Friday, May 20, 2011

Touring North Korea?


My first thoughts about sending the Harlem Ambassadors to North Korea came in the year 2000 as we prepared for our first trip to South Korea. Take a look at a map of the region and you’ll see how close Seoul is to North Korea. This close proximity of millions of South Koreans to the forbidden North is one reason tensions remain so high, fifty years after the cease-fire technically ended the Korean War.

My reasons for even thinking the unthinkable were three-fold. First was that very level of tension. I naively thought “what could possibly be a better tension breaker than a Harlem Ambassadors show?’ Perhaps we could genuinely be an aid in bridging understanding between North Korean and Americans.

Second, the idea of traveling somewhere remote and isolated has always had an appeal to me. As most people have learned recently, few places are as remote and isolated as North Korea. Access is restricted and interaction with Americans is virtually non-existent.

My third reason was quite mercenary. I realized that such a visit would create a tremendous awareness of the Harlem Ambassadors. I’m old enough to remember when another very isolated communist country (China) was opened up by a touring sports team (American table tennis players). I thought this type of groundbreaking trip could put the Harlem Ambassadors on the map, even if the place we were going was almost off the map!

Of course, like so many things we have attempted to do with the Harlem Ambassadors, there was no blueprint on how to arrange a sports mission to North Korea. It had never been done before. A little surfing on the internet revealed some surprising information about the sport of basketball and the North Koreans. I learned that dictator Kim Jong-Il loves basketball. In October of 2000 when Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited Pyongyang, she presented Kim with an NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan. Kim was quoted at the time as saying, "We should make our youths and workers play a lot of basketball."

North Korea began to promote basketball as part of the Grow Tall Movement during a deadly famine in the mid-1990s. Malnutrition has stunted the growth of many North Korean children.

North Korean media claimed that students playing basketball were three to five centimeters taller than those playing other sports. It said the game "activates hundreds of millions of brain cells per second" as players must continuously make quick decisions. The North Korean media had obviously never studied Joe “Biggie” Smith from our first season. He was definitely taller than those playing other sports, but we had serious questions about how many brain cells he was activating during a game. Anyway, the North Koreans were promoting basketball.

In fact, a “professional” league had been started which featured the world’s tallest player, 7 foot 9 inch Ri Myong Hoon. Scouting reports on Ri say he is fragile and his skills are limited. Sort of a North Korean Shawn Bradley.

The North Koreans had even concocted their own scoring system to add more excitement to the games. For example, a three-pointer that swishes (hits nothing but net) is worth four points. Dunks are worth three points. Missed free throws are a minus one point deduction which would make a hack-a-Shaq strategy doubly valuable in Pyongyang. And, baskets made in the last two seconds of a game are worth EIGHT POINTS! Sounds like a great way to pad your scoring average at the end of a blow-out game. The bottom line to all this for me was that hoops were big in North Korea.

We were preparing for our first tour of U.S. bases in South Korea which would take place in December 2000, very shortly after Albright’s visit to the North. I utilized the internet and Email to make contact with persons who could give me direction about the possibility of going North. I was in touch with Search for Common Ground, a DC-based group that presented cultural exchanges in the interest of promoting understanding between nations. Search for Common Ground had helped to send a team of American wrestlers (Olympic-style wrestling, not WWF) to Tehran to help bridge some of the differences between Iranians and Americans. The executive director, John Marks, was less than enthusiastic about trying to send a show basketball team to Pyongyang. The lack of diplomatic relations with North Korea made such a trip extremely difficult and besides “the North Koreans aren’t exactly known for their sense of humor,” was Marks’ summary.

I also contacted the U.S. Embassy in Seoul expressing our willingness for the Harlem Ambassadors to make a “friendship” journey to Pyongyang in December when we were in South Korea. The public affairs officer informed me that the Embassy in Seoul had no authority to sanction any visits to North Korea. We were wished well with our upcoming tour for Eighth Army. With a limited amount of time and no prospects for initiating a visit, I tabled the idea. We were going to be busy enough anyway.

The North Korea concept remained on the backburner until 2002. Our December 2000 Eighth Army tour had been a huge success. In December 2001, despite fallout from September 11, we journeyed to Japan and Korea again. This time in Korea we had great events at Kunsan and Osan Air Bases and at the Chinhae Naval installation, all U.S. military facilities.

We were scheduled to present another Eighth Army tour in December 2002, as well as returning to Kunsan and Osan. With these events scheduled early in Spring 2002, I had some time to try and generate some interest in the Harlem Ambassadors traveling to North Korea. Much had happened in the previous two years. The South had initiated a “Sunshine Policy” of engaging the North in open exchanges. The Hyundai Corporation had invested an estimated $500 million to develop the Mount Kumgang resort area in North Korea and had begun taking South Korean tourists North.

