Tales from the Beltway: Going Nuclear

The behavior of North Korean diplomats is always an amusing topic. One of my classes hosted as guest lecturer a senior Treasury official who was involved in the effort to freeze North Korean assets to pressure them into returning to the Six Party Talks (a mostly unappreciated example of the US leveraging what the Chinese call “financial warfare”). After getting an agreement from North Korea (which they immediately broke) the official was involved in negotiations concerning the release of the frozen assets. As one of the meetings was about to adjourn, the North Korean representative held out his pen in front of him, keeping it horizontal with ground. “Some people are very bad,” he intoned solemnly. He then flipped the pen 180 degrees so the ballpoint faced in the opposite direction: “Some people are very good.” He returned the pen to its original orientation: “You started out here.” Then he raised the pen a fraction of an inch, as if it were the needle on the speedometer of a vehicle moving very slowly: “Now you’re here.” The American replied with “Thank you, sir. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

A different  meeting concluded with the North Korean turning to the American and saying, “You are like the pockmark on someone’s face; at first it looks grotesque and you hate it, but eventually you learn to like it.”


One of my professors was a retired State Department official, well-known for his unapologetic candor (this man’s candor made him several enemies in Washington). During an informal visit to Moscow shortly after the brief war in Georgia in August 2008, he let his Russian colleagues know that he thought their public rationales for the invasion were bogus, and that Russia was blatantly trying to reestablish their historic sphere of influence.  A certain Russian approached him afterward and blustered about how they were so serious about the war in Georgia that they were developing nuclear contingencies in the event that the U.S. intervened. As the professor recounted to his students, “I found that to be incredibly bizarre, but knowing Russia, I wasn’t surprised.”


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