Stephen Bosworth passed away over the weekend after a prolonged bout with cancer. He was the dean of the Fletcher School when I came to work there in 2006. As I got to know Steve, I became more and more impressed with him. As Bosworth’s successor, James Stavridis, noted in an email to the Fletcher community, Bosworth was something of a living legend:
Before his arrival at Fletcher, Steve Bosworth had one of the most distinguished careers of any U.S. diplomat of the past half century. Appointed by Hilary Clinton, he was the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy. He held three ambassadorial posts: Tunisia, South Korea and the Philippines and in the latter played a key role in the negotiations that led to the transition from the Marcos dictatorship to democracy. His several senior postings in Washington D.C. included Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. His private sector experience included seven years as Director of the United States-Japan Foundation as well as service as the founding Executive Director of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO).
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the following on the news of Bosworth’s death:
I’ve known Ambassador Bosworth since the mid-1980s, when I was a young senator and he was a young diplomat. We were trying to help restore democracy in the Philippines, and Stephen wound up playing a key role in that historic transition. Steve’s unique brand of diplomacy blended the gravitas of a statesman and the timing of a comedian. He was an unfailingly genuine and nice person, a straight-forward man who was quick with a kind comment or a self-deprecating joke.
Over at Forbes, Donald Kirk provides a lovely appreciation for Bosworth, including this tidbit:
Evans Revere, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul while Bosworth was ambassador, “marveled at his steadiness, judgement dignity and temperament” as he “focused on getting the job done and getting it done right, which he always did.” He was not only “the consummate diplomat” but also “one of the most decent human beings I have ever met.”
Bosworth demonstrated these qualities by his ability to get along with South Koreans of widely differing opinions and backgrounds.
All of these sentiments ring true to me. I got to know Steve in my years at Fletcher: My book “Avoiding Trivia” was inspired by Bosworth’s tenure as director of policy planning. He was a diplomat’s diplomat. What always impressed me about him was his preternatural patience and calm. He knew when to force an issue and when to let things play out. That patience served him well both as an envoy to North Korea and as Fletcher’s dean. Steve never admitted it, but I suspect there were times he preferred being in Pyongyang instead of being stuck in a long faculty meeting in Medford. The word is used too often nowadays, but Steve truly exuded gravitas. I didn’t always agree with him, but I always looked up to him.
Even North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations said nice things about Bosworth upon learning of his passing.
Bosworth will be missed, particularly because the North Koreans have gone and managed to get the rest of the world to pay it more attention. According to the crack reporting team at KCNA:
The DPRK government issued the following statement Wednesday:
There took place a world startling event to be specially recorded in the national history spanning 5 000 years in the exciting period when all service personnel and people of the DPRK are making a giant stride, performing eye-catching miracles and exploits day by day after turning out as one in the all-out charge to bring earlier the final victory of the revolutionary cause of Juche, true to the militant appeal of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
The first H-bomb test was successfully conducted.
There appears to be some doubt about the word “successfully,” but that’s neither here nor there as far as Spoiler Alerts is concerned.
The usual response to North Korea behaving badly is to call for China to pressure North Korea into policy change. Beijing can’t be happy about the whole not-being-informed thing from Pyongyang. But as Bosworth noted back in 2013 in a New York Times op-ed co-authored with Bob Gallucci, that probably won’t work:
While Washington is right to press Beijing to take a firmer hand with Pyongyang given their close ties with the North, we would be wrong to assume that the Chinese will solve this problem for us. The Chinese have their own concerns. They don’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, but they also don’t want North Korea to collapse under the weight of sanctions.
It is in the interests of both Pyongyang and Washington to show the flexibility needed to jump-start discussions.
If this sounds familiar to Post readers, it’s because Simon Denyer reported a similar sentiment from experts in reaction to the hydrogen bomb test:
“Beijing will face increased pressure both domestically and internationally to punish and rein in Kim Jong Un and to ultimately force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons,” said Yanmei Xie, senior China analyst with the International Crisis Group in Beijing. “But there is likely to be a repeat of the worn playbook of denunciation, tightening of sanctions, and calling for resurrection of the six party talks.”….
“For Beijing, a nuclear armed North Korea is uncomfortable and disturbing, but a regime collapse in Pyongyang, leading to mass chaos next door and potentially a united Korean Peninsula with Washington extending its influence northward to China’s doorstep, is downright frightening,” Xie added.
This is why I’m dubious that more crippling sanctions will do much good in altering Pyongyang’s behavior. Sure, the United States can ratchet up financial sanctions against North Korea again. But Bosworth is likely correct that, as frustrated as China might be right now with North Korea, they do not want to see the DPRK collapse either.
Don’t get me wrong, there needs to be an additional round of sanctions now that North Korea has done what it has done. But much like the sanctions against Russia’s seizure of Crimea, such sanctions are more about the future rather than the past. Unless China truly alters its preferences, sanctions will not solve this problem alone.
Bosworth was participating in Track II diplomacy to jump-start negotiations with North Korea. This is exactly the moment when such efforts should be redoubled, because the status quo isn’t working, the current playbook is badly worn and invading North Korea isn’t an option. In other words, this is exactly the moment when the United States needs Steve Bosworth’s steady hand.
He will be missed.