Donald Gregg ’51, the former ambassador to South Korea, visited the College last week to discuss his diplomatic career and the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula. Gregg spent the morning speaking with students enrolled in the Corporate Leadership and Social Responsibility Winter Study course, then gave a lecture entitled “Threats and Opportunities on the Korean peninsula” that evening in Brooks-Rogers. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Gaudino Forum, Leadership Studies and Asian Studies.
Gregg is widely recognized for his distinguished career in public service. Before attending Williams and earning his BA in philosophy, he served for two years in the military. Following graduation, Gregg immediately began work at the CIA and served “the Agency” for 18 years. He was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal upon his retirement.
In 1979, he was selected as a member of the National Security Council and became responsible for directing the course of intelligence activities and Asian policy. Shortly thereafter, Vice President George H.W. Bush appointed Gregg to be his National Security Advisor.
Gregg served for four years as ambassador to South Korea, beginning in 1989. While performing his diplomatic duties, he drew on intelligence experience from posts in Japan, Burma, South Korea and Vietnam. Though no longer employed by the government, Gregg continues to be heavily involved with Asian affairs through his leadership of the Korea Society, a non-profit organization based in New York City that works to further the vision of a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula. The Society organizes myriad events, from intercultural outreach programs to business conferences for corporate leaders.An established authority on Korean politics, Gregg has been outspoken about the need to facilitate dialogue between the United States and North Korea. After President Bush’s State of the Union address last year, in which he included North Korea in the “Axis of Evil,” there was a sharp reaction by Chairman Kim Jong-Il and his regime. Gregg felt compelled to take the initiative, and wrote a letter to Jong-Il, offering his own opinion of North Korea’s motives.
Jong-Il was impressed by Gregg’s analysis and invited him to Pyongyang on two separate occasions to discuss the situation and attempt to better understand the U.S. These talks were significant since American diplomats do not have direct contact with North Korea.
Gregg was trained by the military, but has consistently favored caution and dialogue over bellicosity and confrontation. In 2000, six years after Clinton was on the verge of launching a preemptive strike against North Korea, he stated in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, “I have always believed that the United States has over-reacted to North Korean threats in the nuclear and missile area.”
In an upcoming article for Newsweek that he shared during his morning talk, Gregg wrote about Jong-Il: “We need to talk to him and to test him.”
Yet, no career is without controversy. In the past, Gregg’s credibility has come under severe attack. Often responsible for covert action, he became heavily embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal while serving as National Security Advisor. The legacy of the scandal is difficult to forget, but Gregg was never found guilty, and attributes his political recovery to honesty and cooperation: “Absolutely tell the truth. You have to do that.”
For intelligence officials, being honest is entirely separate from being forthright. When secrecy is necessary for efficacy, the hard and fast rules of government transparency become blurred. Gregg cited Newt Gingrich’s announcement of funding to overthrow Saddam Hussein as an example of confidential information released inappropriately.
To a question about renewed debate in Washington over security versus liberty, Gregg explained that the division between the CIA and the FBI is sensible, but is made difficult by increased travel and international concerns. Even within an organization such as the CIA, which depends on absolute secrecy and obedience, there is still room for dissent.
When it was rumored that Korean Professor Tsche Chong-kil was killed at the hands of the Korean CIA in 1973, Gregg stepped forward and demanded that those responsible be held accountable. He may have been thinking at the time of one of his philosophy professors, who defined immorality as “treating another person as an object rather than as a human being.”
If the focus of Gregg’s morning lecture was to extrapolate lessons on leadership from experiences in the field, the focus of his evening lecture was to discuss the increasingly tense political atmosphere on the Korean peninsula. Professor Sam Crane, professor of political science and chair of Asian studies, said he found the evening’s talk “fascinating.”
“Ambassador Gregg’s inside-the-government experience and insights were truly enlightening,” Crane said.
Similar sentiments were shared by Eunice Kim ’06. “He knew Korea really well, and he showed the Korean politicians under a completely different light,” she said.
A dedicated student of nuance, Gregg believes that American officials should look at North Korea as more than a potential proliferator. In his opinion, having Asian policy formulated by technicians may simplify decisions, but displays an unacceptable ignorance of culture. Gregg also compared the election of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in 1997 to the election of South African President Nelson Mandela.
Dae Jung made headlines with his progressive Sunshine Policy toward North Korea. Decades earlier, when Dae Jung was kidnapped, Gregg was instrumental in saving his life. Dae Jung will soon be replaced by President-Elect Roh Moo Hyun. Throughout his career, Gregg has been successful because he knows how to lead. Whether on the battlefield in Vietnam or politely discussing nuclear missiles in North Korea, Gregg has gained the experience necessary to adapt to different situations. How fitting, then, that during his talk he made such a clear and practical distinction between two kinds of leaders: the butt-kickers and the example-setters. For the demands of such a high-profile career, perhaps all leaders need a little of both.