Additionally, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) had broken ground for a power plant complex in North Korea. KEDO is an international consortium of the USA, South Korea, and Japan with participation from the European Union, Australia, Canada and several other nations. KEDO was formed to construct light-water (non-plutonium producing) reactors to generate desperately-needed power for North Korea. The North Koreans secured a commitment to build these reactors as part of a 1994 agreement to halt a nuclear weapons program. This agreement became known as the “Agreed Framework.” The reactor site is in Kumho on the northeast coast of North Korea.

In July 2002, Air Koryo (North Korean state-run airline) made a historic flight across the DMZ in preparation to begin transporting South Korean construction workers to the North for the KEDO project. In addition to all this activity, many sports exchanges were taking place. The two Koreas had squared off in friendly basketball, soccer, and tae kwon do exchanges. Japan and North Korea were working on a table tennis exchange. And in a stunning move, the North Koreans announced they were sending a team to Busan, South Korea to compete in the Olympic-style multi-sport Asian Games taking place in September 2002.

None of these exchanges were involving Americans, despite the U.S. being a major player in the region with a huge military presence. From the time the Bush administration took over in January 2001, the climate between the U.S. and North Korea had gotten very cold. No formal talks had taken place. And things got even chillier when Bush included North Korea in with Iran and Iraq in his now-famous “Axis of Evil” State of the Union speech in January 2002. Ambassador Jack Pritchard certainly had his work cut out for him.

Who is Jack Pritchard? With the lengthy title of “Special Envoy for Negotiations with the DPRK and U.S. Representative to KEDO,” Pritchard was the man with the difficult task of working with the North Koreans. It was against this backdrop that I first was called by Ambassador Pritchard in June 2002.

I had sent Ambassador Pritchard some background on the Harlem Ambassadors and informed him of our interest in representing the U.S. by taking our show to North Korea. I also gave him a schedule “window” of when such a trip could take place efficiently as we would already be in South Korea in December 2002. I had already learned that the only way to get from Seoul to Pyongyang is to fly to Beijing, then take Air Koryo from Beijing to Pyongyang.

Pritchard told me he knew of only one American “performer” who had “entertained” in North Korea. It turns out that first brother Roger Clinton had taken his rock and roll show to Pyongyang in 1999. No wonder the North Koreans are so hostile toward Americans! Pritchard was a hold-over in the State Department from the Clinton Administration and he showed great diplomacy in not dissing Roger’s “talents”. I chose not to share with Pritchard that when it comes to musical Clintons, I prefer George Clinton to either Roger or Bill.

Ambassador Pritchard said he supported the idea of cultural exchanges. He also made one point very clear. Don’t expect the North Koreans to pay a dime. On top of that, the U.S. government would not fund such a trip. This meant the flights, hotel rooms, and ground transportation in North Korea would be paid for by Harlem Ambassadors. Once I acknowledged my understanding, Pritchard confided that he knew many prominent South Korean business interests that would probably cover the Harlem Ambassadors expenses should the trip be arranged.

He also told me he expected Secretary of State Colin Powell to have a meeting with the North Korean foreign minister during Asian regional talks in Brunei in July. If that went well, Pritchard confided, the plan was then for Pritchard to attend a concrete pouring ceremony at the KEDO reactor site in North Korea in August. Upon his return to the United States, he would be meeting with the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal name of North Korea preferred in diplomatic circles) representative to the United Nations. At that time he would “offer” a Harlem Ambassadors visit to the Pyongyang.

Amazingly, things happened just as Pritchard had described. When news of Powell’s brief encounter with Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun took place it was reported in the press as an unscheduled chance encounter in the lobby. Damn, this guy Pritchard knew his stuff! And sure enough, there was Jack Pritchard in news reports of a huge ceremony beginning the pouring of concrete for the KEDO reactor in Kumho, North Korea.

When he returned to the States, Pritchard kept his word and during an informal dinner, he presented the Harlem Ambassadors visit concept to Han Song Ryol, the DPRK Ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Han expressed positive interest. The next step was for the parties to meet face-to-face.

I was invited to Washington to meet with Ambassador Jack Pritchard. The plan was to visit the State Department in DC and meet with Pritchard the first day to get prepared to meet with Ambassador Han in New York the second day. Throughout the whole Harlem Ambassadors experience, I have always fought a battle between being forced to be small, because of economic conditions and our organization being so new, and a desire to be operating in the big time. As I flew into Washington, I had the feeling I had been craving so badly. I was playing in the big leagues.

