Did Clinton Promise Anything in North Korea?

After former President Bill Clinton returned from North Korea — with the two journalists who had been taken prisoner while near the North Korean border while on assignment for Al Gore’s tv company — the feel-good moment was tinged with doubt.  

Did Mr. Clinton promise anything to North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il and the rulers of the “Hermit Kingdom” in return for the release of the two Americans?

Although no one wants to dampen the joy over their homecoming, it is a fair question.  Certainly my colleagues in the White House Press Corps speculated about it during the week the world cheered Clinton and Current TV’s Laura Ling and Euna Lee.  Did Clinton, for example, discuss with Kim the restoration of the broken industrial partnership with South Korea?  Did the 42nd President bring up possible bilateral talks on nuclear arms control between Washington and Pyongyang? This question causing major anxiety at the Blue House (South Korea’s presidential residence), Seoul fearing they would be cut out of the arms control picture under the circumstances and desperately wanting North Korea to return to the six-party talks.

Or did he bring any message back from Kim Jong-Il to Barack Obama — perhaps about something sensitive, such as North Korea’s nuclear tests and firing of missiles over Japan?  

Perhaps the most poignant observation about whether Clinton did something more than meets the eye in North Korea came from my friend and veteran South Korean journalist Janne Pak when she told me: “[Clinton] may be going as a ‘private citizen’ or ‘humanitarian,’ but not just any ‘private citizen’ gets cleared to get in that country!”

Janne’s skepticism was echoed by Christopher Caldwell of the Financial Times, who concluded: “[I]f it were a humanitarian effort, the US would have sent Angelina Jolie or some priest.  It was not a humanitarian effort.  It was a diplomatic effort.”  

Gibbs Weaves and Bobs

Last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was repeatedly peppered with questions as to whether Clinton promised anything or there was a quid pro quo for the release of Ling and Luna.

Noting that Obama and Clinton had talked briefly and would have a further conversation before the President left for Mexico, AP’s Jennifer Loven asked Gibbs whether he had any indications “that North Koreans want anything in return for the pardon [of Ling and Luna]?”.

“I haven’t been party to these negotiations and I haven’t heard anything,” Gibbs replied

As to whether the Clinton mission would mean other rogue states (such as Iran) would merit similar visits of such a high-level American in “a similar situation,” the President’s top spokesman insisted that he had “described this and others as separate from the concerns about North Korea, its nuclear policy, its provocative international actions.”

“This was a private humanitarian mission with only the goal of bringing back two journalists to safety,” Gibbs said, again repeating the Administration mantra, “I don’t read a lot of precedent into it.  I know the President is enormously thankful and grateful for the work that President Clinton did on this and his willingness to undertake such an important mission.  But that’s what this was about.”  
Thoughts from “Old Korea Hands”

What Don Oberdorfer has to say about South and North Korea is usually listened to.  Long the Northeast Asian correspondent for the Washington Post, Oberdorfer has had unparalleled access to the top leadership in both Pyongyang and Seoul.  His book The Two Koreas is considered one of the definitive works on the Korean peninsula.

When I asked Oberdorfer whether he felt Clinton promised anything to Kim Jong-il, he told me: “Who knows?  If his meetings [with Kim Jong-il] mean more contact with Pyongyang, then, yes, it was good.  It’s good to have outside air blowing into that country — little to risk and a lot to be gained.  You can’t do anything about North Korea until contact is good.”

Don Kirk, former USA Today and International Herald Tribune correspondent and author of two books on the Koreas, told me he doesn’t believe Clinton promised anything directly because “he didn’t have the authority to do so.  He’s not going to cut any deal.  The North Korean government was probably satisfied with such a high-level American visitor.  But I’m sure there’s some disappointment in South Korea, which has a lot of citizens captured by the North and imprisoned.  Their choibols (major businesses) would pay millions to get them back but Pyongyang won’t deal with them.  ”

Chris Nelson, whose Nelson Report is read carefully by those concerned about Japan, the Koreas, and all things Asian, noted the New York Times report that Clinton did raise the issue with Pyongyang of abducted South Korean and Japanese citizens. This shows, Nelson believes, that lessons have been learned “of the alienation problem which hurt then-lead US negotiator Chris Hill in the final year of the Bush Administration — that at critical points, neither Japan nor South Korea trusted the US to keep them and their interests. . .in the loop.”  

But Nelson also cited his own confidential source that "Blue House officials are extremely worried about the Clinton trip.  They suspect two things: one, that bilateral talks will resume and that they will be asked to play a constructive role; and two, that due to their almost non-existent leverage, they will be marginalized in any expanding dialogue.  This is obviously one reason why they are so relentless about [maintaining] the Six Party framework.”  

Clinton is the first former American President to visit Pyongyang and meet its leadership since Jimmy Carter went there in March of 1993 and became one of the last outsiders to meet Kim Il-Sung (father of Kim Jong-Il and Joseph Stalin’s handpicked choice to run North Korea when the Communist state was born after World War II).  

“North Korea announced it would pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a dangerous confrontation loomed,” recalled the Financial Times’ Caldwell,  “. . Carter was sent to avert it.  He did, by negotiating the following year, a halt to Pyongyang’s reprocessing of nuclear fuel.  Now that North Korea has exploded two nuclear bombs, the time bought appears to have been better used by the dictatorship than by its adversaries.”