Obama’s State Dept. Nominee: North Korea's Kim Jong-il ‘Smart, Capable,’ ‘Not a Lunatic’

By Patrick Goodenough | July 6, 2011 | 5:22 AM EDT

President Obama has nominated Wendy Sherman as undersecretary for political affairs, the State Department’s third-ranking position. (Photo: Albright Stonebridge Group)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama’s nominee to a top State Department post is one of the few American diplomats to have met North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, whom she later described as “smart, capable and supremely confident.”

Wendy Sherman traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 in her capacity as counselor to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Visiting South Korea four years later – when she was no longer in government – Sherman had some positive things to say about the reclusive Stalinist leader.

She had found Kim Jong-il to be “smart, capable and supremely confident. He’s not a lunatic, nor is he psychiatrically ill, but he has an inflated sense of power,” Seoul’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper in March 2004 quoted Sherman as telling students at a leading women’s university.

Obama nominated Sherman on July 1 as undersecretary for political affairs, the State Department’s third-ranking position.

Sherman currently serves as vice chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, Madeleine Albright’s global strategy firm. Other roles have included advising Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign; serving on the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism in 2008; serving as assistant secretary for legislative affairs from 1993 to 1996; and heading Emily’s List, the group dedicated to getting “pro-choice Democratic women” elected to federal, state, and local office.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday welcomed Sherman’s nomination, but declined to comment on reports suggesting that her focus will be on North Korea and Asian affairs.

“In advance of Senate advise and consent and confirmation and her swearing-in, it would be premature to talk about the likely division of labor … but as you know, Ms. Sherman is very experienced in Asian issues and particularly in Korean issues,” Nuland said.

Sherman played a key role in the Clinton administration’s dealings with Pyongyang from 1997 to 2001, a period during which relations were purportedly improving following a nuclear agreement concluded several years earlier.

Like others associated with the Democratic administration, Sherman later criticized the Bush administration’s approach to North Korea, suggesting that it was responsible for Kim’s development of nuclear weapons. North Korea carried out nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and again in 2009.

“During the Bush Administration, North Korea produced enough fissile material to produce eight or more bombs,” Sherman wrote in a 2009 guest column in the Korea Times. “As a result, an empowered North Korea has tested nuclear weapons and has flirted with the idea of sharing some of its capabilities with others.”

In the column Sherman also wrote that the Obama administration would have to “‘contain’ the damage that has been done over the last eight years,” and work with Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program.

Ironically, it was the Bush administration that, together with those four countries and North Korea, held multiple rounds of what became known as the “six-party” denuclearization talks between the summer of 2003 and the end of 2008. By contrast, no six-party talks have taken place since President Obama took office.

The six-party process was established as a result of the Bush administration’s discovery that North Korea had been cheating on a 1994 deal with the Clinton administration, the Agreed Framework, by carrying out covert uranium-enrichment activity.

Confirmation of the highly-enriched uranium (HEU) violation came in an Oct. 2002 meeting in Pyongyang, when the State Department said North Korean officials, confronted with evidence, admitted the existence of the clandestine program.

The State Department at the time said the illicit activity went back several years – in other words, it had been occurring before President Bush took office. Still, some Democrats – including Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 election campaign – accused Bush of triggering the crisis in the first place by snubbing North Korea, among other things by calling it part of an “axis of evil” during his 2002 State of the Union.

Eight years earlier, the Agreed Framework had been hammered together following a threat by Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter as an unofficial envoy for talks with Kim Il-sung, and the visit paved the way for the agreement. North Korea pledged to mothball its nuclear complex and admit U.N. inspectors and surveillance cameras to monitor the freeze, in return for the provision of alternative energy supplies including U.S. heavy fuel shipments.

The Clinton administration characterized the Agreed Framework as a triumph of diplomacy, and with the agreement in place and supposedly being honored, relations improved, despite continuing concerns about Kim’s ballistic missile program.

In the closing months of Clinton’s second term, Albright – accompanied by Sherman – paid a historic visit to Pyongyang, intended to pave the way for a visit by the president before the end of 2000.

In the event, Clinton in late December said his planned visit would not take place before the end of his term, citing “insufficient time to complete the work at hand.” (A key reason given by analysts later was the fact that bilateral talks in Malaysia over Pyongyang’s missile programs had stalled over the question of verification. North Korea at the time was demanding $1 billion a year in return for stopping missile exports.)

‘It’s taken far too long’

Once the North Korean HEU violations were uncovered in 2002, the Agreed Framework quickly unraveled: The U.S. suspended heavy fuel shipments, North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors and resumed activities at its reactor and reprocessing plant, and then withdrew from the NPT.

Over the following months the six-party negotiating framework was developed as a joint response to the crisis, and a first round of talks took place in Beijing in August 2003.

When she visited Seoul for her lecture at the woman’s university seven months later, Sherman praised the multilateral diplomacy, but said it had taken too long for the six-party process to get underway.

“My greatest critique of the Bush administration is that it has not engaged in sincere negotiations,” JoongAng Ilbo quoted her as saying. “It has taken far too long to get to the negotiating table. The more it stalls, the more dangerous it is.”

Over the ensuing years numerous further rounds of six-party talks took place, eventually producing an agreement in 2007, under which North Korea pledged to declare “all” of its nuclear programs and to “disable” three nuclear facilities in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions.

After further delays and hurdles, Washington in 2008 removed North Korea from its list of terror-sponsoring states. But that December the process stalled yet again, amid fresh disagreements over verification. There have been no talks since.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow