By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A11
President Obama has written a personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that was delivered by the administration's special envoy for North Korea during a visit to Pyongyang last week.
The existence of the letter has been closely held, with the administration insisting to its partners in disarmament talks with North Korea that it not be publicly discussed. State Department and White House officials confirmed this week that envoy Stephen W. Bosworth delivered a letter from Obama for Kim, but they declined to describe its contents.
"We do not comment on private diplomatic correspondence," said White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.
Bosworth artfully evaded reporters' queries about the letter in Seoul last week, after he left North Korea. Asked whether he had brought a letter, he sidestepped the question, saying: "As for a message to the North Koreans from President Obama, in effect, I am the message." Reporters in Asia then reported that he had denied he had carried a letter.
It is relatively unusual for an American president to send the North Korean dictator a personal communication so early in his term. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush eventually sent letters to Kim, but only after extensive diplomatic efforts to restrain North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Efforts early in Bush's term to send a letter were stymied by an intense debate over whether to use an honorific such as "his excellency" to address Kim.
The Obama administration has insisted that North Korea return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program, saying the United States will not lift sanctions or offer other benefits to persuade North Korea to simply begin talking again. Pyongyang has not committed to return to the negotiations, but its propaganda organ, the Korean Central News Agency, reported positively on Bosworth's visit, perhaps reflecting the impact of Obama's personal missive.
"Through working and frank discussion, the two sides deepened the mutual understanding, narrowed their differences and found not a few common points," the KCNA said.
A treaty that would recognize North Korea's sovereignty -- and normalize relations with the United States -- has long been an important objective of the government in Pyongyang. U.S. presidents often have dangled the prospect of a deal if North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons.
When Bush wrote Kim in December 2007, he said normalized relations were possible if North Korea submitted a declaration on its nuclear programs that was "complete and accurate."
Clinton wrote to Kim in October 1994 after a landmark deal under which North Korea would freeze its nuclear programs in exchange for energy aid. On its Web site, the KCNA still lists the receipt of the letter as one of the major events in a chronology of Kim's life.