Dear Leader stars in Bill and Hillary show
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - Former United States president Bill Clinton rode to the rescue of
the two American journalists jailed in North Korea with the skill and
confidence of a movie hero. In a visit of less than 24 hours, he chatted with
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, won a pardon and the release of the
journalists, saw them onto his plane and flew off to Los Angeles in a
spectacular sequence made for Hollywood.
Clinton might feel justified in hanging the sign "Mission Accomplished" in his
post-presidential office, but the question remains: what did he accomplish?
That is, what did he intimate or suggest or imply to Kim, what was the quid pro
quo? It boils down to what the North Koreans are likely to get in exchange for
what Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency called the
"humanitarian and peace-loving" gesture of freeing Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
The White House describes Clinton's trip as "private", and the plane that
carried him, his one-time White House chief of staff John Podesta and assorted
other aides and advisers carried no markings, in keeping with the "unofficial"
nature of the visit. Obviously, however, that cover story was fantasy.
Clinton was just the high-profile visitor North Korea hoped to entice from
Washington in return for handing over the journalists.
Why bother to pretend otherwise, after wife Hillary, as secretary of state, had
laid the groundwork by saying that maybe Ling and Lee had made a mistake and
strayed across the Tumen River border with China when North Korean soldiers
picked them up on March 17? And hadn't Hillary already expressed an apology for
the mishap after having said earlier the two had done nothing wrong?
Clearly, Bill was Hillary's emissary, and he had the blessing of President
Barack Obama, who North Korea said had sent a "verbal message" via Bill
expressing "profound thanks" and "reflecting views on ways of improving the
relations between the two countries". The White House might deny having sent
any such message, but in the all-important game of face, any gesture from
Obama, a mere "thank you", could be construed as "a message".
Beyond gestures, though, what did Clinton really have to offer? The answer had
to be quite a lot, if only by assurances and implications.
"North Korea doesn't believe in Santa," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior
scholar at the private Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, "but
they must be thinking it's Christmas in August." Surely, "They were expecting
him to come bearing gifts."
On the assumption that "North Korea never gives anything for free", Eberstadt
raised the question of "what they expect for the release of the hostages". In
the end, as North Korea has made clear in nuclear tests in October 2006 and
again on May 25 this year, North Korea wants "permanent nuclear status", that
is, "de facto recognition of it among the world's nine nuclear powers", in
Eberstadt's view, while "attenuating the US-South Korean alliance".
Unofficial emissary that he was, Clinton no doubt avoided such sensitive
issues, but he may well have conveyed the sense of warmth and goodwill and
friendliness as translated into massive aid if North Korea would sit down for
serious talks on its nuclear program. If nothing else, Clinton's conversation
with Kim, described by the Korean Central News Agency as "exhaustive", would
count in Pyongyang's view as the opening of two-way dialogue to replace the
six-party talks, to which the North has said it will never return.
The sense that Clinton, certainly more than George W Bush, who succeeded him in
the White House in January 2001, and possibly more than Obama, has conveyed the
sense of sympathy that Kim needs while concerned about his own health and
attempting to set up his youngest son as successor.
As far as Kim is concerned, Clinton's mission could be a follow-up to the talks
that Kim had with Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in October
2000. Albright, totally impressed by Kim, had seen her visit as the prelude to
Clinton going there in the final weeks of his administration.
Time ran out, however, amid the infamous recount of Florida's electoral votes
that lofted Bush to the presidency over Clinton's vice president, Al Gore. The
fact that the two captured journalists were on assignment for Current TV, the
San Francisco-based Internet network that is partly owned by Gore, made Clinton
all the more desirable this time around as the high-profile visitor Kim wanted
Clinton's mission on Tuesday to Pyongyang bore striking similarities to the
visit of another former president, Jimmy Carter, when he went to the North
Korean capital in June 1994 amid another equally tense standoff over North
Korea's nuclear program.
Clinton was greeted at Pyongyang's Sunan airport by Kim Kye-gwan, vice foreign
minister and the principal North Korean negotiator in the off-again, on-again
six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. Kim's presence dramatized
North Korea's interest in two-way dialogue with the US, beginning with talks
with a high-profile American, the same role that Carter played when he flew to
Pyongyang to meet North Korea's leader, Kim Il-sung, who died one month later,
turning over full power to his son Jong-il.
The real success of the trip, however, is likely to revolve around whether it
achieved a breakthrough in an increasingly tense confrontation.
The State Department, under Hillary Clinton, has been pressing nations large
and small to comply fully with sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council
after the nuclear test. They call for a banning of trade with North Korea on a
wide range of products, notably anything to do with nuclear technology or
materiel or the missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction to
"North Korea has said they are ready for bilateral talks with the US," said
Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification in
Seoul. "This might lead to a breakthrough. At least it's a good sign."
Choi was not very optimistic about the visit's immediate impact - or on the
possibilities for the visit bringing about a renewal of the six-party talks.
"The US has said they are not going to have bilateral talks," he noted. "It is
too early to be optimistic. The US has been very clear that North Korea should
be punished for its wrong behavior."
Nonetheless, comparisons between Clinton's visit and that of Carter are
unavoidable. After Carter left, the dividends of his visit, in which he had a
long conversation with Kim Il-sung on a boat in the Daedong River in Pyongyang,
appeared to have been lost with Kim's death.
After a prolonged standoff in the summer of 1994, however, negotiators returned
to the table and finally came to terms on the Geneva framework agreement,
signed in October, in which North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear program
in exchange for twin light-water nuclear reactors to help meet its energy
North Korea complied, padlocking the reactor at the complex at Yongbyon and
stopping the production of plutonium, all under the eyes of watchful inspectors
from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agreement flew apart, however,
after North Korea was revealed eight years later, in October 2002, to have
begun a separate program for developing nuclear warheads with highly enriched
uranium, and diplomats have been trying ever since to repair the damage.
This time around, final judgment of the mission may revolve around whatever
North Korea meant in a report saying that Clinton and Kim had had "candid and
in-depth discussion on the pending issues between the DPRK [Democratic People's
Republic of Korea] and the US in a sincere atmosphere and reached a consensus
of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them".
It will be up to the Clintons, Bill and Hillary, to explain what was
"negotiated" and what "consensus of views" was reached - if any.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.