“Hats off to former president Bill Clinton for his tactful performance.” So editorialized the Washington Post this morning. Yes, the nation is grateful to Mr. Clinton for securing the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two journalists detained since March 17 in North Korea. They faced twelve years of hard labor for crossing into Kim Jong Il’s paradise, and that could have effectively been a death sentence.
Of course, Pyongyang had no intention of holding the pair in one of its infamous prison camps. Bargaining chips from the beginning, Ling and Lee were going to be freed eventually. But it took a surprise visit from Mr. Clinton to win their immediate release.
Although billed purely as a private trip, the former president’s visit was worked out in advance by teams of American and North Korean diplomats, who had been meeting for months. All Clinton was supposed to do was show up, deliver words of regret, and not insult the smiling North Koreans. In fact, he spent less than 24 hours in beautiful downtown Pyongyang.
Unfortunately, former presidents are not controllable, and Clinton is especially willful. As CNN’s John Roberts reported yesterday morning, a White House official said on Tuesday that Clinton probably discussed nuclear issues with Kim Jong Il. The Obama administration had worked hard to make sure there was no hint that the United States was making concessions on such issues to obtain freedom for Ling and Lee.
In fact, the North Koreans thought Clinton’s trip was all about nukes. Kang Sok Ju, who negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework nuclear deal, was at Kim Jong Il’s side during his meeting with Clinton. Kim Kye Gwan, Pyongyang’s current chief nuclear negotiator, met the former president at the tarmac.
Clinton either took the bait and discussed nuclear issues in an episode of freelance diplomacy or did so on White House orders. Either way, the North Koreans got what they wanted. History says that when Kim gets what he desires, we lose. We are once again beginning a process of talks that will not end well for us.
– Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. He lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades.