Has Clinton Charted New Course With North Korea?

As he secured the release of two American journalists, former President Bill Clinton met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Ill and other high level officials. To find out whether the Clinton visit could help to ease tensions between U.S. and North Korea, Linda Wertheimer talks with David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

While the two journalists have been freed, North Korea remains a difficult problem for the Obama administration. Let's get some analysis now from David Sanger. He is the chief Washington correspondent, for The New York Times. And he is here in our studio. Good morning.

Mr. DAVID SANGER (Chief Correspondent, The New York Times): Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you, when former President Bill Clinton left on his trip to North Korea, the freeing of the two American journalists was already - had already been laid on. So, despite the administration's denials, do - could we assume that this visit was perhaps about other things for other purposes as well?

Mr. SANGER: Well, certainly for Kim Jong-il, who is ailing, who wanted Bill Clinton to come visit at the very end of his presidency in 2000, when they nearly got to a missile deal. This was very much about creating the same kind of image that his father Kim il-sung had in 1994, when Jimmy Carter came to diffuse, what was probably that one moment when we were closest to war with North Korea than at any points since the end of the Korean War in the early 50s.

So, having Bill Clinton, having North Korean people see that a former American president has come to pay homage to this ailing leader was, I think, what this was all about for him. For the Obama administration, it may just have been about creating some kind of opening.

WERTHEIMER: So, he was met in Pyongyang but North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, among others, and this is a tense moment between the U.S. and North Korea over the nuclear program. So, does that mean, do you think, that they talked about it?

Mr. SANGER: You know, we'll have to wait until the entourage has landed back here and we begin to get readouts about what they discussed. But they had a meeting that went for over an hour; they had a dinner at the Korean guesthouse that went for over two hours.

Now, maybe they spent the time discussing movies, which is one of Kim Jong-Il's favorite subjects. But I have a funny feeling the nuclear program probably came up.

WERTHEIMER: This high-profile visit that Kim Jong-Il wants for whatever reason, to sort of dignify his passage, perhaps, does it change anything?

Mr. SANGER: No, it probably doesn't change anything in that both countries are in a little bit of a cul-de-sac here. You know, North Korea was this strategic surprise for the Obama administration.

They thought they were just going to pickup what they got handed by the Bush administration. And in fact, what happened in the opening months, by April, was a set of missile tests and then a second nuclear test, and the North Korean announcement that they weren't interested in pursuing this whole six-nation set of conversations.

So, we're left with a case of, you know, pretty firm nuclear breakout in which the Obama administration has said we're not going to reward you again for giving up what you gave up during the Bush administration.

WERTHEIMER: But on the other hand, Bill Clinton did go over there. It does look, if you're sitting in North Korea, like something happened; that the North Koreans wanted.

Mr. SANGER: It does. But you have to remember that while we got the release of these two journalists, we're still stuck with a North Korea that is in the midst of a succession crisis. And that may be the dynamic that is really driving how North Korea responds. In the midst of a succession crisis, it seems unlikely that anyone would want to be seen to be giving into the United States.

WERTHEIMER: So, did the Obama administration lose ground, lose face here?

Mr. SANGER: No, I don't think they lost anything. Because prior to yesterday, we had had essentially no contact with the North Koreans since President Obama came in. So, at least you had President Clinton, I assume at a minimum, restating what the Obama administration policy is going to be and presumably doing it in a friendly and welcoming way that perhaps might draw Kim Jong-Il out.

But we just don't know at this point whether Kim Jong-Il is in shape to pursue a real diplomatic engagement.

WERTHEIMER: Do we have any idea - very quickly - about what the succession will be?

Mr. SANGER: Well, Kim Jong-Il has indicated that his son, who's in his mid-20s and was educated in Switzerland, would be his successor. What we don't know is whether or not the North Korean military will put up with that. Because they're believed to be unhappy with the idea of a now third generation of a family dynasty running the country.

WERTHEIMER: David Sanger, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. SANGER: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: David Sanger is chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, and the author of "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power."

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WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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