Stephen Bosworth, 1939-2016
As we are digesting North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, the Korea community is saddened by the death of Stephen Bosworth, a consummate diplomat with a long and distinguished career working on the peninsula. His assignments included serving as an executive director for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) from 1995 to 1997, Ambassador to South Korea from 1997-2001 and U.S. special representative for North Korea policy from the onset of the Obama administration in 2009 until October 2011 (which included a visit to Pyongyang in December 2009 before the Cheonan derailed a thaw in relations).
According to a colleague involved in the discussions, Bosworth played an important role in taking the calculated risk of negotiating with North Korea in the wake of the important Perry report of 1999. Perhaps influenced by the relative success of late-Clinton diplomacy, he was among those with the patience to push for engagement with Pyongyang. In a wide-ranging interview with NKNews in October of last year, he outlined with great clarity his views of the history of the North Korean problem, the current state of play and the need for calculated risk. He rightly believed that the bluster of the first Bush administration yielded little and was in fact counterproductive. He espoused an approach that would simultaneously maintain principles—particularly those enshrined in the 2005 Joint Statement with respect to denuclearization--while seeking tactical flexibility. He understood that simply insisting that the North Koreans denuclearize was not going to make it happen. He was a strong supporter and participant in Track II efforts and was thinking to the very end of his life about possible lines of approach that could generate an opening.
At the same time, he was wise enough to understand the deep political constraints on both sides: the unwillingness of a US president to waste precious political capital on a risky investment; and the complex transitional processes in North Korea that probably played into the missile launches that scuttled the Leap Year Deal (which he helped negotiate) and the third nuclear test, which turned “strategic patience” into the end of any serious consideration of an alternative course of action. Sadly, such realism is even more warranted now.
A New York Times editorial from 2013 and a program at the Korea Society gives a sense of his thinking. Other commentary: Don Kirk at Forbes, John Kerry, Yonhap and commentary from the community at NKNews.