A former U.S. president visits Pyongyang to break the stalemate at a time of rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear program. This sounds like déjà vu, but the twist is that the mission is a purely "private" one to secure the release of two American journalists convicted and sentenced to twelve years in a North Korean labor camp for committing "hostile acts" against the regime. Nonetheless, if Jimmy Carter's 1994 visit to Pyongyang is any guide, Bill Clinton's visit might turn out to be the equivalent of hitting the "reset" button in U.S. relations with North Korea. What are the criteria for judging the outcome of the Clinton visit to Pyongyang?
First, the visit will be successful if Bill Clinton is able to reverse North Korea's harsh verdict and secure the release and return of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to their families. There is a high possibility that the visit can achieve this result since the North Koreans have discreetly sent signals to this effect by not assigning the two journalists to a labor camp and by allowing limited telephone contact between the reporters and their families. North Korea's UN Ambassador Sin Son-ho held a hurriedly arranged press conference on July 25th at which he stated that "we are not against a dialogue. We are not against any negotiations on issues of common concern."
Second, the visit opens a channel through which authoritative messages can be delivered regarding U.S. expectations for the future of the relationship with North Korea. Even if it is a private visit with a humanitarian purpose, former president Clinton is uniquely placed to provide the North Koreans with a clear understanding of the conditions and parameters under which the U.S.-DPRK relationship might go forward. Presumably, the core of such a message would be that the basis upon which it is possible to envision an improved political relationship between the United States and North Korea remains denuclearization, and that continued nuclear activity will be met with the continued implementation of UN sanctions under UN Security Council Resolution 1874.
Third, the DPRK has suggested its own preconditions for dialogue, but a private visit does not recognize North Korean statements that six party talks are dead, as the North Korean foreign ministry has claimed. The DPRK foreign ministry may have signaled its desire for Clinton's visit when the spokesman referred last week to a "specific and reserved form of dialogue that can address the current situation." The visit provides an opportunity to listen directly to North Korea's leadership without committing to any specific response or giving weight to North Korean preconditions. Delivery of diplomatic messages through private channels provides a means by which dialogue is possible while sidestepping the official preconditions for dialogue that both sides are attaching to their current positions.
Fourth, the visit provides an opportunity to gain additional direct knowledge regarding the status of North Korea's leadership succession process. How the North Koreans handle Clinton's visit, including who Clinton meets inside North Korea, will provide additional information regarding that state of top-level decision making in North Korea.
Most importantly, the Obama administration will have time to assess the results of a private visit and to consult with allies and friends regarding next steps based on the outcome. This means that the initiative lies with North Korea and the response on the part of the United States and its partners will depend on how North Korea handles the visit.
The primary danger of such a private visit is the possibility of overreach by a former president, a danger regarding which Clinton should be acutely aware, given the Clinton administration's own experience with Jimmy Carter's visit in 1994.
Another potential challenge is that North Korea's release of the two American journalists without the accompanying release of a South Korean employee of Hyundai Asan at the Kaesong Industrial Complex may put additional political pressure on South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak at a sensitive point in inter-Korean negotiations over the future of the complex.