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The Death of a Diplomat: Kang Sok Ju

03 June 2016

On October 4, 2002, Kang Sok Ju participated in a historically ambiguous but relatively significant official interaction between the US and DPRK governments. At the DPRK Foreign Ministry building in Pyongyang, a delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted Kang, who was then North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, with evidence that the DPRK had launched a uranium enrichment program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Figure 1. Kang Sok Ju with Kim Jong Il in 2008.


(Photo: NK Leadership Watch)

Allowed by his American counterparts to begin that day’s meeting,[1] Kang denounced President George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemption and his rhetoric that placed the DPRK in an “Axis of Evil.” Kang then said that his country was “entitled” to develop and possess nuclear weapons, a statement that US officials considered to be an acknowledgement that the DPRK was enriching uranium for nuclear arms.[2] The Bush administration announced this interpretation to the world and the DPRK promptly denied making it, placing the country on footing to frame its nuclear reboot as a defense against US treachery.

Kang died of cancer in Pyongyang on May 20, 2016,[3] but he lives on through the language that North Korea still employs to address its weapons of mass destruction and space programs. Whether or not he originally intended his 2002 remarks as an admission or acknowledgement, many of the words attributed to him from that day have since become part of the country’s official justification of its continued development of nuclear weapons. It is slightly ironic that this rhetoric may be Kang’s most enduring legacy, given the diplomat’s critical role in numerous bids to improve North Korea’s ties with the outside world—including the Agreed Framework itself. Kang was one of Kim Jong Il’s closest and longest-serving confidants throughout his nearly three-decade career as one of North Korea’s leading diplomats, a rarified position that invites questions about what potential might have been lost.

A Varied Career

Kang began his official career where it eventually ended: the Workers’ Party of Korea’s (WPK) International Affairs Department (IAD), where he was appointed as a cadre around 1972 as part of the DPRK’s first generation of professional, well-trained foreign policy hands.[4] At the time, the IAD was largely responsible for approving diplomatic appointments and formulating foreign policies implemented through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). As an IAD section chief and deputy director from 1972 to 1976, Kang was instrumental in expanding the DPRK’s official diplomatic relations to non-Communist countries[5] and a number of nations in the developing world. In addition, he helped North Korea to join or establish missions to multilateral organizations like the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Non-Aligned Movement.

In 1981, the regime appointed Kang to his first and only diplomatic position: Secretary of the DPRK Mission to UNESCO in Paris, an office that became Kim Jong Il’s first overseas base of operations. Kim, who had been designated hereditary successor years earlier, used the Paris mission as a channel for receiving information and establishing unofficial relationships. Kang’s role at the office established his first discernible ties to the late leader, in a close working relationship that would span almost 30 years.[7]

Kang was recalled to the DPRK in 1983 and appointed Vice Foreign Minister in 1984. Following his appointment to the MFA under Kim Yong Nam, the DPRK became part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. From the 1990s on, Kang was part of Kim Jong Il’s informal group of close aides and the Suryong’s closest foreign policy adviser, particularly with regard to relations with the United States, Japan[8] and China. In a power dynamic that endured for years, Kim Jong Il consulted with small working groups to formulate foreign policy decisions that Kang would then implement at the MFA.[9] This relationship persisted despite Kang’s status as the MFA’s number-two official, and it continued through the terms of two successive Foreign Ministers, Paek Nam Sun and Pak Ui Chun. From the 1990s until 2011, Kang even sat alongside Kim Jong Il during the supreme leader’s interactions with foreign leaders.

The official’s extensive international experience and North Korean government contacts[10] prepared him to serve as the DPRK’s leading diplomatic representative during the first North Korean nuclear crisis, a position in which he ultimately negotiated and signed the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under that plan, the DPRK agreed to shut down its plutonium production facilities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in return for two light-water reactors and other energy assistance from international partners. During the period of heightened engagement that followed the 1994 agreement, Kang undertook substantive interactions with the United States. He met in 1999 with William Perry, who had served as US Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997. Kang also accompanied the late First Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, during his 2000 visit to Washington, which culminated in Vice Marshal Jo meeting then US President Bill Clinton. Later that year, Kang served as the primary interlocutor for then Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s visit to the DPRK.

Figure 2. Kang Sok Ju with Kim Jong Il in the early 2000s.