The next morning, September 26, I journeyed to the State Department building to meet Ambassador Pritchard. The flight the night before should have given me a clue about the current level of security in our nation’s capital. Passengers must remain seated for the final 45 minutes of flights inbound to DC. You can’t drive anywhere close to major federal government buildings like the State Department. Entering the building requires two I.D. checks, a pat-down, and a metal detector screening. Once I had passed this 45 minute process, I was led up to meet Ambassador Pritchard.

Based upon our previous conversations, I had two clear objectives for our meeting. First, I wanted assurances that this visit would not be viewed negatively by the U.S. military in South Korea. With the tremendous relationship we have had with the U.S. military worldwide, the last thing I would possibly want is for Ladè Majic to end up as some sort of “Hanoi Jane” of Korea. Our service to the military was a significant part of our identity, and our business. For the Harlem Ambassadors to be entertaining American troops on the south side of the DMZ one week, and then turn up performing in the north the next week, there had to be clear support from the U.S. military command. Before entering the State Department, Ambassador Pritchard was a 28 year Army veteran. He assured me from personal knowledge that General LaPorte, Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea would be in favor of the type of exchange that we were discussing. Pritchard stopped short of promising to get me something in writing from LaPorte, but I figured I could come back to that later if the other elements came into place. The bottom-line for me was that this trip wasn’t going to happen unless the Harlem Ambassadors could demonstrate to the front-line troops guarding the DMZ that any trip to North Korea had the blessing of their command.

The second part was that the trip had to have some sort of formal State Department support. Pritchard obviously wanted to make it happen, he was facilitating the process. That’s why I was puzzled when he claimed his office had no authority to formally sanction a Harlem Ambassadors tour to the DPRK. This may have been technically true, but I had done my homework on the State Department. There were two offices within State that might be able to “sanction” such a trip. One is the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This is the same type of program that sent artists like Dizzy Gillespie to Moscow at the height of the Cold War. The second was the office run by the Director of International Sports Initiatives. This was the office that has assisted in trips by sports teams to Cuba such as to the 1991 Pan-Am Games in Havana or the visit by the Baltimore Orioles in 1999.

For once I felt like I was ahead of the curve. Pritchard had to confess he lacked contacts in these offices, but said he would see what he could do about getting one of the two to authorize our trip. For the record, I restated our unwillingness to head to North Korea without formal support from both the military and the State Department. Ambassador Pritchard encouraged me to go to New York and meet Ambassador Han Song Ryol of the DPRK. I left Washington with the feeling that, if the North Koreans extended an invitation to us, the rest of the desired details would fall into place. As I sat down that night for dinner with a friend, Sony Music executive Tim Pearson, I wondered aloud why Pritchard would be pulling strings behind the scenes to help arrange the North Korea trip, yet withhold any formal support for such a trip.

I stayed that night at Pearson’s New Jersey home. Sony Music distributes the Columbia label and he had loaded me down with CDs from Columbia artists. On the morning of September 27, I drove into Manhattan for the first time since 9/11 while listening to “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel. Pearson had encouraged me to visit “Ground Zero,” but I wasn’t up to it. I drove straight to the area around the United Nations and parked in the first lot I came to. I had brought an Ambassadors game ball and drew a couple of second looks as I strolled up Second Avenue in black suit, black shoes, purple tie and red, white, and blue basketball.

Before you enter the offices of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, you are viewed through a peephole, then buzzed in. The first impression is the smell. Very seldom these days do you encounter an American office filled with cigarette smoke. If you do, at least the smoke is from American cigarettes. The DPRK mission was full of the smell of stale smoke from some off-brand of socialist cigs. Not a pleasant smell. The walls were covered with Stalin-esque “Workers Unite” socialist murals showing prosperous collective farms and energy-for-everyone hydroelectric dams. The reality in North Korea, as I understood it, was that these images were far from the truth. However, my visit wasn’t as an art critic. I was ushered into a study room and was soon greeted by a very cordial Han Song Ryol, Ambassador of the DPRK to the United Nations.

Ambassador Han accepted my gift of the basketball and sat down to talk. The bottom line, he made clear right from the top. If his superiors in Pyongyang gave him approval, he would welcome the Harlem Ambassadors to visit Pyongyang. Of course, we would have to purchase flights on Air Koryo, the DPRK state-run airline, stay in a state-run hotel, pay for guides provided by the state, and buy meals at state-run restaurants. The country was poor because of a drought which had harmed the economy was the explanation Ambassador Han offered to me.

