Op-Ed: Does Journalist Release Buy N. Korea Time?

'Mr. Clinton Goes To Pyongyang'

Read Gordon Chang's op-ed in The Wall Street Journal

Former President Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea won the release of two American journalists who were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, author Gordon Chang contends that the journalists' release could give North Korean leader Kim Jong Il more time to develop a nuclear arsenal.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Laura Ling and Euna Lee returned home to California this morning. They faced sentences of 12 years hard labor in North Korea until former President Clinton flew to Pyongyang a couple of days ago.

Ms. LAURA LING (Current TV): When we walked in through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. LING: We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end.

CONAN: President Obama expressed enormous relief at the journalists' freedom. But Gordon Chang wonders what price may have been paid for that release. In an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, he argues that Clinton's trip may have been a mistake and that this is not the time to throw North Korea a lifeline. North Korea clearly took the visit as validation from the U.S. and as a step towards recognition as a nuclear power.

So does the Clinton trip make things better or worse? Give us a call: 800-989-8255; email: talk@npr.org. Gordon Chang wrote the book "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World." He joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. GORDON CHANG (Author): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And to be clear, I should point out you begin your article by pointing out that everybody should be happy that Laura Ling and Euna Lee were released.

Mr. CHANG: Oh, certainly. I mean, this is - you know, we had a terrific photo opportunity. People have been talking about Kim Jong Il wanting Bill Clinton to go to Pyongyang for their photo opportunities. Well, we had a better one. What we had was an American government rescuing American citizens, doing all it can to help people. And I'm sure that our opportunity, our photo opportunity, resonates with people of the world much better than theirs.

CONAN: Nevertheless, you point out that there are Japanese who have been held in North Korea for much, much, much longer than these two women, and that the United States has recently been pressing the Japanese government not do anything about them, to put that case on the backburner for fear of messing up diplomatic negotiations.

Mr. CHANG: Yes. The Bush administration lectured Tokyo's diplomats about not letting the abductee crisis - North Korea abducted some Japanese citizens - not letting the abductee crisis overpower the nuclear negotiations and to put it in the background. Well, now the shoe is on the other foot because the people who were imprisoned were Americans.

And the question is, what did the Bush - what did the Obama administration promise the North Koreans? What concessions will it make? We don't know. At this point the White House has said that there are none. But the White House has also said that Bill Clinton did talk about nuclear issues. So this raises a whole issue of what's going to happen going forward.

CONAN: The White House said, as you mentioned, that President Clinton carried no message from President Obama. The North Koreans said he did. And that if there were any discussions on any other issues than the journalists, that was -well, Bill Clinton, private citizen.

Mr. CHANG: Yes. But Bill Clinton is not a private citizen. He is a former president of the United States. I think there probably was something that President Obama did say to the North Koreans for President Clinton. It would be very unusual if it weren't. And I'm not saying that that by itself is inappropriate. It's not. It depends what the message is.

And what we're going to do is we're going to find out. As the nuclear talks between North Korea and the rest of the world continue, we will see what was said, if anything, in this last three or four months as the United States tried to free the two journalists.

CONAN: And the point that North Korea sees the two issues as linked, the release of the journalists and the nuclear issue, as you point out in the piece, well, exemplified by the fact that their nuclear negotiator was among those greeting former President Clinton at the airport.

Mr. CHANG: There are very few coincidences in North Korea, and I'm sure that was not one of them.

CONAN: And we think of - I mean, it's said frequently in journalese shorthand that President Clinton went to negotiate their release. Clearly, their release had been negotiated ahead of time. He went there to secure their release. His visit was the quid before the pro of their release.

Mr. CHANG: Yes, certainly. Someone of President Clinton's stature doesn't go to North Korea unless everything has been completely settled beforehand, and he shouldn't. So I think that, you know, in this case there were intense discussions between the United States and the North Koreans in New York and in Washington and through the Swedes. And basically, this was all figured out before President Clinton got on the plane.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. We don't know what was discussed. We don't know what messages were passed. But nevertheless, was the visit of President Clinton a good thing or a bad thing? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Did it help or hurt, I guess, is the way I - we should phrase it.

Adrienne(ph) joins us from Portland, Oregon.

ADRIENNE (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

ADRIENNE: Really, what I wanted to speak to was the fact that, who else are you going to send, really. You can't send Bob the diplomat because Kim Jong Il isn't even going to see that guy.

CONAN: Well, apparently, they rejected Al Gore as an envoy.

ADRIENNE: Right. Well, and Bill Clinton is, you know, he has, you know, he's sort of sexier and more prestigious. And I don't understand this notion of how that is indulging Kim Jong Il, and as far as, you know, whatever propaganda he can spread in his country. No one's going to be any of the wiser. He could say that he's, you know, betrothed to Hillary Clinton and his people aren't going to know any different. So I don't really see how sending Bill Clinton, who has no, really - he's not in the political position to make any promises himself -how that's indulging Kim Jong Il?

Mr. CHANG: Well, there are a couple things here. People have been making the points and there are some validity to them - that the North Koreans are going to use the photos from the meeting to show that here, Bill Clinton, citizen of the world, came to Pyongyang to talk about wide variety of issues - and it wasn't held in Washington, it was held in North Korea - that the world is coming to North Korea to discuss these things. This is certainly going to be used to prop up the regime and also to prop up Kim Jong Il's position in that regime. I think that that's pretty undeniable.

