Reverend Billy Graham visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1992. The evangelist met with the Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung and was permitted to preach the Christian Gospel in the officially atheist hermit kingdom. The visit led to a brief opening, including charity work by Christian non-governmental organizations. Graham was accompanied by Dr. Stephen Linton, professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University. A State Department officer on detail to the Pentagon reached out to Linton after the Graham visit and picked up useful advice on how to communicate with North Korea.
Linda Schmitt Gallini was the first from the State Department to contact Dr. Linton after his visit to North Korea with Graham. She learned many lessons from Linton, and used them in internal State Department deliberations. A key takeaway: the Department needed a better understanding of North Korean communications culture. And a key example: a letter from the Clinton administration to Kim Il-Sung on nuclear issues reportedly backfired because of inartful drafting.
Linda Gallini’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on April 10, 2007.
Read Linda Gallini’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Hunter Matthews
“Kim II Sung had asked Billy Graham not only to visit North Korea, but also to preach the Gospel in an atheist country where religion was essentially banned.”
Billy Graham and Kim Il-Sung: As the nuclear crisis between the United States and North Korea escalated, I became convinced that we were not getting our message to the North Koreans clearly. I started harping on the term “communication.” Autumn was upon us and there was no heat yet in the Pentagon. We were working wrapped up in our coats because it was chilly. I remember reading a cable from Hong Kong. It was a report on meetings held by Reverend Billy Graham and several of his advisors who had just come out of Pyongyang. I don’t know how, but Reverend Graham had struck up a relationship with North Korean leader Kim II Sung. And for whatever reason Kim II Sung had asked Billy Graham not only to visit North Korea, but also to preach the Gospel in an atheist country where religion was essentially banned.
The report included a discussion of the nuclear crisis. One of Graham’s advisors said that he was convinced the North Koreans didn’t understand what the United States was trying to do. After I read this I made copies of the cable, highlighted the comment by the advisor and gave copies to my colleagues in the task force. The advisor was identified in the cable as a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University.
“The key to problem solving in North Korea is through a relationship among the parties involved”
Connecting with the Professor: I called the home number and the professor, Dr. Stephen Linton, answered. I said, “I realize I am calling you completely out of the blue but I am a State Department employee who is on loan at the Pentagon, and I am working on the North Korean nuclear issue. My biggest concern is that we are not communicating clearly with the North Koreans.” He said, “Why don’t we meet.” And we did. Dr. Stephen Linton was the son of missionaries and had grown up in South Korea. He spoke fluent Korean and was a good friend of the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations. At the time official channels of communication between the United States and the DPRK were all but non-existent. It turned out that this North Korean Ambassador was the only diplomatic channel available to the State Department that was sending all of its diplomatic correspondence through this man to the North Korean government. Generally when documents were sent to New York the text was in English. When the Ambassador received the document he would call Dr. Linton and say “I have another message from Washington. Could you come in and help me translate it?” Between the two of them they would translate the English into Korean. In the tradition of North Korean diplomacy, nothing was ever sent back to Pyongyang that was bad news – such as U.S. dictates about the DPRK’s nuclear program.
I learned a great deal about North Korea from Dr. Linton. For example, he explained that, unlike the United States, North Korea does not have lawyers. It is not a litigious society. It is not governed by law in the same way the U.S. is. If there is a problem between two North Koreans they need to have a relationship in order to begin to address the problem. For instance, if you are a landlord and your tenant isn’t paying his rent, you don’t go knock on the tenant’s door and say “Pay me the rent you owe.” Instead, you knock on the door and say “Excuse me, I hope I am not troubling you. I hope this is a convenient time to talk. I have come to inquire about your family because I am afraid there might be a problem.” In the course of inquiring about the family you learn that the head of the household has lost his job and can no longer pay the rent. Whatever the problem is, you go about trying to solve it with an approach that is entirely different from the Western or U.S. tradition. The key to problem solving in North Korea is through a relationship among the parties involved.
“North Korean leaders perceive what we are saying very differently from the way U.S. leaders would perceive it.”
The Need for a Cultural Bridge: Since the creation of the DPRK in 1945 the U.S. government has never had much of a relationship with North Korea. Over the years whatever official contact there has been has been largely negative. There is a reason why North Korean leaders feel that the United States takes a hostile approach to North Korea. We do. We generally are telling them what they “must” do. North Korean leaders perceive what we are saying very differently from the way U.S. leaders would perceive it.
At some point in the Clinton administration, a decision was made in Washington to send a letter from President Clinton to Kim II Sung addressing nuclear issues. A communication from our senior leader to North Korea’s senior leader was seen as a viable way to start a dialogue on nuclear concerns. So the letter was sent and we soon learned that it infuriated Kim II-Sung. He perceived the letter to be an insult. It was not addressed personally to him. There was no honorific title to identify him. The body of the letter was far too short. It did not begin by inquiring about his health and all of his family members. And it was signed by a man who was younger than he, which was another insult. So quite apart from solving the nuclear issue we created yet another communication problem. It was clear that U.S. officials dealing with the DPRK nuclear crisis needed a better understanding of North Korean culture and tradition.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Political Science Mount Holyoke College, University of Michigan 1964
Joined the Foreign Service 1984
Bureau of International Organizations-Desk Officer for the IAEA 1984-1988
Office of Counter-Terrorism-Desk Officer 1988-1989
U.S. Representative to the IAEA-Special Rep. of the President 1990-1993
U.S. Department of Defense-Desk Officer 1993-1994