to make a choice to either give up the nuclear weapons, in return for a greatly improved relationship with the United States and international community, or going in the opposite direction, they make the wrong choice. What does that tell you about their mentality and their real agenda? All of this suggests to me that the North Koreans have, because of their world view, because of their ideology, because of their belief which I think is probably sincere in many cases that the United States has nothing but ill-will and evil intentions towards them, they are determined to go down this path of nuclear weapons development, and missile development, because they believe that that is their ultimate insurance policy for survival. It’s not necessarily true that they intend to use these systems, but they feel that these systems are essential for their survival.

And I don’t want to put words into [Donald] Gregg’s mouth, but he and others have suggested that if only the United States will normalize relations with North Korea, if only we will sign a peace treaty with the North Koreans, if only we will provide them with assistance and do a bunch of other things – then we do those things, North Korea will feel comfortable enough to [address] its nuclear weapons program. That’s the North Korean position by the way as stated last year by their Vice Foreign Minister who came to New York and met with us. And he said if you do the following list of things, and it was that list that I just provided to you, it will make us feel comfortable and then we can consider the prospect of denuclearization. I’m sorry but I’m not so naive as to except that deal quite frankly, because I can give you dozens of quotes and assertions and comments from North Korean officials that in which they note that they will never give up their nuclear weapons, as their leader once said, even in a dream this is not going to happen. The North Koreans, I believe, are committed to this path, quite frankly. Their nuclear status is now enshrined in their constitution – in the preamble of their constitution. Their leader and the senior advisors have all said on the record that they are a nuclear state. We need to deal with a nuclear state. They will not give up their nuclear weapons until the world achieves nuclear disarmament. Translation: don’t hold your breath. So this notion that somehow if only we will do a list of things it would create a better situation and the North Koreans would disarm, it’s just not on and I think it’s quite naive.

GARRETT REDFIELD: Then, I guess in terms of an endgame so to speak, what is the option for the U.S.?

 MR. EVANS J.R. REVERE: The list of options is becoming narrower and narrower unfortunately. I have not given up on the notion of diplomacy despite my skepticism that you’ve heard in the last few minutes. I think there is a very narrow window that we have right now in which the United States could make another effort in a rather different form, different mechanism to deal with the North Koreans. That would both focus the North Korean leadership on the tremendous danger they are facing by pursuing the course that they are pursuing right now, and simultaneously, convey to them a solution, a comprehensive solution that would resolve all of our fundamental concerns but all of their fundamental concerns as well. And what I have in mind, and I’ve written about this a couple of occasions for Brookings, is an initiative that would send a very, very senior U.S. envoy to Pyeongyang, much more senior than we’ve ever sent before. This person would be a representative of the President of the United States. The purpose would not to be to engage the North Koreans as we have in the past through diplomatic channels of talking with the Foreign Ministry, and talking with the Vice Foreign Minister, etc. Those channels have already exhausted their usefulness I think by and large. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk to their diplomats, that’s fine- that’s not going to solve the problem.

The North Korean regime does not work the way other regimes work. The notion that the North Korean Foreign Ministry is going to negotiate a denuclearization agreement/arrangement with us, I just don’t think is on quite frankly, and I think facts have shown that over the years. The North Korean regime is a top down regime. The Foreign Ministry works for the military first regime in North Korea and is in no position to influence the regime’s decision quite frankly on matters of life and death and nuclear weapons for the North Koreans are a matter of life and death. And if we’ve learned nothing else over the years by now, I think we’ve learned that.

So the critical thing for us to do, I think is to talk to those people in North Korea at the top who make these decisions, who have the ability to change these decisions, and that would include the leader, and the small inner circle of people who work closely with him to form the overall strategic and political direction of the regime. And the messages to deliver are very clear ones: the United States is prepared to defend its interests and its allies using every means at our disposal, the United States will respond in the event North Korea uses or threatens to use or proliferates nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology. That in essence is sort of the bad cop message.

The good cop message is, now that we’ve made clear to you what it is we are prepared to do to you in the event you make any effort to attack us or our allies or our interests, let me lay out for you a way out of the current impasse. And it would essentially be a restatement of the all the things that I had on my list earlier, but this time delivered with considerably more authority and a much higher level than you have in the past. And it would be delivered directly to the North Korean leadership and would give them a pretty stark choice.

This actually worked once before in the Spring of 1999 when former Secretary of Defense Perry went to Pyeongyang, I went with him on that trip. And that’s essentially what we did. We laid out what we called the dark path and the right path for the North Koreans. It was a very stark choice for the North Koreans. We didn’t need to get into much detail on the dark path, they understood what we meant by that. But we also gave them an exit from that path and it got their attention. And when we flew out of Pyeongyang, we had a very intense discussion as to whether our mission had worked or not and there was some serious disagreement among the U.S. delegation and I turned to Will Perry and I said, it worked. And my other colleagues on the plane didn’t agree with me but in the end, as it turns out, it had worked. We got their attention. They agreed to re-engage, they agreed to suspend the threats that they were making to reprocess their fuel rods, they agreed to keep the missile moratorium that we had negotiated in place, which froze testing on their medium and long range ballistic missiles and they came back to the table. That resulted in the visit of Marshall Jo Myong Rok to Washington and it resulted in the trip of Madeleine Albright to Pyeongyang. Now that’s the good news.

