Editor’s Note: This is the 32nd installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?
I wrote an amazing 1,730 words today, but it was because I stumbled onto a gem of a primary source document that is going to really anchor my first chapter on the Obama years.
The document is an eight-page, single-spaced memo that happened to be in the Hillary Clinton emails that were hacked in 2016. Wikileaks dumped them online, and one of them included an attachment with a detailed summary from a meeting between Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il in August 2009.
As a general rule, I try to stay away from Wikileaks stuff. But there was an obscure story about the memo originally reported in The Japan Times a while back that led me to it.
The Clinton-Kim meeting had been arranged through the State Department. Clinton’s presence in Pyongyang was a symbolic gesture—he also carried a letter from President Obama—seeking the safe release of two American journalists that North Korea had charged with 12 years of hard labor. After meetings with several other senior levels, Clinton sat down with Kim, and had an extensive conversation. This memo is a historiographical treasure because there are very few recorded conversations with Kim Jong Il in public existence.
I’ll save most of the transcript, and my interpretation of what it all meant, for the book, but here are a couple useful morsels:
- Kim lamented that Clinton never visited him in 2000/2001 and that if Democrats had won the 2000 election, “…all agreements would have been implemented, the DPRK would have had light water reactors, and the United States would have had a new friend in Northeast Asia.”
- Kim’s early impressions of the Obama administration “were not very good. President Obama said publicly he was willing to talk even with hostile countries, but he was obstructing the DPRK’s right to send satellites into orbit.”
- Kim said “Pursuing Six Party Talks and neglecting bilateral talks would not resolve hostilities.”
- Clinton urged that President Obama “…could not walk away from the Six Party Talks…[you] must not make President Obama pick between a bilateral relationship and the Six Party Talks.”
There’s a lot of other great stuff in the memo, but just in these few quotes, you see Kim fully rejecting the Obama administration’s attempt to cast itself as different, and more of a good-faith partner, than George W. Bush. Kim’s view of the United States did not shift with a shift in leaders.
Clinton’s remark to Kim about Obama being wedded to the Six-Party Talks negotiation process (which involved all of Pyongyang’s neighbors sitting at the table) show what would become a clear conflict of interests. Obama inherited the Six-Party Talks from Bush and was told by his foreign policy mandarins that it was the only way to get to “yes” on denuclearization. But in the memo, Kim is saying quite plainly to Clinton that only bilateral relations — and explicitly not Six-Party Talks — can ameliorate its need for nukes.
Reading this memo and what Kim Jong Il told Clinton, it’s crazy to me that Obama took the approach it did — Six-Party Talks as the only solution, taking a hard line on North Korea’s occasional missile testing, seeking only “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” and nothing less.
With all this juicy content, it was easy to write a lot today, pulling quotes, interpreting them, and situating them in the context of what would come later. I may be a political scientist, but stuff like this reminds me why I love history so much.
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.