Monday, December 2, 2019

Eternal Life (Part 2): Kim Il Sung and Jimmy Carter at the table

This entry continues my summary of select chapters of Eternal Life

Eternal Life is the final novel of the Immortal History series, which chronicles Kim Il Sung's life from his days as a guerrilla fighter through the country's founding, war and reconstruction, and on through his later years.  It was published in 1997 and co-authored by Baek Bo Hŭm (who later contributed the short story "Green Land" to the first anthology of stories about Kim Jong Un) and Song Sang Wŏn. The novel covers the events of the last seven months of KIS' life, including his 1994 summit meeting with former US President Jimmy Carter.

Devoted readers of this blog might recall that this same summit was also the subject of the short story "Enchantment" (매혹), covered in one of this blog's earliest entries. That story took the point of view of First Lady Rosalynn Carter. This novel was written earlier, and the summit chapters alternate between the perspectives of KIS and President Carter.

In Chapter 16, the  formal summit between Kim Il Sung and former US President Jimmy Carter begins. Carter is shown as a sincere but weak-willed negotiator floundering with the difficult task his president has given him. KIS comes to his rescue and comes up with a solution for all. 

Chapter 16 Summary 

The morning of the summit, Carter wakes from a fitful sleep and preps for the 10am meeting with his aide, Dr. Marion Creekmore. Both Carter and Creekmore are pessimistic. Carter instructs Creekmore to phone the State Department from the secure phone line at the DMZ to tell them not to get their hopes up. 

Meanwhile KIS moves from his offices in Kumsusan Palace to the summit room. Passing the area where the American reporters are busily setting up their live broadcast equipment, he exchanges pleasantries with CNN VP Eason Jordan, who had visited Pyongyang several times before. Jordan is stunned that the Leader not only knows his name but graciously invites him to come back with his whole family for a holiday trip to Kŭmgangsan or Myohyangsan.

President Carter and his retinue walk in on this scene and are also amazed by the warmth and unaffected charm of the Great Leader. The two leaders spontaneously embrace and then take their seats around the summit table, flanked by their aides. KIS speaks first, with Carter’s aide and newly appointed State Department Deputy Director for Korean Affairs Christenson translating.

They exchange formal greetings, both expressing regret that they could not have met sooner, when Carter was still US president. Carter is amazed by KIS' kind and easygoing manner, so at odds with what he's been told to expect. 

Carter reads a personal message from President Clinton, laying out the sequence of events as the US sees it: First, the US asked for a 3-stage process to resolve the nuclear issue; second, NK completed its core replacement last April too quickly for the inspectors to check it, leading to UN sanctions; third, NK threatened to withdraw from the IAEA. The letter makes it sound like everything is NK’s fault. KIS responds with his own side's view of events [the story gives no details].

Carter struggles to bring up the US' true objective, which is to stop NK from expelling the two IAEA inspectors and to postpone NK’s withdrawal from the IAEA. KIS jokes "I think your friend gave you a tough job," referring to Clinton, and Carter bashfully agrees. 

Finally KIS breaks the impasse: 

  “Okay, let’s speak freely. The issue of the IAEA delegation that you struggle to speak of, right now it’s just a Korea-US problem. I’m sure you understand this. It was reported to me that you brought this up with our side at yesterday’s meeting. I can completely understand your feelings on this.”
   “Thank you.” Carter sighed. Ever since his arrival he’d gotten the impression from various meetings that they had no chance of movement on this issue. He had struggled with how to bring it up before Comrade Kim Il Sung,  but now He had just kindly introduced it. So thinking, he let the discussion be pulled along by Comrade Kim Il Sung.
   “But there’s another issue I’d like to discuss with you first.... Our move to expel the two inspectors was on account of the unfairness of the IAEA. It’s no secret that the Agency is backed by the US. This unfairness has extended to ‘special inspections’ of two of our military assets. That’s what I’d like to discuss first.” 
   Comrade Kim Il Sung went on to explain how this perverse insistence on "special inspections," going against international law and the IAEA’s own rules, represented the hidden ambition of a certain class in America to put "pressure" on our Republic.
   Then, raising His voice, He went on, “Mr. Carter, if we were to ask to see inside ‘Hwinsŏn’ (referring to the secret US military base), would you show it to us? When you return home, I’d like you to pass that on to President Clinton.”
    “What you say makes sense, Premier Kim.”


KSI agrees to allow the inspectors remain, preserving the IAEA status quo, as long as they keep out of the two military facilities. Carter is happy with this as it can be interpreted as "continuing limited inspections.” 

While KIS' aides are inwardly rejoicing that this issue is resolved so easily, the interpreter Christenson is cringing. He had been instructed by the State Department to use those two facilities as a pressure point and their main bargaining card. But now his boss has conceded so quickly that he can only sit back dumbfounded. 