The other issue is that North Korea - since April 5, when it launched a long-range missile - has engaged in a number of provocations. And the question is whether those provocations are so serious that we should not do anything to help legitimize the regime. I tend to think, well, if we didn't make any promises on the North - on the nuclear issue, at least getting the women back was very, very important. And that's what governments do. And so, sometimes, you have to undermine your security on a short-term basis to achieve other more important goals.

ADRIENNE: Right. But that's what I'm saying, it's that I don't think security can possibly be undermined. And as far as taking it to North Korea, the rest of the world isn't so unintelligent to, you know, not realize that this is just what had to be done to save the lives of two girls, so I don think it really infuses any power to Kim Jong Il to go to him to retrieve what's ours.

CONAN: But…

Mr. CHANG: Yeah. But it - this is not an issue like the rest of the world thinks. This is the issue of how it's going to be played inside North Korea, where you're dealing with an insecure totalitarian regime.

ADRIENNE: Oh, absolutely. But he tells his people what he wants anyway, regardless of what - what actually goes on.

CONAN: Yeah. But he also - he does have the picture. And as you point out, Gordon Chang, this is a vulnerable moment in North Korea, with the leader, Kim Jong Il, clearly ill.

Mr. CHANG: Definitely. I mean, he's got - depending on whom you believe. He's got pancreatic cancer, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure. The most recent rumor is that he's going under dialysis three times a week. His chosen successor is his 26-year-old son.

This is a very - risky time for the Kim family, because it's unlikely that a 26-year-old can survive the rough and tumble of North Korean politics if dad, Kim Jong Il, is not around.

CONAN: Adrienne, thanks very much for the call.

ADRIENNE: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Mike. Mike in Gilbert, Arizona.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon, all.

CONAN: Good.

MIKE: Pretty good discussion. My initial response is, beginning yesterday, was why is the lead phrase of the release of these two journalists always - what have we given away? Instead of, one, isn't it amazing we actually got some people away from a regime that is known to be highly irrational - and work at it from that point? Instead of, well, if Bill Clinton went there, then we must have given them something.

Mr. CHANG: Well, I think the answer to that question, and it's a great question, is because if you look at the last six decades of relations between North Korea and the United States - in other words, after the Korean War - we have given the North Koreans a lot of things and have gotten little in return.

In negotiations with the North Koreans, they generally have come out on top. And part of it is because we sort of try to give gestures of friendship, we try to sort of build goodwill, and the North Koreans don't return it.

The most recent example is during the end of the Bush administration, when we ended financial sanctions, and the North Koreans promptly turned around and ended their participation in the six-party talks and said that they were a legitimate nuclear power and they couldn't talk to anybody about that. I mean, it was just a classic example of our trying to be good guys in a sense and getting slapped in the face.

MIKE: Mr. Chang, I understand that and actually followed a lot of that while it was occurring. And it sounds very much as though you're right. There was a quid without a pro. The - which would be kind of an indictment of how things were handled by the administration with the North Korean regime - whereas, at least, we've got thee two journalists, who I don't think were guilty of anything substantial, out of the hands of regime that has kept - has kidnapped people and kept them for 40 or 50 years. This is a good thing.

CONAN: Yes, it is. But…

MIKE: And with a former president - yes, he's got lots of star power. It gives a nice little photo op. The contrast between the two is actually almost funny if you look at the pictures. I'm not sure how far an irrational regime can take the contrast and end the photo ops. I have no comment on that.

CONAN: I'm not sure we're - they're going to see too many - too much of the American photo op in North Korea. And I made the same mistake earlier, Mike, so I don't feel bad about just a slight correction. There's no quid without a quo. The pro is the middle part of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But anyway, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get one more caller in quickly. And this is Tom(ph). Tom with us from Roanoke, Virginia.

TOM (Caller): Hello. I think it was a bad idea because of what - where we would be today if something had gone wrong. If, for example, the plane had crashed and - tell me if this is a bad comparison - with Carter in Iran. If those helicopters had made it, he would be a hero today.

Mr. CHANG: Mm-hmm.

TOM: Whereas if something had disastrously gone wrong, even nothing military, but just an accident, imagine what the situation would be today.

CONAN: Gordon Chang, was it too risky?

Mr. CHANG: Well, I don't think it was too risky because I think it really was a deal that had been settled before President Clinton got on the plane. Clearly, President Clinton had the blessing of the administration. And the comparison usually is, when you talk about Jimmy Carter and President Clinton, is when Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang in June of 1994, because that time he was freelancing, he didn't have the blessing of the State Department, certainly did not have the blessing of the Clinton White House and essentially ran away with American diplomacy.

Some people thought the result was good - maybe not. But the point is that President Clinton was working with the Obama administration very closely, and he didn't do anything that was unauthorized as far as we know. As I said, there have been some conversations in Pyongyang, apparently, about issues other than the two journalists, and that is cause for a concern.

CONAN: Tom, I'm afraid we're out of time, but thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

TOM: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: You can find a link to Gordon Chang's op-ed at our Web site, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He's the author of the book "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World," and a columnist for Forbes.com, with us today from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much.

Mr. CHANG: Thank you.

CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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