Jeffrey LewisSecret US Trip To Pyongyang?

Well, this is very interesting.

This, as far as I can tell, a YouTube clip from ResetKBS! claiming that US officials apparently made a secret trip to Pyongyang on April 7, apparently in a last-ditch, ultimately unsuccessful effort to head off North Korea’s missile launch. (I hasten to add that I suspect the video is all stock footage to spruce up the report.)

(“ResetKBS!” is an online newscast by striking Korean journalists, so this is sort of state-run Korean Broadcasting System without, well, the state-run part.  This thing was a pain in the butt to find, not least because I can’t speak Korean.)

The sourcing on the claim is a little unclear to me — I don’t speak Korean and the various English press accounts describe the details a little differently.  You can get the gist from Kyodo, Manichi, and The Daily Who Knows? Generally speaking, the story is that the super-secret trip was compromised when Japanese air traffic controllers handed over the aircraft to their South Korean counterparts and stated the destination as “Pyongyang Sunan Airport.”

Toria Nuland and Glyn Davies both opted for variations on “no comment” when asked about the report in separate pressers.  Here is Nuland in Washington on May 18:

QUESTION: — there is a media report coming out of South Korea stating that high-level U.S. Government officials visited Pyongyang on April 7th, just about a week before the missile launch. Did any U.S. Government officials go to Pyongyang to visit prior to the satellite launch?

MS. NULAND: I have no comment on that report at all.

And here is Davies in South Korea on May 21:

QUESTION: One question. Can you tell us about the details, the nature of the visit by the U.S. officials to Pyongyang? There have been some news reports that there was a visit by U.S. officials to Pyongyang, around the time that they launched, right before they launched the [unclear] . . .

AMBASSADOR DAVIES: I don’t have anything for you on that.

QUESTION: Well, was there a trip, or you just can’t talk about it?

AMBASSADOR DAVIES: I am just not — I don’t have anything for you. I understand you need to ask this question, but I cannot help you with . . . Yes?

On April 4, I noted rumors that Glyn Davies wasn’t talking to the press.  I guess this would be one explanation.

On April 5, Chris Nelson reported that the Administration had “turned down” a request by Kim Gye Gwan for a last minute meeting.  Or not.  It’s hard to know if the source — who provided the letter to Chris — was mistaken, attempting to misdirect the policy community through Chris or if there was some last minute decision to take the meeting.

Why all the secrecy after the fact?  I suppose one possibility is that the sensitive piece of information involves who took the trip, rather than the fact of a trip itself.  But now I am just speculating in print, which is a bad idea.  Time to stop that.


  1. joel Wit (History)

    Interesting Jeffrey. I don’t speak Korean either but the film of Americans In Pyongyang is definitely Bill Clinton. One source is reporting that Joe Detrani, a former CIA official and negotiator under President Bush was one of the people.

    If true, all of this is positively bizarre. Having reached an agreement that was never an agreement, the administration then sent Americans off to Pyongyang on the eve of the missile test that was clearly going forward no matter what? The only possible hypothesis is that they did indeed take Kim Gye Gwan up on his offer, sent people to Pyongyang to head off what might happen after the missiles test (another nuclear test) and may have succeeded. That is one explanation for why the North hasnt conducted a nuclear test.

    That seems like a real long shot, particularly since satellite photos since the missile test show the DPRK continuing preparations. More likely, the Chinese have strong-armed the North Koreans using Kim Jung-un’s desire to visit Beijing as leverage. But if its somehow true that Americans succeeded in heading off a nuclear test, it will be interesting what price we paid in return.

    Interesting behavior for an administration that all along has hidden behind bromides such as not buying the same horse twice.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I updated the post — I suspect this is stock footage to accompany a report about a secret visit. They may as well have shown Kissinger banqueting with Zhou Enlai.

  2. Yongsoo Hwang (History)

    The video by KBS RESET is not matched with the story at all. The new KBS Labor Union just re-ran the old stockpile without saying anything… Remember that KBS is not the official KBS program. It is somehow the private program supplied by the new Labor Union which is under very active strike against the president of KBS and the S Korean Government…

    But anyway that US aircraft entered the S Korea and then probably headed for Sunan Airport in Pyeongyang. We know that the president of US NCPC visited Pyeongyan in April Mr the ambassador according to the officers in S Korea.

    • Duyeon Kim (History)

      WHO – both the Nelson Report and Yonhap News around the same time mentioned Joe DeTrani’s name. But some senior sources say flatly it wasn’t DeTrani. DeTrani may or may not have gone, but seeing how he stepped down from his NCPC Director post in January, he would have had to have gone with an acting USG official to ride the US military aircraft to Pyongyang. It appears only a few people (much less than a handful) knew about this top-secret trip – it seems State didn’t even know (until now/recently), which may explain Nuland’s and Davies’ response. Probably just a few WH folks, in which case one person to speculate upon is Sydney Seiler who could have made that trip. In time, I’m sure we’ll find out who.

      Reset KBS REPORT – they’re saying a US military aircraft departed Guam on April 7th; that the Japanese air traffic center informed the Korean air traffic center that the US military vehicle’s destination was Pyongyang Sunan Airport; that on its way over the West Sea it experienced an MCRC (Master Control & Reporting Center) emergency and had to linger in ROK airspace for a while; that the ROK military was not notified of this secret trip before but became aware during the flight/emergency; that the US Embassy in Seoul told the reporter they don’t know who went to Pyongyang; that it was a day trip; that a senior official told the reporter the mission was “not a diplomatic one but an intelligence one.”

      WHY – only the White House knows and since North Korea went ahead with the rocket launch, USG would only be even more tight-lipped. But part of Joel’s hypothesis makes sense that they may have gone to “warn” or explain what would happen after missiles and nuclear test since it appears Davies was too fast to believe Kim Gye-gwan’s “I see” comment and they might have needed to do some clean up. Another objective could be to do some tension management in an election year. To further speculate/hypothesize, there have been senior level Beijing-Pyongyang contacts recently and it appears they’re preparing for a possible Kim Jong-un visit to China at some point, so it seems unlikely they’d conduct a nuclear test at the moment. DPRK’s statement said they’ll refrain from a nuclear test for now, but only if the US drops sanctions and “hostile” policy, all the while photos show nuclear preparations. So again, like always, a two-pronged approach, and a nuclear test is a matter of time and circumstance – particularly if a third nuclear test was included in Kim Jong-il’s dying wishes.

  3. Cthippo (History)

    Did anything become of the other concessions North Korea made in the leap day non-deal? They agreed to no nuclear tests (so far, so good), no long range rocket tests (Except for that one space launch they were already planning), and to shut down the uranium enrichment complex and open it to IAEA inspection. Is the enrichment complex still in operation? Has anything happened on inspections?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The North Koreans announced on April 17 that they considered themselves no longer bound by the terms of the agreement after the Security Council issued a presidential statement on April 16 “condemning” the rocket launch.

  4. Duyeon Kim (History)

    We also can’t rule out Gary Samore and Danny Russell, since the report said “senior government official.” And the speculating continues… we can go on and on.