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Amb. Joseph DeTrani’s Commencement Address

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani was the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate during HJI’s 2024 Commencement Ceremonies held on May 25 at 4 West 43rd St.

Amb. DeTrani is the former Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization. He is a moderator for the Washington Brief, a national security webinar, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Committee on North Korea and a fellow at the Institute of Corean-American Studies. Amb. DeTrani has published and spoken publicly about North Korea, China, East Asia, the Middle East, international crime, narcotics trafficking and nuclear nonproliferation.

What follows is the Commencement Address of Amb. DeTrani.

(Left to Right) Dr. Thomas Wash, Amb. Joseph DeTrani, Dr. Thomas Ward

It’s an honor to receive an honorary doctorate from the distinguished HJ International Graduate School for Peace and Public Leadership. And congratulations to the graduates and their families for their hard work and academic accomplishments. And to the President, Dr. Thomas Walsh, and his distinguished faculty and administrative staff and Trustees, for providing the academic training necessary to be Ambassadors for Peace.

All of you are now prepared to embark on a journey that will help bring peace and stability to an international community wracked by wars and conflict. The challenges are many.

Whether it is Russia’s war in Ukraine, or Israel’s war in Gaza against the Hamas terrorist organization, or the internecine conflict in Sudan, or tension with China in the South and East China seas or the Taiwan Strait, or gangs and chaos in Haiti or tension with North Korea on the Korean Peninsula, the list of wars and conflicts goes on and on. Indeed, food insecurity, clean and potable water, climate change, cyber theft and disinformation, artificial intelligence and so many other issues that require immediate attention, for the common good, are the challenges you will be confronting, and helping to resolve.

You, the graduates of HJI, would not be here today if you did not care about these and other issues that negatively affect the global community. You would not be here today, after working so hard academically, if you felt you could not contribute to solving the vexing problems that affect so many people.

I’m here today to tell you that you can and will make a difference in addressing these daunting issues, and that regardless of the organization you are affiliated with, whether it’s with the United Nations or a government agency, an NGO, a private sector company, a church, or any other affiliation or, as a private citizen concerned about your fellow man and woman, you can and will make a difference.

Indeed, you are needed more now than at any time since the end of World War II, as the world becomes more polarized, with a resurgence of tribalism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

My message to you, however, is that with your education and training, coupled with your determination to help bring peace and stability to so many people affected by some of these critical issues, it requires a POSITIVE attitude that progress can be achieved; that you can make a difference; that you should never give up on HOPE—hope that many of these seemingly intractable issues can and will be resolved.

Since 2003, I’ve devoted a good portion of my professional efforts to help peacefully resolve the North Korea nuclear issue. As a Special Envoy for Six-Party Talks with North Korea from 2003-2006, and in subsequent meetings with senior North Korean officials in Singapore for the release of the two American journalists in 2009, and in subsequent unpublicized trips to Pyongyang to meet senior North Korean officials and then, until 2017, in Track 1.5 meetings in London and Kuala Lumpur with senior North Korean officials, I was confident—and am still confident—we could peacefully resolve issues with North Korea.

In 1993, North Korea was threatening to make Seoul, South Korea, a SEA OF FLAMES. There was understandable concern that there would again be war on the Korean Peninsula, having witnessed the massive casualties and destruction from the Korean War in 1950, with an armistice in 1953 that only halted a war—a war that continues on the Korean Peninsula.

Fortunately, with the 1994 intervention of President Jimmy Carter, who, while in Pyongyang, was introduced to North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Il Sung, by Rev. Billy Graham who had a good relationship with Kim Il Sung, a Geneva Conference was convened and the Agreed Framework was memorialized. This historic agreement committed North Korea to halt its production of plutonium, for nuclear weapons, at its Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for the construction of two light water reactors at Kumho, North Korea, for civilian energy, and the provision of heavy fuel oil until the two reactors were operational.

This agreement progressed smoothly until 2002, when North Korea was accused of clandestinely enriching uranium for weapons, a violation of the spirit of the Agreed Framework and the 1992 North-South Agreement that committed both Koreas not to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. North Korea then left the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and the U.S., together with South Korea, Japan and the European Union, halted production of the two light water reactors at Kumho and the U.S. stopped providing heavy fuel oil to North Korea.

