August 5, 2009
The Obama administration let North Korean leader Kim Jong Il save face by releasing two jailed Americans to former President Bill Clinton. The payoff — maybe not right away — is likely to be renewed dialogue with Pyongyang about its nuclear weapons program.
After meeting with Clinton, who made an unannounced visit to the North Korean capital Tuesday, Kim pardoned and freed the young journalists who allegedly crossed into the country from China earlier this year. They were serving 12-year prison sentences.
"It could provide an opportunity to move forward on the nuclear issue, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," said Victor Cha, former Asia chief at the National Security Council. "The history with the North Koreans, as they have just done the past few months, is to put themselves out on a ledge. And they always need help getting off that ledge."Not so fast, said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had spoken with her husband after the pair was released.
She said the U.S. was not counting on a breakthrough but also said it could lubricate the way for the North to return to six-party talks about its nuclear program with the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.
But there, perhaps, is the rub. The North Koreans have been demanding bilateral talks with Washington. The U.S., however, has shot down such overtures, insisting that it will work only through the six-party format.
North Korean behavior — ever an enigma — has included in recent months the withdrawal from those talks. The regime also launched a long-range rocket, conducted a second nuclear test, test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles, and restarted its atomic program in defiance of international criticism and the U.N. Security Council.
Obama, while pushing heavy sanctions against the North for its recent nose-thumbing of the international community, also has been low key as he pursues a resumption of talks with the Stalinist regime.
That's been difficult because the North is widely believed to be embroiled in a succession struggle after Kim reportedly suffered a stroke and began setting up a 27-year-old son to take power. Its saber-rattling was widely believed to indicate that its military wanted to show strength as a successor is chosen.
The White House has taken pains since Clinton's arrival in Pyongyang to play the mission as a private one designed only to win the release of Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, both with former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture. They were captured while on assignment to collect material for a report about trafficking of North Korean women into China.
Bill Clinton undertook the mission, a senior administration official said, only after the North assured the White House that the reporters would be freed and allowed to return home with the former president.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to detail the back-channel negotiations, also said the north rejected Gore as a suitable emissary. The journalists' families, Gore and the White House then turned to Clinton. The official said President Barack Obama did not speak with Clinton about the mission.
Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, said the journalists' release followed weeks of quiet negotiations between the State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations.
Clinton "didn't go to negotiate this, he went to reap the fruits of the negotiation," Sneider said.
In photographs of Clinton with Kim, the former president stood somberly at the North Korean leader's side, showing no signs of warmth. The official photographs were obviously intended for domestic consumption. Clinton is highly regarded in the North and his appearance with Kim will bolster him at home.
Pardoning Ling and Lee satisfied North Korea's need to continue maintaining that the two women had committed a crime while dispatching the former president as emissary served the Obama administration's desire not to expend diplomatic capital winning their freedom, Sneider said.
"Nobody wanted this to be a distraction from the more substantially difficult issues we have with North Korea," he said. "There was a desire by the administration to resolve this quietly, and from the very beginning they didn't allow it to become a huge public issue."As a former leader, Clinton was a good choice to represent the United States in the delicate deliberations, according to Sneider. He had the cachet to get an audience with Kim but could claim to be acting as a private citizen.
North Korean media said Clinton had carried a message of apology from Obama and that the former president and Kim held wide-ranging talks, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said those claims were "not true."
Still, the diplomatic minuet was a success, more so if Obama indeed cracked open the door to resume dialogue with North Korea, whose nuclear program stands to destabilize Asia and compromise Obama's promise to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
Just don't hold your breath.