KIS says the US is stuck on the issue of inspecting the two nuclear facilities, but there is a deeper problem that they must overcome first - the lack of trust.

   “The whole problem between our two countries originated from your mistrust of us. We’ve told you time and again that we are not trying to get nuclear weapons, nor do we have the capacity to do so, nor have we given any indication of doing so. The US already has thousands of nuclear warheads, so what would we do if we even managed to get a few? The US has planes, submarines and ICBMs capable of delivering nuclear bombs; we have nothing like that. And we certainly have no intention of slaughtering our own fellow Koreans with such weapons. Let me state our position clearly once again today.
   "We will never engage in double-dealing (일구이언). If you cannot trust the leader of a country, who can you trust? If you really cannot trust my word, I’ll put my seal on it.
   "We must tackle these issues from a point of mutual trust. If you don’t trust us, we can’t trust you, and the problem will not be resolved for a billion years. If you really think about it, the fundamental Korea-US problem is a lack of trust. The US is a big country; I want to see it act like one (나는 미국이라는 큰 나라가 명실공히 큰 나라로 되여주기를 바랍니다).”

I have to admit, that last line is pretty bad-ass.

Anyway, Carter is completely won over by this speech. Then KIS throws in the kicker: he proposes that the US provide North Korea with a light-water reactor to replace their graphite reactor. He explains that it is more difficult to extract plutonium from a light-water reactor for use in weapons, so this should resolve any concerns. 

Carter is unprepared to answer this and thus they reach an impasse. KIS then suggests they go to lunch. 

In the banquet hall, Carter admires the flower arrangements and is informed that these are "Kimjongilia," a new breed of begonia named after Kim Jong Il. Carter seizes the opportunity to ask if the stories he's heard about KJI are true, like how he personally tore up and redesigned the plans for Mangyongdae Youth Palace and also helped design Kwangbok Street, which Carter was greatly impressed with on his earlier tour. KIS says it's all true. Carter says he'd very much like to meet with KJI during this summit, but KIS replies that that won't be possible - he's off inspecting an army outpost.

Then they sit down to a lunch that features rainbow trout. KIS regales his guests with the story of how these trout came to be in North Korea:

    “It’s an interesting story. Early in this century, before our country was liberated, some Americans operated a mine in Woonsan County, and they brought in some rainbow trout. Until that time, rainbow trout did not exist anywhere in China or Korea. Then the Americans were ordered out by Japan, and the Japanese took over the mine. The local Koreans were not aware that the Americans had brought the rainbow trout; they thought they came from Japan. After liberation, the locals despised the Japanese so much that they didn’t even care for the trout. By the time I visited the area on some business, only five were still alive. I told the locals: no matter how much you hate the Japanese, you shouldn’t take it out on the fish; and anyway these trout are not Japanese but American, so breed as much as you can from the five that are left. Those five fish were the many-times-great-grandparents of the fish we eat here today. The US is their ancestral homeland, heh heh.”
    Carter couldn’t help but join in KIS’ infectious laughter. Still chuckling, he said, “In the Bible there’s a story about how Christ fed tens of thousands of people with just two fishes and five loaves of bread.…” 

The chapter concludes with a brief look at what KJI is up to at the military post. After getting briefed on the summit progress, he asks to see the weekly forecast for electro-magnetic phenomena, which his aide apparently carries around in a briefcase. He is relieved to see that there are no harmful electro-magnetic currents this week that could impact the Great Leader's health. But he's still worried, so he writes up a note to KIS' head nurse, instructing that no matter what happens at the summit, the Great Leader’s schedule of injections and medication must be meticulously followed.

Chapter Characters



In addition to the main characters KIS and President Carter, the story features several cameos by real-life individuals: 

Ambassador Marion Creekmore, Carter's aide on the trip, wrote of the summit in his 2006 book A Moment of Crisis: Jimmy Carter, the Power of a Peacemaker and North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions, and also spoke of his recollections of the summit in a 2007 podcast for the Korea Society. 

CNN VP Eason Jordan resigned from CNN in 2005. He apparently did visit NK and meet KIS twice in 1994, though if he received an offer to vacation with KIS at Kumgangsan he never took him up on it. A 2012 NK News article by Mark Barry, who witnessed one encounter, gives this account: "Eason Jordan, president of CNN International, greeted Kim on behalf of Ted Turner, founder of CNN, and expressed hope for a face-to-face interview, which did not materialize."

Former State Department Deputy Director for Korean Affairs Richard Christenson does, in fact, speak fluent Korean and Japanese, and reportedly did serve as an interpreter at the summit. 