(Photo: KCNA/NK Leadership Watch)

After the Agreed Framework collapsed in the early 2000s, Kang remained Kim Jong Il’s closest foreign policy aide. In fact, he was the only senior MFA official with a direct channel not just to the late leader but also to senior officials across the DPRK national security community.[11] In October 2007, Kang participated in the second high-level inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang when the late ROK President Roh Moo-hyun visited the North.[12] In 2009, Kang shadowed Kim Jong Il during his meeting and dinner with former US President Bill Clinton, organized as part of Clinton’s mission to free two detained American journalists. The close relationship between Kang and Kim became even more evident a week later, when Kang appeared as part of a large entourage attending Kim Jong Il’s visit to a shop in central Pyongyang. In contrast to dozens of other senior officials in attendance, Kang wore a shirt of the same style and color as the late DPRK leader, an honor reserved (particularly in public) for the leader’s closest aides.

In September 2010, Kang moved from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the position of DPRK Vice Premier. He continued in his former as Kim Jong Il’s closest foreign policy advisor, but he was largely removed from the MFA’s daily affairs. Later that same month, he was elected a full member of the WPK Political Bureau, a position he held until 2015.

Figure 3. Kang Sok Ju with Kim Jong Il in August 2009. Standing behind Kang is Kim Kye Gwan.


(Photo: KCNA/NK Leadership Watch)

As Kim Jong Un assumed power after his father’s demise, Kang continued to play a role in DPRK foreign policymaking, though in a more ceremonial capacity. Notably, he was one of several officials involved in external affairs who accompanied Kim Jong Un on an inspection of the Masikryong Ski Resort in 2013, one of the current leader’s first public appearances after the execution of Jang Song Thaek. Presumably, his appearance in the entourage was intended to signal to external observers that a number of reliable interlocutors remained in the core leadership despite Jang’s downfall.

In April 2014, Kang was appointed WPK Secretary and Director of International Affairs, a position in which he traveled overseas and received foreign delegations visiting Pyongyang. By 2015, however, recurring health problems prompted him to gradually recede from public life. At the 7th Party Congress, Kang retained his membership on the WPK Central Committee, but he was effectively retired from North Korean politics.


The DPRK has lost another major foreign policy hand from the Kim Jong Il era in less than six months, following the December 2015 death of United Front Department boss Kim Yang Gon. Kang’s demise is not likely to directly affect the DPRK’s foreign policy or its strategic posture in Northeast Asia, as his failing health precluded his active participation in policy debates and deliberations in the run-up to his death. But, his nuclear and space rhetoric appears likely to remain part of the North’s diplomatic repertoire for the foreseeable future.


[1] US officials had begun this confrontation on October 3 and 4 in talks with Kang’s subordinate, Kim Kye Gwan.

[2] Mike Chinoy. Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. New York: Macmillan, 2010. 118-123.

[3] He was semi-retired at the time of his death and had not been seen in public since August 2015, after he led a Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) delegation on visits to Russia and Cuba.

[4] Kang graduated from the Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages and became a protégé of the IAD boss Kim Yong Nam, who is currently the DPRK’s nominal head of state as President of the Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium.

[5] These included Switzerland, Australia and Austria, as well as nations in Scandinavia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

[6] Kim Jong Il established his initial footprint in Europe at the UNESCO Mission in Paris. He dispatched his close aide and former KCNA editor Ri Myong Je to purchase a residence, set up the network through which Kim would receive information, conduct his financial affairs and acquire goods from Western Europe. Ri Myong Je would later direct Kim’s residential compounds and their requisite support staff. He is the father of current DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.

[7] Kang Sok Ju was related to other senior officials in the party and state, and there are unconfirmed accounts that he was a distant cousin to the Kim family. He had several children, one of whom works in the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and another who is involved in foreign trade.

[8] Kang was a part of the DPRK’s efforts to normalize relations with Japan, and he led the DPRK’s official and off-the-record negotiations with the Japanese government over the DPRK’s abduction of Japanese nationals during the 1970s and 1980s. Kang also participated in negotiations that facilitated the 2002 and 2004 visits to Pyongyang by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. During both of these visits Kang participated in Kim Jong Il’s meetings with the Japanese Prime Minister.

[9] John H. Cha and K. J. Sohn. Exit Emperor Kim Jong Il: Notes from His Former Mentor. Bloomington, Indiana: Abbott Press, 2012. 59-60.

[10] In 1986, Kang was elected to his first term as a deputy to the Supreme People’s Assembly and promoted to First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. He attended his first UN General Assembly later that same year, and he would attend subsequent sessions of the UN General Assembly during the next decade. In 1988, Kang joined the WPK leadership as an alternate, or candidate, member of the WPK Central Committee. In 1991, he delivered remarks on behalf of the DPRK when the two Koreas simultaneously joined the United Nations.

