When former President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea last month to negotiate the release of two American journalists, the advisor at his side was Mountain View resident David Straub, a former American diplomat.
Because of Clinton's efforts, Bay Area journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were able to return home instead of serving a 12-year sentence in a North Korean hard labor camp. Although Straub isn't divulging details about the trip -- he said he wanted to honor agreements with North Korean officials that he not speak about it -- he is proud of his diplomatic accomplishments.
In 2006, Straub left his job as a senior foreign services officer for the State Department, wrapping up a 30-year career as a U.S. diplomat. In that time he has worked for several American presidents and helped negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. He now lives across the street from Cuesta Park with his wife.
"I retired from the State Department in 2006 in significant part because I was very frustrated with the incompetence and obtuseness of President Bush's foreign policy," Straub said. "In most cases, career diplomats, once they leave, they don't return."
In June 2008 he became associate director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford, and is now writing a book that contrasts Korean and American culture. Despite rumors to the contrary, Straub has not been an informal advisor to President Barack Obama. He says his work for the U.S. government is done, and his trip with Clinton was "a special case. That was a private mission and a humanitarian mission. They needed someone like me who spoke Korean and could be of some support."
By chance or by design, Straub's relationship with Korea started when he was given a job doing visa work in the U.S. embassy in South Korea during a "dramatic and intellectually stimulating time," just months before South Korean President Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979.
Today, South Korea is a thriving democracy. Most Americans don't realize, Straub said, "just how quickly it has changed and developed. Thirty years ago it was still a traditional society. But in less than two generations it became one of the world's wealthiest countries and most stable democracies."
"It is very, very interesting, sociologically speaking, to look at South Korea and contrast that with the virtual collapse of North Korea," Straub said.
Although relations between the U.S. and South Korea are relatively good, cultural misunderstandings still abound. "Events are ascribed a meaning in South Korea that Americans never imagined," Straub said.
Straub's book, which is not yet completed, focuses on one example, a particularly tragic event which led to huge protests in Korea.
In 2002, an American military vehicle accidentally ran over two 13-year-old schoolgirls walking to a library on a country road in a village north of Seoul. When the American soldiers were acquitted in court and the incident declared an accident, hundreds of thousands of Koreans took to the streets to protest the American military's presence in their country.
"Americans saw that as a tragedy, a terrible accident," Straub said. "Koreans tended to regard that as one more example of Americans, especially the U.S. military, disrespecting them, treating them terribly and not taking responsibility. There is a different legal culture in Korea. Even in a situation like that, people go to jail or reach large financial settlements with families."
In his book, Straub said, "I try to explain how both sides looked at these events, and hope that at least some people in both countries read it and understand each other little bit better."