The bad news in retrospect, all the while the North Koreans were working on another path to nuclear weapons development as we know. So what I’m suggesting is that we need to present the North Koreans with the same stark choice. Perhaps even raise the stakes a lot higher – not perhaps, raise the stakes a lot higher. But at the same time, when we talk about a comprehensive resolution of the current situation, we need to account for the fact that the North Koreans have not just one but two paths to nuclear weapons development here. And that the threat that they pose is much more serious than it was in 1999. That will have to be an important part of this resolution.

Will this work? Not so sure. It’s worth trying. I do not see a downside to trying this. If it works, everybody wins. If it doesn’t work, we have some very valuable, strategic clarity on North Korean intentions. We will be able to demonstrate to the international community that we have made every possible effort at the highest possible level to deal with this. And I think that will help the United States gain international support for whatever measures we might have to adopt at that point to deal with North Korea. So I don’t see a downside to trying this. There is a certain reluctance in Washington to try once again and I can understand that, but you don’t pay anything, quite frankly, to talk to the North Koreans. I think you pay a price if you don’t try and make the effort, quite frankly. So I think this is worth the investment – political and diplomatic capital. And as I said, if it works everyone wins, and if it doesn’t work we don’t necessarily lose.


 GARRETT REDFIELD: One of the things you mentioned which I completely agree with is having higher bilateral negotiations. Now with that, there’s been healthy skepticism as to who is really the most influential figure for Kim Jeong Eun and one of those figures is Jang Song Thaek, his uncle. So would it be more beneficial to hold a bilateral with him versus Kim Jeong Eun or perhaps both at the same time?

 MR. EVANS J.R. REVERE: In terms of the mechanics of this, that has yet to be determined. I don’t know the answer to that question. I think you need to get the message to the leadership as directly as you can. If you look back on the history of Japanese dialogue with North Korea, South Korean dialogue with North Korea, Russian dialogue with North Korea, Chinese dialogue with North Korea – the only time any of those countries have gotten serious traction with the North Korean regime is when they have sat down with the North Korean leader. And in a number of instances progress was made. In some cases remarkable progress was made. [Japanese Prime Minister] Koizumi went to Pyeongyang and got Kim Jong Il to admit to having kidnapped Japanese citizens and put an agreement in place to resolve this. That’s remarkable when you think about it. [South Korean President] Kim Dae Jung had some remarkable conversations with Kim Jong Il.

Can we duplicate that? I don’t know. But once again the point is that the North Korean regime is a top-down regime. It does not work the way normal governments work where diplomats for example like at my level construct ideas, agreements, and concepts and pass them up. And as they go up the food chain to the top, they are eventually blessed by the top and put in place. That’s not how the North Koreans operate. It’s quite the opposite.


 GARRETT REDFIELD: One of the biggest challenges that we now see is that North Korea keeps upping the rhetoric, almost on a daily basis. And one of the important aspects of Korean culture are face-saving measures. So as North Korea keeps upping the bar, gradually, how do we have face-saving measures while decreasing tensions?

 MR. EVANS J.R. REVERE: That’s a delicate path to walk down. I think what you’ve seen the United States do recently: the F22s, the B2s, the B52s, the radar systems, all of those things are prudent steps. But what you’ve also seen for the last 24 hours or so is a little bit of ratcheting down in terms of the U.S. moves because I think there is an understanding that to some extent – we can get into this downward spiral if you will, and we need to be careful not to be seen as being provocative, even though our intention is not the be provocative. And I think there’s a sense of that spreading in Washington. But the fact is that the North Koreans are making some very serious threats that we need to take seriously. We don’t want to over-react. But you also don’t want to ignore the implications of some of the threats that they are making. So you’re walking a very fine line here.

I think, keep in mind that there a number of drivers of North Korean behavior right now. One of them is their annual reaction to the annual exercise that we’re doing there. They always get spun up over this exercise for lots of reasons, not the least of which is it costs them money. Every time we move troops, every time we move aircraft, every time we increase the tempo and scope of our exercises they have to respond – the military has to respond and any military would. It costs them a lot of money to do that – they’re not happy about that. Actually one of the reasons for doing these exercises is that it causes them some burden. The exercise I think will end in about another 30 or 35 days or so and at that point, the North Koreans may be able to declare victory. They may say that our grand Korean People’s army has once again confronted the American imperialists and their South Korean lackeys and we have shown them through our threats and our deployments that we are capable of defending ourselves, and striking a tremendous blow – I think I just wrote their editorial that you’ll see in about another month – and as a result their troops are being withdrawn and the exercise is over and we have once again successfully confronted them. That may be the way of saving face for the North Koreans. We’ll see. In the meantime, keep your powder dry is my advice to the [Obama] Administration.


Garrett Redfield is a Master of International Affairs Candidate at the School of International Affairs at The Pennsylvania State University. As an adopted Korean American, he has a strong interest in Korean Peninsula affairs, and focuses on Korean Reunification. Garrett has lived in Korea for an extensive amount of time, mainly as a former ESL instructor. He is proficient in Korean.


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