The smiling face of North Korean diplomacy

With the limousines, the bodyguards and the ever-present throng of reporters, Kim Kye-gwan received the kind of red-carpet treatment usually reserved for celebrities and presidents when he swung through New York last week.

From dinners at five-star hotels to meetings with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, nothing was too much trouble for North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator.

Such star treatment could hardly have been imagined four years ago, when US President George W. Bush labelled North Korea part of the “axis of evil”.

But with the failures in Iraq and Iran, the constantly smiling Mr Kim now represents the best chance the US has of chalking up a success with one of the “evil” states.

“Spring is coming, so the atmosphere will change,” Mr Kim said after his trip to New York, which he characterised as “constructive”.

Working groups thrashing out the details of last month’s denuclearisation agreement will meet in Beijing today. Mr Kim, 64, will again step into the spotlight next week, when the six-party talks resume.

A veteran diplomat who started his career in the foreign service with a posting to Algeria in 1969, Mr Kim, who speaks French but not English, has been deeply involved in North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy for almost 15 years.

When his US counterpart, Christopher Hill, was doing his master’s degree in 1994, Mr Kim was working on the “agreed framework”, in which North Korea first pledged to freeze its nuclear programme in return for energy assistance.

He was deputy to vice-foreign minister Kang Sok-ju and was in charge of the thorny issue of extracting two light water nuclear power reactors from the US.

In their book on that era, Clinton administration negotiators Joel Wit, Daniel Poneman and Robert Gallucci described Mr Kim as a “gregarious man who often played good cop to Kang’s bad cop”.

Dubbed “the smiling assassin” by present-day diplomats, Mr Kim appears to have graduated to the tougher role. “They have such a tough negotiating stance that, at one stage or another, all their negotiating partners are prepared to walk,” one person involved in the six-party talks said of Mr Kim’s team.

But, for a citizen of a country known for its belligerent rhetoric, diplomats say Mr Kim is reasonable and matter-of-fact. “He doesn’t go through all the normal ritual about how great North Korea is, he just goes straight into the substance,” said a South Korean who has dealt with him. “He is very logical and persuasive and isn’t easily offended, and that makes him a good diplomat.”

Despite Mr Kim’s skills, no representative of Pyongyang ever has the kind of bargaining authority invested in the other negotiators, which slows down proceedings.

“The most important thing to remember is that, while other countries’ representatives are expected to bring a certain latitude to most negotiations, in the case of any [North Korean] negotiator he cannot depart from his instructions one iota,” said Charles Kartman, the former head of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation, which was building the light water reactors.

“The best he can do is encourage his opposite number to be creative and explore solutions. At this, Kim was quite good,” said Mr Kartman, who negotiated with the “gentlemanly” Mr Kim for almost a decade.

Current negotiators find this somewhat frustrating. “The North Koreans are always talking about going back for instructions,” said a senior US official.

But as time passes, relations between the negotiators, at least, have started to become slightly warmer.

Both Mr Kim and Mr Hill were feeling under the weather during the last round of talks and bonded, at lunch in an Italian restaurant, over talk of how many painkillers they were each taking. Indeed, while Mr Kim happily eats the foreign meals put before him, diplomats report he turns up his nose at food from Japan, Korea’s old colonial master. This might serve as a warning of the extent of the challenges to resolving this crisis, where even food is political.

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