Bill Clinton's dramatic mission to secure the release of two American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee following North Korea's harsh verdict regarding their unauthorized entry into North Korea has succeeded on multiple fronts, based on criteria for success I offered yesterday: 1) the visit secured the release of the two journalists, 2) the visit has provided a first-hand opportunity for a direct assessment of Kim Jong Il's health and the leadership's decision-making capacity, 3) the visit provided an opportunity to convey directly to Kim Jong Il an American view of North Korea's situation and the unacceptability of North Korea's continued nuclear weapons pursuits. We do not know yet whether Kim Jong Il has been able to use the opportunity to make a new start in relations with the Obama administration.
The mission itself was reminiscent of the diplomacy of Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi, who made a one-day trip to Pyongyang in September of 2002 and succeeded in securing the release of four Japanese abductees and a direct apology from Kim Jong Il. Although Clinton's trip was private, it has become clear that the mission was a direct result of months of painstaking negotiations and an assessment by Pyongyang of the likely maximum benefit it could obtain for the release of the journalists. The issue increasingly was becoming a burden rather than a benefit to North Korea. The Obama administration efforts to utilize an envoy of lesser stature than Mr. Clinton were rejected by the North Koreans.
As Bradley Martin has pointed out, one need only go back to President Lyndon B. Johnson's comment regarding the North Korean capture of the Pueblo in January of 1968 that the U.S. would "do anything to get those men back--including meeting naked in the middle of the street at high noon, if that's what it takes." By this standard, sending Clinton on this mission may seem well worth the risk , despite the inevitable moral hazard that hangs over any transaction with the North Koreans. On balance, the administration's low-key approach in addressing the issue separately from other issues in the relationship appears to have paid off.
Two issues that require further exploration are the question of whether additional payments might have been made to secure the release of the two journalists (a question that proved to tarnish the accomplishment of Kim Dae Jung's inter-Korean summit in 2000) and the impact of Clinton's visit on North Korea's internal politics. Thus far, the main benefit for Kim Jong Il in Bill Clinton's visit appears to be the opportunity to shore up his own internal legitimacy by providing a new strand to the well-worn propaganda he uses to justify the regime's accomplishments to its own people.
Through a meeting with a former president, Kim Jong Il also had an unusual opportunity to communicate directly to the United States in a way that might influence the trajectory of U.S.-DPRK relations. But we do not yet know if Kim was able to effectively use this opportunity. Following debriefings of the Clinton team, the Obama administration will have the opportunity to determine whether new information gained in the course of the visit will justify course corrections or whether the visit will prove to be a one-off mission to secure the release of the journalists.
If a policy change is contemplated based on new information gained from the Clinton visit, the Obama administration is likely to begin by consulting with South Korea, Japan, and other members of the six party process. In every other aspect, there is little reason to expect that this mission by itself will have broader implications for the North Korean nuclear issue.
A brief review of the current international environment suggests that the impact of the Clinton visit to North Korea will be limited, given current regional developments:
- The successful return of the two American journalists is likely to generate greater South Korean public criticism of the Lee Myung Bak administration for its failure to find ways to make progress in the case of a Korean employ detained at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
- The Obama administration's implementation of sanctions on North Korea under UN Security Council Resolution 1874 continues, with Ambassador Philip Goldberg traveling to Moscow for consultations related to the resolution.
- The Chinese have recently taken steps to comply with UN sanctions by seizing a North Korean-bound shipment of 70 kilograms of vanadium, a material used to make missile parts, and by ending a joint venture between NHI Shenyang Mining Machinery and the (North) Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, a company blacklisted by the UN Security Council under UNSC Resolution 1874.
- The possibility of a change in government in Japan following August 30th elections has distracted the Japanese public from a focus on the abduction issue, but there appears to be little likelihood that a new Democratic Party of Japan-led government will take a drastically different approach to North Korea or make North Korean issues a priority if they gain power.