Korean Central News Agency/AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton (unseen) in Pyonggyang, North Korea, Aug. 4.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton (unseen) in Pyonggyang, North Korea, Aug. 4. Korean Central News Agency/AP
Returning from an extraordinary diplomatic mission to North Korea, former President Bill Clinton brought back more than two American journalists freed from detention in Pyongyang.
At the least, analysts say, Clinton gathered useful insights into the outward appearance of the "Dear Leader" — ailing North Korean President Kim Jong Il — and the posture of his shadowy regime.
And Clinton may be able to provide the Obama administration with perspective on the question resonating since his trip was disclosed on Monday: Does this open any new opportunities for bringing North Korea back to the bargaining table?
Reporters Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32, were reunited with their families Wednesday after a nearly five-month ordeal that began with their arrest near the North Korea-China border on March 17.
Aside from the dramatic events of the journalists' release, Korea watchers were intrigued to learn that Clinton engaged in more than an hour of direct talks with Kim Jong Il, followed by a two-hour dinner. The length of the meetings suggests that the two men talked about issues other than the two journalists' release.
A Mission With Meaning
"Officially it may be true that this was just a private mission," says Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Columbia University. "But the fact that Clinton was the emissary, a man who negotiated a lot with North Korea during his term, suggests that there may have been more."
Clinton was met at the airport Tuesday morning in Pyongyang by senior officials, led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who also serves as the regime's chief nuclear negotiator.
Some Korea watchers, including a former U.S. envoy to the United Nations, John Bolton, saw significance in the move, drawing a link between Clinton's visit and the issue of North Korea's nuclear aspirations.
"North Korea loves to talk about its nuclear program," Bolton told NPR's Madeleine Brand on Wednesday's All Things Considered.
Bolton says years of negotiations have failed to deter North Korea. "It gives it time to improve that program. It gives it legitimacy. Negotiations are something that almost entirely benefits North Korea and doesn't result in coming any closer to the objective of eliminating the nuclear weapons program," he said.
The Obama administration has stressed that Clinton's mission was private and no messages were carried by Clinton. The White House denied that there was any effort to create new diplomatic openings with North Korea.
The former president's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said during her Africa trip Wednesday that her husband's visit was not an overture for broader talks.
She said the U.S. has always considered the journalists' release "a totally separate issue from our efforts to re-engage the North Koreans and have them return to the six-party talks."
The six-party talks are the long-running negotiations involving the U.S., North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, in an effort to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. North Korea announced this summer that it was withdrawing from the talks and reactivating its uranium enrichment effort.
Rewarding Bad Behavior?
Critics like Bolton argued that former President Clinton's mission would be seen as a reward for North Korea's bad behavior, but Armstrong says it was necessary. "I think this was possibly the only way to break through this logjam that we've been in with North Korea for the past several months. What it takes is high-level, bilateral discussions on substantive issues. This is how North Korea has to be dealt with now," Armstrong says.
Armstrong argues that the core of the conflict is a bilateral confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea dating from the Korean War. He says the only way to solve it is with bilateral talks.
"For the U.S. the most important issue is freezing North Korea's nuclear program. For North Korea, they constantly talk about the hostile relationship with the U.S. that needs to be solved, and that probably means signing an agreement that ends the war after more than 60 years," he says.
Joining The Nuclear Club
But Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says North Korea's history of broken commitments and belligerence suggests that further talks are unlikely to yield much at any level.
"The idea that negotiations are the pathway to solving the problems that we face with [North Korea] seems difficult to swallow, given the history of the past 20 years," Eberstadt says. "We have to entertain seriously that [North Korea] intends to be a nuclear weapons state, and that it's preparing to fight and win a limited nuclear exchange with the U.S."
In that case, he says, U.S. objectives "would be better served by pursuing a threat-reduction paradigm than [by] hoping for the elimination of North Korea's nuclear program some sunny day in the future."
That means increasing South Korea's defenses, Eberstadt says, including missile defense, and international police work to squeeze North Korea's sources of illegal income.
When he is debriefed by Obama administration officials, Clinton will almost certainly be asked for his impressions of the health of the North Korean leader, who is believed to have suffered a stroke last year and has looked frail in recent photographs. But many analysts do not think Kim Jong Il's health is likely to be a significant factor in the country's near-term foreign policy.
"Kim doesn't look great," says Armstrong. "But he doesn't seem to be as incapacitated as we thought, so it's just as well that we begin talks with Kim now."