While he was crying poor, I found myself drawn to looking at his shoes. No doubt these were the finest in communist footwear, but frankly these shoes were so incredibly ugly that they would be rejected by Payless. Not only did they lack any semblance of styling, but they had no gloss, no shine to the leather. Was the leather of such poor quality that it wouldn’t hold a shine? Is this the result of malnourished cattle? I snapped back to reality, confirming “yes,” I understand the country is poor and any trip will be at our expense. It was easy to accept having seen his shoes.

To insure the Harlem Ambassadors of getting an invitation to North Korea, my feeling was that I needed to assure all concerned that in our show no North Koreans would be humiliated or embarrassed. While Ladè Majic might give a male opposing team player a “wedgie” at a Rotary Club sponsored event in Wisconsin, the same actions with a North Korean player might cause an international incident. Under no circumstances would the DPRK officials approve an event where one of their players loses face to an American player in front of the home crowd. And an American woman at that!

Through Ambassador Pritchard, I had already communicated the fact that our show was “changeable” for varying audience. He had informed the North Koreans that we planned to edit any portions they would find objectionable. The best way to start that process would be to invite Ambassador Han to see a game. I invited him to fly to Detroit on October 19, at our expense of course, to see a game in Dearborn. He informed me that DPRK officials are required to travel in pairs and two of them would be interested in attending the Dearborn event, subject to approval from Pyongyang.

In concluding our meeting, Ambassador Han Song Ryol made a very direct and sincere statement. He told me that a visit to the DPRK by the Harlem Ambassadors was desired by Ambassador Jack Pritchard. He said that he respected Pritchard and would try his best to make the trip happen. It was all very personal. I left the meeting feeling that I had done all that I could, but also realizing most of the details were out of my hands and beyond my control.

In the week following the DC and New York meetings in late September, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, Ambassador Jack Pritchard, and a few others flew to Pyongyang for the first official high-level meetings between the US and the DPRK since Albright’s visit more than two years before. I was very optimistic about our trip. It was at this October 4 meeting that Kelly confronted the North Koreans with intelligence indicating knowledge of a uranium enriching (HEU) program that the North Koreans were operating in violation of the “Agreed Framework.” Everything was downhill after that.

In succession, the North Koreans defiantly acknowledged the HEU program and the Americans halted shipments of fuel oil to the DPRK that was part of the KEDO agreement. This caused the North Korean to restart the “heavy water” nuclear reactor which had been shut-down with the “Agreed Framework” negotiations and was being monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The monitors were kicked out of North Korea, the country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and announced that they had begun reprocessing the previously monitored spent fuel rods and were extracting plutonium to build nuclear weapons. Along the way, the North Koreans threw in a few missile tests just to make everybody uneasy. Whew!

On October 3 Ambassador Han had sent me an Email indicating he was awaiting direction from Pyongyang before finalizing the Dearborn trip. In an Email On October 7, following the confrontation in Pyongyang, Ambassador Han said Dearborn game visit was off. “I got a reply from Pyongyang that I will have to keep my office because they will give me some instruction on DPRK-US official talks,“ he wrote. That was it, game, set and match. No trip to North Korea. I was just hoping there would be no war with North Korea. When it was clear that everything was dead, I sent Ambassador Han an Email acknowledging this fact and expressing hope for the future relations of our two countries. He sent back a cordial note wishing the same.

In August 2003, Ambassador Jack Pritchard officially resigned his post at the State Department. In a September 10, 2003 commentary published in the Los Angeles Times, Pritchard wrote the following:
“I resigned as special envoy for negotiations with North Korea because I was in the job in name only. I was brought into this administration precisely because of my experience in dealing with North Koreans, but was now perceived as too soft on North Korea. I had tendered my resignation April 18 when I was not selected to lead the trilateral talks in Beijing. Secretary of State Colin Powell asked me to stay on for a while and, out of enormous respect for him, I did. I departed as soon as I had helped to set up the next round of talks.”
Suddenly it became clear to me why Pritchard couldn’t commit more State Department support to the North Korean trip. He didn’t have the backing. It also helped clarify the lingering question I had as to whether Pritchard knew about the North Korean nukes and was anticipating the upcoming showdown when he met me in Washington just one week prior. My educated guess is “no”. Ambassador Pritchard seemed to be acting in good faith in trying to facilitate a cultural exchange and also in having arranged the trip to Pyongyang a week later. State Department hardliners chose to confront the North Koreans with the evidence in a point-blank, in-your face confrontation. The North Koreans, caught off guard, embarrassed, responded with what they know best, posturing and brinksmanship. Ambassador Pritchard was caught in the middle.
We were fairly close to making this trip happen. In retrospect, too close I fear. The whole experience put many of the problems I have had operating the Harlem Ambassadors in perspective. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart’s Rick from Casablanca, “The problems of the Harlem Ambassadors don’t add up to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed-up world.”