What's behind Bill Clinton's "private" trip to North Korea?

Military analysis.
Nov. 2 2009 10:35 AM

Clinton in Pyongyang

What's behind the former president's "private" trip to North Korea?

Editor's Note: According to news reports this afternoon, North Korea has pardoned the two imprisoned American journalists.

Former President Clinton. Click image to expand.
Photograph of Bill Clinton arriving at the Pyongyang airport by KNS/AFP/Getty Images.

News comes this morning that former President Bill Clinton is in North Korea, talking with Kim Jong-il and his top aides. And, though no officials are saying so, this suggests that a diplomatic breakthrough could now be in the offing, if one is possible at all.

U.S. officials claim that Clinton's visit—which was kept secret until his unmarked plane landed in the North Korean capital—is a "private" trip for the sole purpose of freeing the two American journalists who were arrested in March for illegally entering North Korean territory and have subsequently been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

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It is hard to believe, though, that a trip of this sort, by someone of Clinton's stature, could really be private in the common meaning of that word. It's also puzzling that Clinton, whose powers as an envoy can be elicited only so often, would be dispatched simply to negotiate the pardoning of a couple of prisoners—though it's certainly true that, as a practical (and moral) matter, no substantive talks can be held with North Korea until those two young women are released.

The real surprise would be if he weren't there at least to explore broader strategic issues—and the big strategic issue in that part of the world is the future of North Korea's nuclear-weapons program and whether there's some way to resume talks to dismantle it.

Scott Snyder, director of the Asia Foundation's Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and author of Negotiating on the Edge, the best book about Pyongyang's diplomatic style, said in an e-mail this morning, "In North Korea, nothing is separated from politics." Sending former President Clinton, as opposed to a current high-ranking official, "is a convenient way of acknowledging this truth without having to own it." In other words, if things don't work out as hoped, the Obama administration can disclaim association.

This is standard procedure in dealing with the Hermit Kingdom. In 1994, during his own first term as president, Clinton sent Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang to explore resolving a crisis over its then-nascent nuclear program, which had very nearly led to war. Carter's trip was billed as "private," but he wound up discussing the basic terms of what, several months later, became the Agreed Framework, an accord signed by the two countries that kept North Korea's plutonium program under lock for the next eight years.

When George W. Bush scuttled the Agreed Framework at the start of his term, the North Koreans tried to use Bill Richardson as a middleman to reopen talks—a futile gesture since, at the time, Bush had no desire to go the diplomatic route.

Carter and Richardson were ideal informal emissaries. When Carter was president, he once announced that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea. He dropped the idea after it met fierce resistance from Congress, even among liberal Democrats; but after leaving the White House, he received repeated invitations to visit from Kim Il-Sung, then North Korea's "Great Leader."

Richardson had negotiated with North Koreans on two occasions: first as a congressman, over the remains of a constituent whose military plane had been shot down when it drifted across the border, and second as U.N. ambassador, over the release of an American citizen who had been jailed after accidentally crossing the border while on a hiking expedition.

And now, it can be inferred, they are probably happy to meet with Bill Clinton, who had, after all, put in place the Agreed Framework. Toward the end of Clinton's presidency, the two sides were on the verge of signing a follow-on accord to prohibit North Korea from developing or exporting missile technology. But Clinton, understandably, chose instead to spend his final months in office trying to wrap up a Middle East peace treaty—to no avail. (In the first months of the Bush presidency, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters he would pick up where Clinton left off in North Korean talks, but Bush slapped him down and forced him to retract his remarks.)

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