STATE DEPARTMENT - In several gift stores in the bowels of the U.S. State Department, diplomats, civil servants and authorized visitors can purchase clothing, key chains, coffee cups and knickknacks emblazoned with the department’s eagle logo.
Also on offer by the concessionaire of the Foreign Affairs Recreation Association are friendship pins on which the Stars and Stripes is twinned with the flags of friendly nations — and one very unfriendly one: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with which the United States has never had diplomatic relations.
The “U.S.-Korea North” flags pin (order number EC-128) sells for $3.95 (buy 10, get one free).
(Full disclosure: VOA correspondents Steve Herman and Nike Ching purchased eight of the prized pins Thursday, so supplies may be limited.)
Shocking and weird
The State Department, notified by VOA News of the unusual item for sale in its basement, said it was looking into the matter.
“Friendship, hmmm,” was the initial reaction of Yonho Kim, senior researcher of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“It’s just shocking news and a little weird to me,” said Kim, a former senior reporter for VOA’s Korean Service. “I really want to find out how this happened.”
Kim said there are no diplomatic developments on the horizon that would justify stocking such a pin.
Rare so-called Track 2 talks between former U.S. officials and current North Korean diplomats were held last week in Malaysia, but officials at the State Department termed the discussion “independent of U.S. government action.”
North Korea is under numerous U.N. sanctions for its series of ballistic-missile launches and test detonations of underground nuclear devices.
Pyongyang in recent years has routinely threatened to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.
The United States and North Korea fought each other during the three-year Korean War in the early 1950s. An armistice was signed, but there has been no peace treaty.
Little care seems to have been paid at the State Department’s basement gift stores to other diplomatic realities. Also for sale are separate pins banding the American flag with those of Yugoslavia (which dissolved in 2006), South Vietnam (conquered by North Vietnam in 1975) and Taiwan (with which Washington cut official ties in 1979).
“They’re a little out of date down there,” remarked one State Department official who works in the building.
All of the pins, incidentally, are marked “made in China.”