Also mentioned is Chang Se-dong, who headed Chun Doo-hwan's NSA from Feb 1985-May 1987 and met KIS in November 1985 to discuss a possible Chun-Kim summit. Carter recalls reading that he gave a particularly flattering description of KIS' negotiating skills. In real life, Chang was convicted for his role in sending thugs to disrupt an opposition party meeting in 1987; at the time of this summit, he was in prison.

There is also a passing reference to Japanese botanist Kamo Mototeru, who created the Kimjongilia hybrid begonia. Oddly, in the story his name is given as "Kamamodo" (가마모도). The two leaders' interaction over the flowers was also told from Rosalynn Carter's perspective in the short story "Enchantment" (매혹), indicating that this had some significance for North Koreans (or else both authors simply spotted an opportunity for another nature metaphor while scoring bonus points with a mention of Kimjongilia).

Another character present in this chapter is Mun Son Gyu, a high-level North Korean diplomat helping with the nuclear negotiations. Mun, one of the novel's recurrent POV characters, is likely a pseudonym for Kang Sŏk Ju, then First Vice Foreign Minister. He has a seat at the negotiating table, and the perspective periodically shifts to him to show his private impressions of the two leaders. Christenson plays a similar role from the US side.

Mark Barry has compiled a helpful list  of all the Americans who met KIS, with useful links of various summit participants.

Describing KIS

As Carter observes KIS, he recalls various things that he has heard about the North Korean leader during his presidency, including high praise from Egypt’s Sadat and Yugoslavia’s Tito.

He also recalls once being in a discussion on the subject of Stalin. Someone told him it was said that the godfather of the global socialist movement always talked down to other communist heads of state – save for the youngest, KIS, whom he addressed using honorific speech.

Midway through their summit meeting, Carter reviews his information on KIS:

   Carter glanced at the papers his secretary had given him. “A skilled conversationalist who overwhelms his audience,” “a voice like someone giving a proclamation,” “completely controls the environment and makes everything go his way, adapting quickly” “superb diplomatic skills are part of his political genius,” these were observations of people who had met Premier Kim Il Sung. Particularly insightful were the recollections of the former head of the South Korean NSA, Chang Se-dong.
   When Chang said “Thank you for donating the flood aid,” the [KIS’] response was “It took more courage for you to accept it than for us to give it.” Impressed, he replied, “Such is the strength of a 40-year regime!” Referring to the fact that the North developed its own Juche system while the South remained dependent on foreign help, Chang said “Our leaders stand far apart in terms of gaining independence from foreign interference.” But instead of criticizing the south Korean government’s subservience to the US, Comrade Kim Il Sung simply replied “Let’s try to close that distance,” showing the graciousness of a truly great man.

KIS' negotiating style is depicted as putting his counterpart at ease by empathizing, frankly broaching difficult subjects, and generally dominating his weaker-willed opponent. He always appears more knowledgable and prepared, while Carter appears timid and reluctant to say what he really wants. Crucially, in the story it is North Korea, not the US, that first proposes light-water reactors as a solution:

   Comrade Kim Il Sung continued, still smiling, “We must return to this issue of trust. We have one 5mw graphite moderator, and your side is insisting that we are extracting plutonium from it to construct nuclear weapons. …. Because of this, at various meetings our side has proposed exchanging this graphite reactor for a light-water reactor. In this way we would eliminate the ‘nuclear problem’ once and for all. Is that not so, Mr. Carter?”
    “That’s reasonable,” Carter agreed.
    “We didn’t originally intend to use a graphite moderator. Back in the Chernenko era of the USSR, we had an agreement to install a light-water reactor. But there were delays, and then the Soviet Union went and collapsed, so it was no longer possible."
   Comrade Kim Il Sung went into the details of nuclear reactors, explaining that while graphite reactors produced a large amount of plutonium spent fuel that could be turned into weapons, light-water reactors produced only a small amount.
    Carter listened intently, surprised that the Premier had such a clear grasp of the details of nuclear technology, surpassing even himself, who had been a nuclear expert.
    “It was not easy for a small country such as ours to develop graphite moderator technology while blocked by international economic sanctions,” He continued. “We spent a great deal of time, effort and capital to autonomously develop a nuclear power industry. But we have a good incentive to freeze it. As our side has already proposed in bilateral meetings, we must be provided with a light-water reactor. Then the ‘nuclear problem’ will cease to exist. And we will have taken a big step toward resolving the fundamental issue of trust."


Here it becomes clear why the preceding chapter lingered on Carter's early-career experience with nuclear submarines. As "a nuclear expert" himself, Carter is able to appreciate KIS' genius in coming up with this solution. KIS is thus depicted as not only a canny negotiator but also an expert in nuclear technology.