SEOUL - Hillary Clinton would like nothing better than to wrap up her
spectacular role as one of America's most successful secretaries of state than
by going to North Korea and persuading North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il to
return to six-party talks in return for a serious sign of willingness to give
up the program.
She obliquely signaled that possibility during her historic visit to Myanmar
last week, saying in an interview that she wasn't thinking of going to either
North Korea or Cuba until or unless "they ever had a leader who did things like
begin releasing political prisoners and on wide scale set up a system for
elections and the like".
That's even less likely to happen in North Korea than in Cuba, which is a
downright open country compared with Kim Jong-il's
fiefdom, but that doesn't mean North Korea cannot make some moves that might
entice Clinton to work on going there.
North Korea is anxious to draw the US into talks at the highest level, and the
next step might well be another meeting between US and North Korean diplomats
to try to lay the groundwork for returning to full-scale six-party talks hosted
by China. The former top US envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, who
relinquished that position after the last round of US-North Korean talks in
Geneva in October, has been reported by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency,
as saying he expects "at least one more round of bilateral talks" before
six-party talks resume.
Clinton's visit to Myanmar, widely regarded as the next most repressive country
in Asia after North Korea, set a precedent for the unexpected considering how
closed and hostile Myanmar's government had seemed until the election last
November that gave Thein Sein, a former general, the presidency.
By calling on Thein Sein and Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin in the new
capital of Naypyidaw and then communing with the celebrated democracy and
human-rights advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, now out and about after two decades of
house arrest, in her home in the old capital of Yangon, Clinton scored a public
relations triumph that might have seemed an impossible dream considering the
dictatorial and closed nature of the regime.
Absurd as it might seem to imagine that Kim Jong-il is going to free any
dissidents from one of his notorious prisons for a meeting with Clinton, she
just couldn't get the idea off her mind after returning to Washington and
hosting a celebrity dinner at the Kennedy Center.
Crediting celebrity pressure with helping to bring about a limited relaxation
of repression in Myanmar, including the release of political prisoners, she
told the star-studded throng, "Somewhere in a little tiny room in Burma
[Myanmar] or even in North Korea, someone is desperately trying to hear you or
to see you, to experience you." Moreover, she enthused, "If they are lucky
enough to make that connection, it can literally change lives and countries."
She didn't hint at the draconian nature of the penalties that await anyone in
North Korea breathing a sigh about such a "connection", but her comment showed
how much she would love joining the list of Democratic Party biggies who have
made a pilgrimage to Pyongyang. At the head of them all, of course, is husband
Bill, who flew to Pyongyang in August 2009 on a private plane. Bill and a
coterie of aides spent three hours over a long lunch with Kim Jong-il before
flying back with Laura Ling and Euna Lee from Al Gore's Current TV network,
both of whom were picked up by North Korean soldiers five months earlier
filming along the Tumen River border with China.
Bill's flight to Pyongyang came as partial fulfillment of his vision of going
there in the closing weeks of his presidency in January 2001. The dream never
faded though the mission failed to materialize while Americans were mesmerized
by the infamous Florida recount that tipped the balance in favor of George W
Bush as his successor as president over his vice president, Gore.
Hillary Clinton as "First Lady" was in on the whole delusional attempt at
rapprochement that reached an apotheosis in October 2000 after the late Jo
Myong-rok, vice chairman of North Korea's national defense commission, chaired
by Kim Jong-il, called on her husband at the White House as the highest North
Korean official ever to go to Washington.
Jo also met Hillary's soul mate as the first US female secretary of state,
Madeleine Albright, who flew to Pyongyang shortly afterward. Kim Jong-il
inveigled her and sidekick Wendy Sherman to look at a gigantic propaganda
display in May First Stadium, but that didn't stop Albright from later writing
that "Kim was prepared to trade military concessions for a combination of
economic help and security guarantees."
The fact that Wendy Sherman by now is undersecretary of state for political
affairs only fortifies the view that Secretary Clinton would love to go to
Pyongyang to cap off recent successes that include not only Myanmar but Libya,
which she visited before the final downfall and killing of leader Muammar
Gaddafi. Sherman, while offering elaborate explanations for why and how she and
Albright unwittingly attended the May First Stadium shenanigans, was an
outspoken advocate of rapprochement with the North while Kim Dae-jung as South
Korea's president from 1998 to 2003 was promoting his "Sunshine" policy.
A critical question, however, would be how to get around the reality that North
Korea, before Myanmar started cozying up to the US, was supplying arms,
including missiles, to Myanmar as well as the technology and possibly some of
the components for a nuclear reactor. Clinton while in Myanmar urged its
leaders to cut off their military ties with North Korea, reportedly as part of
a deal to get rid of US sanctions.
The North Koreans, besides losing Myanmar as a customer, have got to be unhappy
about the loss of markets in riot-torn Middle Eastern countries, including
maybe Syria and surely Libya, which had imported North Korean missiles while
Gaddafi was in control. North Korea has been saying throughout the Libyan
crisis that Gaddafi's earlier acquiescence to US and European pressure to halt
his nuclear program was a great mistake that the North was not going to
North Korea's desperation, however, means it needs all the aid it can get as it
goes into the momentous year 2012. The goal is to become "a strong and
prosperous nation" while celebrating first Kim Jong-il's 70th birthday in
February and then, on April 15, the centennial of the birth of his father,
Great Leader Kim Il-sung, who still rules from the heavens as "eternal
As the Korea Herald editorialized, "It may be hard to measure the impact of
dwindling weapons exports on North Korea's economy, but it will be painful to
Pyongyang, which has few other ways of earning hard-currency."
Given all that, the North might at least say the right things about discussing
its nukes at six-party talks. The next move would be to entice Hillary and
Wendy into trekking to Pyongyang before the next US presidential election 11
months hence - maybe Hillary's last great diplomatic mission before she steps
down at the end of Obama's term and sets her sights on her own presidential run
Oh, but what about South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's oft-stated insistence
that the North begin to live up to previous promises, reached in six-party
talks in 2007 while the soft-lining Roh Moo-hyun was still president, to give
up its nukes as a precondition for more six-party talks? And hasn't Obama sworn
undying fealty to Lee in a tribute to the great US-Korean alliance?
Not to worry. All that may not be too much of a hindrance considering that Lee
under the South's democracy constitution cannot run in the next South Korean
presidential election a year from now and the conservative candidate will have
to show he or she is open to reconciliation while the anti-government candidate
campaigns again for Sunshine.
Remember, the most likely conservative, Park Keun-hye, daughter of the
long-ruling dictatorial Park Chung-hee, assassinated in October 1979, called on
Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in May 2002 and might well like to go again - in the
footsteps, perhaps, of Hillary Clinton.
Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly
published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)