[11] In 2007, Kang became acting Foreign Minister after the death of Paek Nam Sun until Paek’s replacement by then-DPRK Ambassador to Russia Pak Ui Chun. Once Pak was installed as Foreign Minister, Kang reverted back to his First Vice Ministerial position. In a later enhancement of his power that signaled his close working ties to Kim Jong Il, Kang gained the position of Councilor of the DPRK National Defense Commission, an amorphous job title just one remove from being a member of the National Defense Commission, the country’s supreme power organization.

[12] Kang also participated in meetings with former Communist Party of Vietnam General-Secretary Nong Duc Manh during his official visit the same month.

Reader Feedback

6 Responses to “The Death of a Diplomat: Kang Sok Ju”

  1. Joel Wit says:

    Since Bill Brown inserted me into this debate, I feel I have to chime in with my perspective on his characterization of the Agreed Framework. I would refer you to my recent piece published by Foreign Policy where you can get my view in detail that it was not the result of flawed diplomacy but was a success. I certainly shouldn’t have to remind Bill that estimates from the intelligence community—of which he was a part—stated quite clearly that by the 2000s North Korea could be producing as many as 30 nuclear weapons a year. (These bombs would have come from three plutonium production reactors, not just the one he mentions, two of which were under construction). By the time the agreement collapsed in 2002, they only had enough plutonium for perhaps a handful of weapons and their program never recovered.

    Yes, the agreement wasn’t perfect and Bill is quite right in pointing out that that Pyongyang eventually pursued a parallel uranium enrichment program. That program however, was nowhere near advanced as the plutonium production program and it only appears to have begun producing HEU over the past few years in small but increasing quantities. Someone in Pyongyang should have been shot for trading a plutonium program ready to produce bombs in large numbers for a uranium enrichment program that wouldn’t come on line for another 10 years and might never be able to build weapons at the same pace.

    Bill is also wrong in asserting that the uranium enrichment program was uncovered by the Bush administration in 2002. In fact, it was uncovered by the Clinton administration in 1998 when it was found that A.Q. Khan had shipped a small number of centrifuges to North Korea. And the administration was pursuing a strategy for calling the North Koreans out on their cheating that would have included transparency and inspection before it was aborted by Al Gore’s loss to George Bush. Moreover, Bill doesn’t mention that senior Bush administration officials were briefed on the North’s secret uranium enrichment program and administration plans to deal with it during the transition but did nothing about it for over a year. By then the program had further metastasized. Why that was the case is an interesting historical question given the fixation of many opponents of diplomacy with North Korean on Pyongyang’s cheating.

    It goes without saying that dealing with noncompliance is not a new issue. In my previous incarnation working on US-Soviet nuclear arms control agreements at the State Department, it was always an important priority and we had plenty of experience, not always successful of course. It has also emerged more recently as an important issue in the debate over the nuclear deal with Iran. In that context, the Bush administration’s handling of North Korea is a textbook case of how not to deal with noncompliance. Certainly, the North Koreans should have been called out but what was the game-plan for after the calling out was done? Expect them to cry uncle? Yet, that appears to have been the case unless of course there were people in the administration who saw this noncompliance as a way of killing the agreement altogether? Heaven forbid! The fact that the administration agreed to a new set of negotiations only months later that essentially focused on reconstituting an agreement that had just collapsed speaks volumes.

  2. William Brown says:

    [Same but with better paragraph spacing. Thanks]

    An interesting parsing by Bob of “unambiguously admitting” and “admitting” and a more common sense reading which says everyone in the room came away with no doubts that Pyongyang was engaged in a parallel nuclear program which, if not against the spirit or indeed the letter of the Agreed Framework, only proves how bad that piece of diplomatic work really was. Many US diplomats subsequently worked diligently to try to make the Framework work to our advantage, including Bob and Joel Wit–who provides a provocative new commentary here in “38 North” that brings this piece of history up to the current, appropriately stated, “dead-end” in US-North Korean relations. I would even add Jim Kelly and others in the Bush administration to that mix, struggling to make something out of nothing with a fundamentally flawed deal. But none of this obscures the fact that the Framework failed on many levels and Kang was a part of the failure. Whether this is “irony” on the part of Kang, given what Bob thinks is Kang’s overriding ambition to improve relations with the US, or whether it was Pyongyang’s plan all along, buying time for the regime as it faced Kim Il Song’s death and a massive famine in which it needed aid from its enemies to survive, and Kang was just playing the role of a good foot soldier, we won’t know until access to direct North Korean information is available.

