The North Koreans were eager to talk.
"Did you see CNN?" was our guide's first question the morning after the missile tests.
Knowing that most North Korean citizens are completely cut off from any information about the outside world, I wondered how much our guide herself knew about the tests. As guests in a Pyongyang hotel for foreigners, my companions and I had access to the 24-hour news channels we take for granted at home, and had just learned that the first of seven missiles had been launched into the Sea of Japan.
It occurred to me that we were probably the only Americans in the country at that critical moment in early July, and our hosts wanted to make sure we heard their side of the story.
The invitation to travel to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea had come from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs via two U.S. colleagues who have worked for decades to promote understanding and diplomacy with North Korea. In the absence of any official contact between our countries, unofficial, often personal connections are key.
My companions, Robert Scalapino and Tony Namkung, both Asia scholars with expertise in Korean politics, had traveled several times to North Korea and been invited back.
Over the next few days we were taken to see the sights of Pyongyang - the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, and the massive Tower of Juche, symbolizing the Great Leader's ideology of self-reliance (ironic in a country that depends almost totally on help from the outside). Whatever might be said of North Korea's lack of resources, it does not want for concrete - vast Soviet-style buildings abound, the gray monotony interrupted only by the enormous faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il staring down from murals.
We were closely chaperoned at every moment - not surprisingly - and only able to observe people going about their everyday lives from car windows. My request to ride the subway was honored, but only after a rail car had been cleared of passengers to accommodate our party.
Another request to leave Pyongyang to visit a coastal village, where several years earlier the Ploughshares Fund had helped underwrite electricity-generating windmills, was denied. In between the superficial stopping points, we did have frank conversations with key officials, including Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gae Gwan, who were eager to explain the rationale for the July 4 missile tests.
Why, we asked, in the face of such universal condemnation, did their government choose to go ahead with the tests? They replied that there was nothing illegal about their actions. But the international norm, I said, is to inform one's neighbors in advance of such a provocative move.
Their response made a certain kind of sense: Why would we give advance warning that we planned to test our missiles when the U.S. had said they would shoot them down? Later, one of them added, "What I hear is Big Brother's saying to Little Brother, 'Don't do that.' But we are not a little boy. We have nuclear weapons."
Whether publicly or even below the radar, some dialogue must be maintained with the North Koreans. That's why one of our objectives on this trip was to lay the groundwork for higher-level contacts in the near future. Personal and professional exchanges, too, can break down walls of fear and misunderstanding. I was able to tour the Pyongyang hospital from which a team of heart surgeons recently traveled to a New Mexico medical center for training, a rare opportunity.
Given the repressive nature of the regime, highly trained surgeons will almost certainly treat the ruling elite exclusively, not the average North Korean needing health care, when they return from their U.S. trip. But exposing even a few professionals to the world outside their borders opens the door to possible further engagement, if only by a crack.
These initiatives are no substitute for direct, government-to-government talks. The United States insists that it does not want to reward North Korea's behavior with one-on-one negotiations.
But at the end of the day we will still be the most powerful nation on earth, and North Korea will remain a weak, impoverished country dependent on the rest of the world for its survival.
The difference is that the North Koreans will have saved a little face and will feel less compelled to continually up the ante, and we will have come closer to turning back the nuclear demons that threaten international security.
Paul Carroll is the program officer at the Ploughshares Fund, which has worked to prevent the spread and use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and to promote direct engagement with North Korea. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.