2009: More Difficult Times Emerge Ahead

Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program


Dates: February 24-28, 2009

John Lewis with a Korean woman standing together and looking at something in front of them looking equally engaged with their interaction

The Stanford delegation led by Professor John Lewis traveled to DPRK roughly a month after President Obama’s inauguration with a hope for a positive turn in bringing the nuclear issue to resolution.

Besides Lewis, the delegation included Hecker, Robert Carlin and David Straub, former director of the Korea Desk in the State Department who had recently joined Stanford University, along with Marjorie Kiewit and Paul Carroll who represented two foundations that supported Lewis’ North Korea work.

Following the change of administration in Washington, the Stanford group was the fourth American unofficial delegation to visit in February.

In Pyongyang, the delegation met a changed tone. At the official first meeting in the Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Ri Gun delivered a tough prepared statement, saying:

“Frankly, we do not believe that a favorable atmosphere exists in the near future to discuss the abandonment of nuclear weapons.”

Ri stressed that “Denuclearization must come little by little. We must build trust step by step. Only when we have normalization and trust, then we won’t need a single nuclear weapon.”

Ambassador Ri Gun meeting notes, Pyongyang, Feb. 26, 2009

On that trip, Hecker was not able to visit Yongbyon, nor meet with former director, Dr. Ri Hong Sop. The North Korean side also revealed plans to stop all disablement actions in Yongbyon and to conduct a satellite launch. The Stanford team departed Pyongyang with a “sinking feeling that more difficult times were ahead”.

Once back in the United States, Hecker analyzed the threat posed by these developments and shared his thinking in presentations and publications. Among them:

2009: Toughened official stance but continued opportunities to see the country

As usual, John Lewis had arranged several additional visits unrelated to the nuclear issues. In 2009, these visits included a side trip to the city of Sariwon, south of Pyongyang to visit a model farm and a visit to the wire manufacturing plant. The Stanford group registered the toughened official position expressed by the Foreign Affairs ministry but noted that “during our meetings with people from other ministries and our site visits in and out of Pyongyang, we were received cordially and held fruitful discussions about potential academic exchanges”.

Americans on one side of the table with North Korean hosts on the other side.

At dinner with American delegation, North Korean hosts told the Stanford team that they were suspending disablement actions at Yongbyon

Side of a street with a big election poster

Pyongyang street view. Elections to the Supreme People’s Assembly were to be held on March 3.

Row of scarlet potted flowers placed in front of a painting of DPRK's Great Leader and Dear Leader

Display of flowers cultivated to honor the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung) and the Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il).

A tall modernist building with a construction crane at its side

Cranes were a sign of new construction in Pyongyang.

A distant view of a crane at the site of construction of a multi-storied apartment building

Construction site of apartment building.

View of people crowding at the food kiosk

Street food kiosks were busy.

Two women in colored winter jackets striding along a city street

People in the Pyongyang streets were dressed warm and in bright colors. Feb. 2009

Three public phone booths with people using them on a street corner

Public phone booths still in demand in Pyongyang in Feb. 2009.

A giant pyramid-shaped high-rise tower still undergoing construction and dominating the view

Unfinished Ryugyong Hotel. A grandiose construction project that was started as far back as 1987 and stopped many times. Construction resumed again in 2008.

A giant pyramid-shaped high-rise tower still undergoing construction and dominating the view

Unfinished Ryugyong Hotel, visible from all points in Pyongyang.

A giant pyramid-shaped high-rise tower still undergoing construction and dominating the view

The structure dominates the view from around the city.

Taken through the windshield, view of vehicle in front of the car and a traffic controller ahead

Traffic building up on the streets of Pyongyang.

Taken through the windshield, view of a town street shared between vehicles, public transport, bicycles, and pedestrians

Outside of Pyongyang, roads are shared with bicycles and pedestrians.

Taken through the windshield, view of a town street shared between vehicles, public transport, bicycles, and pedestrians

On the streets of Sariwon, city some 60 km south of Pyongyang.

People got out of a large SUV and look around and take pictures

Visiting an agricultural coop near the city of Sariwon.

People pulling a loaded cart and more people working in the field

There were many scenes of manual field labor and simple transportation.

A tractor with a loaded trolley and a truck on a country road

Tractors and trucks were also present.

American (John Lewis) and a Korean woman looking at something out of the photo engaged in conversation

John Lewis visiting the co-op. Lewis wrote in the trip report: “During our visits in and out of Pyongyang, we were received cordially”

Two neatly made single beds with a TV set between them and a bookshelf with many books

Inside family housing at the farm co-op.

Two men and a woman seen from back walking along a row of factory machinery

Lewis (right), Marjorie Kiewit, Carlin visiting the wire factory in Pyongyang.

Factory equipment

Factory machinery

Machines in a large factory space and a woman operating another machine

Stanford group touring the wire factory.

Display with various samples of manufactured products

Display of wire and cable products.

Photos on the wall, signs in Korean language, and a desk as part of display to mark the prior visits of two country leaders

Photos and memorabilia showcasing that factory had hosted two DPRK leaders.

Three men and a woman in business attire posing in a courtyard

Meeting at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the return from North Korea.

A long conference table with people seated facing each other in an academic setting

North Korea discussions at China’s Institute for Applied Physics and Computational Mathematics (IAPCM) following DPRK visit.

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