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     Dec 6, 2011

Is Kim her next challenge?
By Donald Kirk

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 duplicate.

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 president".

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 in 2016.

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.)

US gambles on Myanmar reform (Dec 2, '11)

Myanmar, North Korea in missile nexus (Mar 2, '11)

The shadow war in Syria

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3. He was 22 ... She was 12 ...

4. Pakistan retort squares with Taliban demands

5. US gambles on Myanmar reform

6. Down the wrong path

7. Iran delivers major blow to the CIA

8. Najib thinks twice on reform

9. China-Myanmar: border war dilemma

10. India, US - the way ahead

(Dec 2-5 2011)


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