While the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee from a North Korean prison has universally been hailed as good news, the trip by former President Bill Clinton that made it possible has been controversial.


Rewarding Hostage Taking?*

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton took to the pages of the Washington Post to argue that the trip rewarded bad behavior, created future risks, and was the result of  President Obama’s “knee-jerk impulse for negotiations above all.”

In Pyongyang’s view, the two reporters are pawns in the larger game of enhancing the regime’s legitimacy and gaining direct access to important U.S. figures. The reporters’ arrest, show trial and subsequent imprisonment (twelve years hard labor) was hostage taking, essentially an act of state terrorism. So the Clinton trip is a significant propaganda victory for North Korea, whether or not he carried an official message from President Obama. Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former president to do so.

While the United States is properly concerned whenever its citizens are abused or held hostage, efforts to protect them should not create potentially greater risks for other Americans in the future. Yet that is exactly the consequence of visits by former presidents or other dignitaries as a form of political ransom to obtain their release. Iran and other autocracies are presumably closely watching the scenario in North Korea. With three American hikers freshly in Tehran’s captivity, will Clinton be packing his bags again for another act of obeisance? And, looking ahead, what American hostages will not be sufficiently important to merit the presidential treatment? What about Roxana Saberi and other Americans previously held in Tehran? What was it about them that made them unworthy of a presidential visit? These are the consequences of poorly thought-out gesture politics, however well-intentioned or compassionately motivated. Indeed, the release of the two reporters — welcome news — doesn’t mitigate the future risks entailed.

Gordon Chang, author of a book on the North Korean nuclear program, wrote in the WSJ that, “This marks a significant break with previous U.S. policy. During the last years of the Bush administration, the State Department constantly warned Tokyo’s diplomats that concerns over Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea shouldn’t interfere with initiatives to resolve the nuclear problem.”  Charles Krauthammer echoed this theme and argued that “there was obviously a quid pro quo.”

I’ve refrained from rapid reaction to this because I’ve been torn between competing maxims.  I agree with the above critics that rewarding despots who have seized American citizens is bad precedent, incentivizing illegal behavior.  Yet, Bob Manning is right, too:  our leaders have no good alternative to talking with our adversaries.

During the Cold War, it was routine for the Soviets to arrest Americans and charge them with spying.  While we would deny that the people were spies and kick up a fuss (regardless of whether the people in question were in fact spies) we would invariably arrest one of theirs and then negotiate some sort of exchange, perhaps with a dissident or two thrown in for good measure.

Clinton Not Free-Lancing

It should be emphasized that Clinton did not undertake this trip on his own initiative. Yes, the administration had characterized it as a “solely private mission.”  But, as a San Francisco Chronicle editorial points out, “It seems a little far-fetched to believe that a former president, whose wife happens to be secretary of state, would engage in a freelance diplomacy in a rogue state without at least a nudge and a wink from, shall we say, very senior people in the administration.”

CNN confirms this:

Iain Clayton said Wednesday that his wife, Laura [Ling], told him through a telephone conversation that the North Koreans were willing to grant the two journalists amnesty if a high-level envoy, such as former President Clinton, were willing to travel to Pyongyang.


Some heavyweights were turned down by the North Koreans: former Vice President Al Gore, a co-founder of the media outfit the women were working for when they were arrested, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations whose previous missions to North Korea included negotiating the release of a detained American.


Officials said that while President Obama never spoke directly with the former president about this issue, negotiations were under way within the administration.  During the weekend of July 24-25, Clinton spoke with National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones about his willingness to take on this mission. Clinton ultimately agreed to go on the mission but made it very clear in every communication that this was purely a humanitarian effort.

Clinton also wanted to make sure, based on the due diligence of the national security team, that there was a high likelihood of success if he went. “We were convinced this would be the result, and based on that we could advise President Clinton that his trip was going to be successful,” one official said.  State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday that “we did our homework … to make sure that if President Clinton did take this trip, that we would be able to … win the freedom for these two.”

That’s diplo-speak for “The deal was already made; Clinton was just there for the delivery.”

Improved Bilateral Relations?

And it may well be the case that Clinton’s trip to North Korea will improve relations.  Certainly, they couldn’t get much worse.

The Obama administration is making it clear that they welcome better relations.  But only on America’s terms.

“We were very clear that this was a humanitarian mission. President Clinton was going on behalf of the families to get these young journalists out,” Obama told the NBC news channel in an interview.  “We have said to the North Koreans there is a path for improved relations, and it involves them no longer developing nuclear weapons and not engaging in the provocative behavior that they’ve been engaging in,” Obama reiterated.


