According to a career foreign service officer, Rick Saccone, the GOP candidate for Congress in the upcoming PA 18th District special election, stretched the truth when he called himself a diplomat in a campaign ad. David Lambertson, former ambassador to Thailand also denied that Saccone was the only American working in North Korea at the time as Saccone claims on his website. Lambertson said that two others were involved, including himself, and that very little negotiating occurred.
The March 13 contest in PA’s 18th District between Saccone and Conor Lamb is being closely watched around the nation. Donald Trump won the district by 20 points in the presidential election, but currently Republican Saccone is up by only three points over Democrat Conor Lamb in a recent Monmouth University poll.
Saccone’s ads tout his military and foreign affairs service over the youthful Lamb, a former prosecutor. Saccone has long been interested in the Korean peninsula, spending many years in South Korea. He also spent some time in North Korea which formed the basis for the claims now being scrutinized.
In a campaign television ad, Saccone says he was “a diplomat in North Korea.”
On his website, Saccone claims:
His experience also includes being the only United States citizen living in North Korea that negotiated with the North Korean regime on a daily basis.
The claim has been repeated in press reports (see also here, here) like this one from the Washington Examiner:
And during the George W. Bush administration, he held the distinction of having served as a diplomat to North Korea from 2000 to 2001 and was the only U.S. citizen living in Pyongyang at the time.
At the time, contact between North Korea and the U.S. was limited. President Clinton signed the Agreed Framework in 1994 which called for a nuclear power plant to be built in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The organization formed to support the construction of the power plant was called the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). According to one of his books on North Korea, Saccone was given a job of representing the U.S. on site. He portrays the position as an exclusive one beginning in December 2000 with no other American presence. He said David Lambertson welcomed him to North Korea. In Living with the Enemy: Inside North Korea, Saccone wrote:
Suddenly I was headed North as a representative for an international organization building a nuclear power plant on the east coast, north of Hamheung, in an isolated region known as Geumho. The lone American at the site, along with one Japanese and about 800 South Koreans.
KEDO was formed as a key element of the Agreed Framework signed during the Clinton administration. Under this international agreement, the North agreed to shut down its nuclear program in exchange for two 1000 megawatt Light Water Reactor power plants built by a U.S. led consortium consisting primarily of American, South Korean, Japanese, and later European Union participation.
Regarding the claim of being a diplomat, I asked another former KEDO representative and former ambassador to Thailand David Lambertson for his perspective. Lambertson told me that he worked for KEDO on a part-time basis for five years and during that time visited North Korea a dozen times. Altogether he spent “a total of a year and a half there.” He said Saccone visited the North “two or three trips maximum.” Because the Agreed Framework with North Korea required an American presence, someone rotated in and out of North Korea about every month or six weeks. He said, “When Saccone did it there were three of us, and then later on just two.” He said Spence Richardson replaced Saccone after a month to six weeks. “Saccone was most certainly not there for a year.”
About the claim to be a diplomat, Lamberson said,
As to whether Saccone was a “diplomat” in North Korea, I suppose that depends on one’s definition of the term. We occasionally had to work out solutions to problems that arose at the work site (a nuclear power plant was being constructed), but it was rare that the American’s role rose to the level of “negotiator.” Most of the negotiating took place in periodic meetings in which senior representatives of KEDO headquarters in New York came to the work site or to Pyongyang for discussions with the North Koreans. I participated in numerous such meetings, but only in a support role.
All in all, I’d say that if Saccone is claiming to have been a “diplomat” in North Korea, he is stretching the facts just a bit. Politicians are known to do that.
Lambertson’s account also contradicts Saccone’s website claim that he was the “only United States citizen living in North Korea that negotiated with the North Korean regime on a daily basis.” According to Lambertson, negotiations weren’t frequent and he and Richardson spent most of the time there. None of the KEDO annual reports refer to the American on the ground as a diplomat.
I also spoke by phone with Desaix Anderson who was the Executive Director of KEDO at the time Saccone was hired. Anderson, who was Executive Director from 1997 through mid-2001, did not recall Saccone’s involvement with KEDO at all. He remembered Lambertson and Richardson but not Saccone. He referred me to Lambertson for more specifics about what happened on the ground in North Korea.
I reached out to the Saccone campaign via email earlier today but did not receive a response.
Lambertson was appointed ambassador to Thailand by George Bush and served with distinction as did Anderson, who was the first envoy to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam after the U.S. established diplomatic relations. Given their accounts, I hope Saccone will come forward with a correction or explanation for his characterization of himself as a diplomat and as the sole representative for the year 2001 to the North Korean government.