As North Koreans mourn the death of Kim Jong Il, and the world wonders what the future holds with his 20-something untested youngest son set to take control of a nuclear nation, my thoughts return to a somewhat unlikely visit to a country like no other.
Four years ago, North Korea invited me to bring a small delegation of members of the American Council for World Jewry to Pyongyang. Admittedly, I was not sure what we could accomplish, or even if the trip was such a good idea, given that the small, secretive nation was best known as a proliferator of nuclear weapons and for rampant malnutrition and even starvation of its own citizens.
No one in our delegation had been to North Korea before, and while there was some trepidation about the unknown, we were determined to talk about several important issues, such as the very troubling matter of North Korea's material support for Israel's sworn enemies, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their struggling economy. We were hopeful their leadership had come to the conclusion that at the people-to-people level, something positive could be achieved.
Undeniably, there was a surreal quality to our visit. At night, as electricity evidently was cut back, the city was dark and the streets empty. We wanted to move about to see for ourselves what life was like and to get a flavor of the everyday challenges North Koreans face. We also wanted to test our assumption that their support for a host of global bad actors simply reflected Pyongyang's need to do business and find markets for its military industry.
Each side was curious about the other, and the more we talked the more several things became apparent. While they have provided help to Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and other enemies of Israel, none of this appears ideological. When we told them they should not sell missiles and nuclear technology to Israel's neighbors, they made no commitments to end the practice, and they defended it on the grounds that they needed the funds from military sales.
But their leadership seemed eager to discuss how North Korea's agricultural sector could benefit from Israeli know-how. We were all reminded of the old adage that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish, and in the case of Israel, another small country that finds itself isolated in a dangerous neighborhood, it has many lessons of self-sufficiency to share with North Korea.
Notwithstanding the absence of trust that understandably characterizes U.S.-North Korean relations, what I thought I heard was that a chance existed to improve relations. Two years after the initial trip, I was invited a second time and asked to bring another delegation from the ACWJ.
On this occasion, our discussions took place with higher ranking officials, our meetings were more detailed, and seemed to indicate that substantive dialogue at the top levels of government was being encouraged. This time, we explicitly said that ending arms sales, and no longer providing nuclear know-how to dangerous characters on the world stage, would be a good way to enhance trade opportunities to help improve the lives of millions of North Koreans.
I left thinking that their leadership was not satisfied with the status quo, and that they want to explore, quietly and off-the-record, ways to expand their narrow world. Upon returning to the U.S., we made it known to various elected leaders both in Washington and Jerusalem that an opportunity existed, that a small and exceedingly cautious nation was reaching out.
Our delegation was not political, and we served the purpose of giving North Korea a chance to make a symbolic point at very little cost. We were not sent with any special messages to deliver, nor did we come back with anything concrete to share with U.S. politicians.
Nonetheless, at the personal level, each member of our delegation was convinced that our trip had genuine value. Sometimes, long-time antagonists simply cannot figure out a way to talk with each other; they cling to their narratives and talk past each other. Sadly, we are familiar with a similar dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians.
The passing of Kim Jong Il marks a time of change, an important milestone event that closes one door and opens another. I'd like to think that the time I spent in North Korea reflects a desire on the part of its leaders to build new relationships with the West. I wouldn't bet the house, but this may well be the moment to try to move the U.S. and North Korea toward a new era of engagement that, at the very least, lowers rhetorical flames and explores mutually beneficial opportunities.