This was now a tense period, reminiscent of 1993 when North Korea threatened to attack South Korea. North Korea had removed over 8000 spent fuel rods of plutonium from cooling ponds at their Yongbyon nuclear reactor and started to reprocess them for nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, when the U.S. in 2003 reached out to China to get North Korea to return to negotiations, Kim Jong Il, who succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung, who passed away in 1994, agreed and the Six Party Talks with North Korea began, with China as the host, and China’s current Foreign Minister, Wang Yi as the first chairman, ably assisted by Ambassador Fu Ying, deputy chairman for the Six Party Talks.

On September 19, 2005, after more than two years and many plenary and working group meetings, a Joint Statement was produced that committed North Korea to dismantle all nuclear weapons and cease operating nuclear facilities in exchange for security assurances, economic development assistance and a path to normalization of relations with the U.S., South Korea, and Japan.

Implementation of this historic agreement continued until 2009, when North Korea pulled out of the Six-Party Talks, after refusing to permit IAEA monitors to visit non-declared suspect nuclear sites.

Former President Donald Trump had two summits with Kim Jong Un, in Singapore in 2018 and in Hanoi in 2019. While Singapore provided some hope, the Hanoi Summit failed tragically, when Kim would not declare his Uranium Enrichment Sites, in addition to proposing to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear site, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed since 2016. With that, the summit ended and Kim Jong Un returned to Pyongyang with no agreement.

(Left to Right) Dr. Michael Jenkins, Dr. Franco Famularo, Dr. Ki Hoon Kim, Dr. Thomas Walsh, Amb. Joseph DeTrani, Dr. Thomas Ward

What followed was North Korea racing to build more nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver these nuclear warheads. Since 2006, North Koea conducted six nuclear tests, the latest in 2017 of assessed thermonuclear weapons, with hundreds of ballistic missiles launched, to include intercontinental missiles (ICBMs) in 2023 capable of targeting the whole of the United States. Additionally, North Korea was testing hypersonic and cruise missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Doctrinally, North Korea declared a FIRST USE policy of preemptively using nuclear weapons to respond to an imminent attack or a perceived imminent attack on the leadership or command and control system.

Currently, North Korea has aligned itself with the Russian Federation, supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reportedly providing artillery shells and ballistic missiles to Russia for its war in Ukraine, in exchange for assistance with North Korea’s satellite program and the provision of sophisticated weaponry.

With this long preamble, my message to you is that we should NOT give up on North Korea. We know from the Agreed Framework in 1994, the Six-Party Talks Joint Statement of September 2005 and the 2018 Singapore Summit that North Korea wants a normal relationship with the United States, knowing that only in this way will North Korea free itself of its isolation and the punishing United Nations imposed sanctions, and thus be able to join the family of nations to secure the foreign direct investments needed to address the dire economic conditions in North Korea.

And this is where China needs to help—to convince North Korea to return to negotiations. This is where all of us, and all of you, as Ambassadors for Peace, need to help—to convince the leadership in all our countries that we should not give up on North Korea, that collectively we can and will get traction with Pyongyang. But courage and flexibility are needed, with the goal of eventual complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the easing and eventual lifting of sanctions on North Korea.

I have heard, for close to 20 years, from senior officials in North Korea that their one goal is a normal relationship with the U.S. Indeed, we were almost there in 2000 when then Secretary of State Albright visited Pyongyang and President Clinton almost visited North Korea.

Giving up on North Korea now would be the biggest geopolitical mistake in the 21st century.

Indeed, Mother Moon shares this view and she continues to encourage all of us to work for the peaceful resolution of issues with North Korea.

North Korea is just one example of the many issues that all of you—all of us—must work diligently on to ensure that we start to move the world in a different direction, a direction toward more diplomacy, more negotiations for peace, more cooperation on pandemics, climate change, narcotics trafficking, international organized crime, nuclear proliferations, food insecurity… the list goes on and on.

Stop the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the myriad of other conflicts throughout the world and move the world in another direction. That is what leadership is all about—bringing the world together for the betterment of all people.

You will join the ranks of the Ambassadors for Peace. Much will depend on all of you to move us in this direction, for the common good, leaving a better world for future generations.

Congratulations to all of you.

Joseph R. DeTrani, Commencement address on May 25, 2024

The author is the former Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.