    So, for newcomers, let me try to get his old but still relevant story right. In 2002, the new Bush administration, as it was engaged in a long review of Korea policy, (something I argue the Obama administration has, in seven plus years, never completed) uncovers evidence that Kim Jong Il was proceeding with a parallel, enriched uranium, program to produce fissile material. This was in obvious violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Agreed Framework, putting into jeopardy the ongoing US and allied project to construct in North Korea two 1,000 MW light water nuclear electric power reactors worth upwards of $7 billion, and the continuing provision of large amounts of heavy fuel oil until those reactors were to come on line. This Framework deal, negotiated by Clinton but not ratified by Congress, was supposed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, and had effectively shut down the old plutonium reactor, but there could hardly be any reason now, in 2002, for a covert enriched uranium program other than to provide a new path toward nuclear weapons. Even more immediately, in order to get funds for the heavy fuel oil, the Clinton Administration had made a separate deal with Congress in which the administration would promise, each year, that Pyongyang was in compliance with the Framework. Bush would have to do the same or the fuel oil would stop.
    With this evidence of a uranium enrichment program in hand, my understanding is that Kelly was sent to Pyongyang to quietly but forcibly relay to Pyongyang our suspicions, demand a halt, and try to proceed with a new effort to engage Pyongyang on more realistic terms. But I don’t think there was much to negotiate at this point until Pyongyang were to admit to its continuing nuclear ambitions and demonstrate how that was going to change. Bob complains that the delegation wasn’t there to negotiate but, at that point, I’m not sure what Bob thinks there was to negotiate. Or, what in his words about the US delegation was “a bundle of dynamite”. Did he want us to offer more billions in aid to stop the uranium program? If Pyongyang was sincere about trading away its nuclear weapons program it would not have engaged in enriching uranium. This was its choice, not ours.

    Kang, in a long diatribe to the delegation, essentially admitted to the uranium enrichment program—according to all US officials present—and says over and over that North Korea had a right to nuclear weapons. As Carlin says, maybe he was tired, didn’t have enough sleep. I have no idea. Kelly and his delegation, of course, left Pyongyang in disgust. The Agreed Framework, the nuclear reactors, and our aid to North Korea was dead.

    Kang’s role, or even that of the US delegation, may not have not been that important. As Tong Kim says in his article, the evidence was incontrovertible, and Bob is right that many in Washington never liked the Framework and wanted to get rid of it. Caught red handed, Pyongyang would have had to be unusually clever, or Washington incredibly naive, for the deal to be kept alive. I suppose Kang could have blamed a rouge military or weapons industry, and asked the US for help in cleaning it out. Kelly’s demands were not immediately made public so, saving face, that might have worked. But Kang didn’t do any such thing, and by his tirade, offered no choice but for the delegation to pull out. To stay would have continued our long history of playing to North Korea’s bad behavior rather than directly confronting and forcing it to change. Pyongyang made a try shortly thereafter, denying the program and inventing a weak explanation as to why it had secretly imported certain critical materials; all an absurd lie given what all of us now know.

    In the end, Bob, an expert in nuanced North Korean statements, blames all this on Bush and the Kelly delegation. What absurdity! I stand by my point that Kang, if he was adept at anything, it was to confuse so many of the foreign diplomats with whom he engaged. By leading them on with false promises, goading them into staking their reputations on bad deals, and then getting them to defend the deals back in their home country even as those deals unraveled, Kang managed to prevent the unity of purpose in Washington and Seoul that could have gone a long way to solving the larger Korean problems. In this he was an able diplomat. If it is true that he held a private goal of improving North Korean relations with the US, history will have to show him as an abject failure.

  3. Robert Carlin says:

    By this time, you’d think there would no longer be ambiguity or misunderstanding about what Kang said during the Kelly visit. Anyone who read the official reporting at the time – or has looked at several histories of the episode — knows that Kang “admitted” to nothing. In the Korea Times article Bill Brown cites, Tong Kim, the interpreter for the Kang-Kelly meeting, clearly does not say Kang unambiguously admitted to an enrichment program. He says that he reached the conclusion about Kang’s meaning based on “the totality” of Kang’s statements. David Straub has said much the same thing. In other words, Kang might have inferred, he might have signaled, he might have hinted, but he did not clearly acknowledge and he certainly did not admit. (Those interested in this history might look at Meltdown by Mike Chinoy, pp 113-126, and The Two Koreas by Don Oberdorfer and Robert Carlin, pp 366-375)