Hillary Clinton, and others in the Obama Administration, [State Department spokesperson Robert Wood] said have been very clear in saying that the US is certainly willing to look at how to bring North Korea back into the good graces of the international community, he said.

“If you remember, we were engaged in the process with the North. We got as far as the North needing to give us some assurances about their commitment to verification, that they were unwilling to do in written form. And the North took a number of volatile, provocative steps that certainly didn’t improve the climate. It seems to have walked away from the six-party talks,” he observed. “We have been encouraging the North and the other members of the international community that are interested in this issue have encouraged them to come back. They’ve yet to do that. We want to see them come back, and we have offered them a path. It’s really going to be up to the North to take it,” Wood said.

Time‘s Bill Powell reports that Kim Jong Il may be in far better health than reports over the past year had led us to believe. 

If that’s true, it’s possible that Kim is once again trying to direct North Korea out of the corner it’s crawled into. Pyongyang, even amid recent tirades against the U.S. aimed at Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has left the door open to the possibility of re-engaging Washington in talks — though not in the so-called six-party format, which includes all of North Korea’s direct neighbors, that Obama favors. “We must pay keen attention to what signal North Korea sent to Bill Clinton,” says Yun Duk min, a professor at a think tank affiliated with the South Korean Foreign Ministry. “A key to break the stalemate may lie in there.”

John Delury, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, observes,

There are numerous ironies in Mr. Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang. Early in his own presidency, he and Kim Il Sung were brought back from the brink of military conflict only by an independent mission by another former president, Jimmy Carter. It was a last-minute diplomatic intervention that infuriated the White House, but defused the international crisis and set the stage for a breakthrough agreement between Pyongyang and Washington in 1994. At the end of his presidency, Mr. Clinton seriously considered a presidential trip to Pyongyang as his foreign policy swan song (he opted instead to send Secretary of State Albright, and concentrate his political capital on a peace deal in the Middle East). Nine years later, he gets to complete his journey as an American éminence grise. And, final irony, he does so as husband of current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has led the charge of a tough-line against North Korea, speculating on the death of its leader Kim Jong Il and comparing its behavior to that of a child. These ironies encapsulate much of the history of U.S.-DPRK relations since the end of the Cold War.


With the Clinton visit, we have the first gust of a warm wind in U.S.-DPRK relations. The Obama administration should act decisively to build on any positive momentum. The repatriation of the two journalists demonstrates the benefits of direct channels of contact with North Korea, and the need for a multifaceted relationship. Revived six-party talks can be one forum, and the nuclear issue will remain a difficult and central point of negotiation. But it would behoove us to broaden and diversify the scope of our relationship.

CSM’s Simon Montlake reports that,

Bill Clinton’s successful rescue mission to North Korea has stirred relief, hope, and a measure of unease in Asian capitals that are grappling with the risk posed by an unpredictable nuclear-armed neighbor.

By using a diplomatic back channel to obtain the release of two jailed American reporters, the Obama administration has shown that it wants to be flexible in its pursuit of reduced tensions. But some critics – with an eye to years of unfruitful six-party talks – have warned that the US must be wary of paving the way for dialogue that could sidestep the North’s neighbors.

That skepticism may be warranted, though much depends on what message, if any, Mr. Clinton brings back to the Obama administration, says Daniel Pinkston, an analyst in Seoul, South Korea, for the International Crisis Group. But knocking the visit as detrimental to regional diplomacy is a stretch, given that six-party talks are in hiatus and relations are so frayed. “The situation is already so bad that I don’t think that this visit could make it worse,” he says.

Still, US allies in Asia are seeking reassurances that the US isn’t giving into North Korean demands for bilateral nuclear-disarmament talks. So far, US officials have publicly resisted, arguing that North Korea should return to the six-party talks that bring together China, Japan, Russia, the US, and North and South Korea. That stance has been welcomed by negotiating parties, who were told in advance of the visit.

Clinton’s brief stop in Pyongyang made him the highest-level US visitor since President Carter in 1994. That was a propaganda coup for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, who is in poor health and trying to ensure his succession, according to experts on the secretive regime.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, the Obama administration conceded to the DPRK in exchange for the release of the two journalists.  One hopes nothing more than some face time with a former president and a face-saving way of getting themselves out of a hole.

More importantly, what happens now matters.  Manning is right:   “Diplomacy is a means, not an end.” Does Kim back away from his nuclear program and play by the rules of civilized nations?  I’m skeptical, to say the least, given his history and that of his father.  

But it’s worth finding out whether we have anything to talk about.

Correction:  A colleague notes, correctly, that the journalists were in fact crossing the North Korean border illegally.  While neither he nor I condone the Kim regime’s overreaction, it was, as Doug Paal reminded us yesterday, par for the course and therefore a foreseeable risk.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: James Joyner