Saturday, July 27, 2013

Diplomatic Life: North of Nowhere

English: North Korea
English: North Korea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My second Foreign Service tour was in Northeast China, in the old Manchurian city of Shenyang. I reported for duty in March 1984, just a few months after the post was opened, the first American presence in the area since World War II.

Getting the assignment wasn’t easy. Even though James Hall, the first consul general, wanted me to head his consular section, the personnel system of the State Department and all the conventional wisdom, said that as a second tour administrative officer I should be looking for a job as a general services officer or some other administrative assignment if I wanted to be tenured and have a shot at promotion in the service. I suppose they thought they were making sense, but the job sounded fascinating, and I wanted it, so I fought. Fortunately, Jim was on my side, as were the ambassador and DCM in Beijing at the time. With a little creative editing of the consular chief’s job description making it possible for me to do some administrative work, I got the job.

In addition to being isolated (we were several hours flight from Beijing), Shenyang is not that far south of the Arctic Circle, so it freezes in November and doesn’t thaw until June. In 1984 it was a primitive place. Food markets were often limited to one item of produce at a time, so you bought potatoes this week and cabbage next week, and every time you got a chance to go to Beijing or Hong Kong you took an empty suitcase to bring back food items.

While it might not have seemed like a good career move on the surface, taking the Shenyang job was perhaps the smartest thing I’ve done in my entire career. Sometimes getting ahead is as much a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff as anything else.

A few weeks after I reported for duty, an American businessman, subjected to too many Mao Tais at an afternoon banquet, fell asleep in his hotel room with a lit cigarette in his hand. The ensuing fire caused the deaths of eleven people, including his business partner, and he was charged and taken to court. This took place in the northern city of Harbin, and I was the ONLY consular officer within a thousand miles, so I had to handle the case. Phone systems were rudimentary, so I often had to operate without being able to call the embassy for guidance. There were a lot of ups and downs – he was convicted, imprisoned, and then paroled a few months later – and, I was the sole American official at the center of events for nearly nine months. I was later commended for how I handled it – it was remarked that this was the first incident like this that had so much international press coverage that didn’t have any complaints from Congress. I must have done something right – I just did what seemed like the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances.

Another plus was our proximity to North Korea and the presence of many ethnic Koreans in the region. My wife, being Korean, was the only person in the consulate who could translate and interpret, so most of the reporting on Korean matters fell to me with her assistance. We made a few trips to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, and got to know many of the ethnic Koreans who were involved in government. I also got to know the local Chinese foreign ministry people well, thanks to the fire incident, and the official who was responsible for North Korea used to come and see me after his visits to Pyongyang and brief me on what he’d seen. We provided some of the best inside views of North Korea available at the time.

The Chinese were just beginning to get involved heavily in international business, including bidding on contracts in Guam and the US, and as the consular officer I processed much of their paperwork, so I got a good look at their economic activity as well.

There were some interesting incidents during our tour in Shenyang. There was the hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant that became the must-visit place for visitors to the consulate. I handled Secretary Shultz’s visit to Dalian at the end of his tenure. Jim Hall and I did a great trip along the China-Russia border, including an impromptu visit with the Russian trade mission at the border.

English: Major General John K. Singlaub from h...
English: Major General John K. Singlaub from official U.S. Army portrait and therefore ineligible for copyright (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Once, a dissident contacted me to provide information about the democracy movement in the region. We conducted a meeting on bicycles, navigating through Shenyang’s traffic while I tried to remember what he was saying and not end up under a bus.

 At a reception, I was approached by a one-armed Chinese man who identified himself as the last radio operator for the OSS team that operated in Dalian during the war. When I checked, it turned out that his commander had been Major John Singlaub, who was a colonel commanding MACSOG in 1968 when I was assigned to that unit. Talk about six degrees of separation. Through then retired general Singlaub, I passed money that the surviving members of the team collected for the gentleman. Just a few of the strange things you find yourself doing as a diplomat.

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