By Jon Cronin, Editor
Former U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman said that his past meetings with a North Korean president gave him some insight into how a dictator uses provocative threats to make a name for himself on the world stage. Ackerman spoke with the Queens Tribune on Friday to provide some of this insight in the wake of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump’s trading nuclear threats.
Threats from North Korea are a problem with which U.S. presidents from the past 20 years have contended. But Ackerman said that, for the first time, the United States has a president who has engaged in the type of threats that might typically be associated with the supreme leader of North Korea.
“It’s a failure of purpose, intent and leadership to protect the people of the United States of America,” Ackerman said of Trump’s antagonizing of Jong-un. “Trump has cut off all options by broadcasting them—which is what he said he’d never do. He criticized [President Barack] Obama for announcing that we were leaving Afghanistan. But now, he’s putting down a red line and threatening a preemptive strike.”
On Oct. 12, 1993, as chairman of the House’s Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Ackerman traveled to North Korea through China to try to find reasonable solutions for the United States’ tense relationship with that country.
“We did not want a nuclear North Korea,” he said.
Ackerman began negotiations with Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jung-un, and presented the idea of switching the country’s nuclear power plant from heavy water to light water, which uses nuclear material that is difficult to weaponize.
Kim Il-sung asked him, “How would we pay for it” Ackerman said that he then knew that the leader was willing to negotiate. In recognition of the sacrifice, Ackerman told Kim Jong-il that the international community would help to pay for the switch.
“I was the American plausible deniability card,” Ackerman said. “His whole game was to be seen on the level of the president of the United States and our president [Bill Clinton] was smart to not meet with him, but we continued talks. [President George W. Bush] came in and was angry with this guy, who was very provocative. His rhetoric was insane and dangerous, but it was bluster.”
Ackerman said that it was wise for Clinton not to meet with Kim Il-sung in 1993.
“You don’t elevate a petty dictator,” he said. “China was a huge entity [when President Richard Nixon met with Chairman Mao Zedong]. North Korea is not China. This is junior league sumo wrestling.”
As a show of respect and willingness to create peace, North Korea allowed Ackerman to cross from North to South Korea, which was the first time anyone had done so since the Korean War ended in 1957.
This was the beginning of what became the Basic Framework Agreement that gave the international community the capacity to ensure that North Korea was not building a nuclear arsenal. While in North Korea, Ackerman said that he obtained some insight into the reclusive nation.
“They don’t have access to the rest of the world,” he said. “The whole nation lives as if there’s a bubble over it. They didn’t have TV—just the government channel, which feeds them crazy propaganda. Kim Il-sung ran the country with an iron fist. You had to call him the Great Leader.”
But while Ackerman found Kim Il-sung to be “sharp” and “had a sense of what was going on” in the world, he does not believe Kim Jong-un to have the same qualities.
“Right now, we have the threat of inexperience and an untested nuclear-armed megalomaniac running the country,” he said. “More and more people have concluded we have two sumo wrestlers performing a ballet on egg shells and neither wants to blink. We have a very dangerous and volatile situation.”
Ackerman said that he worded that statement to lead to the question of which world leader—Jong-un or Trump—was being referenced.
Although Jong-un has threatened to use his country’s nuclear arsenal against the United States, Ackerman said it would not be in North Korea’s best interest.
“We have seen their ability to fire a missile,” he said. “We don’t know if it will reach the continental US, but it could reach Guam. No one doubts that. But if we blow them up, it’ll topple their power.”
Ackerman said that he believes Trump should take a page out of former presidents’ playbooks and refuse to speak directly to Jong-un.
“The president shouldn’t put a petty dictator or a wannabe warlord on the same level as he is,” Ackerman said. “He’s fighting above his weight class. We don’t consider France a dangerous nuclear power. Israel won’t even admit to having a nuclear weapon. We have nuclear power. Threatening to use it breaks international law. First strikes are illegal.”
Nevertheless, Ackerman said that he believes Jong-un’s threats should still be taken seriously.
“You have a guy who took his uncle out of a meeting and blew him up in a public arena,” he said. “It’s a violent, vile, despicable administration. They starve their own people. They have their own people consumed by the belief that, at any minute, South Korea and the United States will invade them. You have people with rifles slung over their backs all their lives because they think we’re about to invade.”
As a final thought, Ackerman said that he believes Jong-un and Trump share some common personality traits.
“They’ve both projected themselves to the center of the world because they want attention,” he said. “These guys—except for the scale—could be twins.”
Reach Jon Cronin at 718-357-7400 x125, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JonathanSCronin.