    Why does it make a difference what Kang said? The US already had evidence that North had some of the components for an enrichment program, and certainly Pyongyang did go on during the Six Party talks to further develop a full-scale program. The episode on the afternoon of October 4th matters because, in practical terms, it helps make clear that the October trip was a total and complete failure (unless you’re John Bolton, who could have hoped for no better result); it was poorly conceived and badly executed; and it marked the first disastrous step in a disastrous US policy that has prevented us ever since from dealing effectively with the growth of the North’s nuclear weapons program. There is probably nothing Kang could have done or said at the Kelly meeting to have changed that. The US delegation was a bundle of dynamite. Kelly’s instructions not to negotiate were the blasting fuse – they left him no choice but to get up and leave without even asking any serious questions. And Kang’s personal style was the match. As Michael Madden observes, it is ironic that Kang’s performance at this meeting helped destroy everything he had worked for over the preceding eight years. Kang was tough, he bristled often at talks, but he had an overriding goal in mind – improved relations with the US – and from 1993-2002 he pursued that tenaciously, both at the negotiating table and from behind the scenes in Pyongyang.

    It might help to put the long-ago Kang-Kelly confrontation in a bit more context. The crucial session came on the afternoon of the second day (October 4th) of the visit. On the first afternoon, the DPRK negotiator Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan presented a set of proposals, many of which addressed longstanding US concerns. Kelly, following his instructions not to negotiate, ignored this and launched into his own presentation, accusing the North of having an enrichment program. That evening, at a dinner some in Washington didn’t want the US delegation to attend, Kelly turned down a request by VFM Kim for a sidebar conversation, probably meant to see if talks could be more constructive on the second day. The next morning’s meetings between Kim and Kelly, predictably, got nowhere. That afternoon, the US delegation met with Kang, where he gave one of his typically bombastic presentations.

    Based on my own personal experience at negotiations with Kang and the recollections of those who had dealt with him closely for many years, there is little mystery about what happened. Kang was tired, (he said he’d been up the whole night in a meeting), angry, irascible, and offended by what struck the North Koreans as the imperious approach by the American delegation. He had every reason to believe that Kelly would ask questions about his presentation, and that tactically this session, as rough as it might become, would help blast open the door to talks. Instead, the Americans got up and left, not exactly sure what they had heard, but quickly convincing each other that, indeed, Kang had admitted to the enrichment program. That was the cable that went back to Washington, “North Koreans Defiantly Admit HEU Program.”

    Kang was a consequential figure during a consequential period in US-DPRK relations. He is a prime example of how what has long passed for wise insight in Washington — that there is no sense dealing with North Korean diplomats because they have no influence on policy, and can do no more than read their talking points – is wrong. Not every North Korean diplomat has Kang’s skills and access, but that combination did exist, and we might assume it still does.

    As for the idea that Kang confused “anti-Bush elements on the US side,” that is ridiculous, and surely Bill Brown, a good analyst, knows better.

  4. toloraya says:

    I have met him many times through my career and happened to be at the funeral cereminy in Pyongyang… an outstanding diplomat indeed

  5. Max says:

    Good overview. Kang was very close to Jang Song Thaek and the two men also had worked in the same International Affairs Department (of WPK). But why Kang was not purged or executed is an interesting question some wondered about. A former North Korean diplomat suggested that Kang most likely saved himself by selling Jang Song Thaek. That’s highly probable in the Pyongyang regime where loyalty matters most, and Kang’s escape would not otherwise be explained.

  6. William Brown says:

    Great article. But surely you don’t mean to imply there was any ambiguity about what Kang said during the Kelly visit to Pyongyang in October, 2002. US diplomats have many times stated unequivocally that Kang admitted to what Kelly and the Bush administration were complaining about–a parallel HEU program to produce nuclear weapons even as we were giving them huge nuclear power plants worth many billion dollars to stall the plutonium program. See, for instance, chief interpreter Tong Kim, in the KT link below. And history has proven beyond doubt that North Korea was doing exactly what the Bush administration was saying they were doing. The only question is whether Kang was supposed to say what he did given Pyongyang’s reversal a few days later, or whether he messed up. Given he lasted as long as he did, one might think it was the former. But we don’t really know for sure. If he was able to so confuse anti- Bush elements on the US side, maybe he could do the same within the Pyongyang regime as well. Certainly an interesting person.

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