August 17, 2009

August 17, 2009 | Commentary on Asia, Southeast Asia

Success, But at What Cost?

It would be heartless not to welcome the release of two U.S. hostages from North Korea's malevolent clutches. Pyongyang's imposition of a sentence of 12 years of hard labor on journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee for trespassing into North Korea was an egregiously disproportionate response. All hope for their full and speedy recovery from their ordeal.

That said, there are serious concerns for the safety of North Korean and Chinese sources that the two journalists may have compromised during their ill-advised jaunt. The reporters were captured with videotapes, photographs and notebooks that could lead to the identification, arrest and execution of North Korean refugees and those assisting them.

A BBC interview with a member of a nongovernmental organization along the China-North Korea border claimed that the journalists "didn't cover the faces of the North Koreans they interviewed." There are also indications that Chinese authorities have resumed crackdowns on North Korean refugees in northeast China due to the publicity generated by their capture.

Former President Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea to retrieve the journalists has been criticized as negotiating with terrorists and rewarding bad behavior. But far more important than these issues are the signals that were inadvertently sent and the precedents that may have been established for future negotiations.

The Obama administration has made the proper and requisite comments that Clinton's visit was an unofficial humanitarian mission that was firmly separated from the nuclear issue. Yet, despite best efforts not to send a signal, the Obama administration sent several.

First, Clinton's trip will be perceived as tacit U.S. acceptance of North Korea's belligerent behavior. It will also reinforce North Korean perceptions that their strategy of alternating brinkmanship with seemingly conciliatory gestures remains effective. Barely four months after North Korea violated UN resolutions by testing a long-range missile and exploding a nuclear device, the U.S. acquiesced to Pyongyang's demand to send a former president to meet with Kim Jong-il. Clinton's visit signals to Iran, Syria, Myanmar and other rogue regimes that a country can disregard the UN and eventually be rewarded.

Clinton's presence is particularly symbolic since it completes North Korea's trifecta goal of having the leaders of the great powers come to Pyongyang to pay homage to Kim Jong-il. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Clinton had been on the verge of agreeing to a summit in Pyongyang at the end of his presidency in 2000.

Second, the trip to Pyongyang will be interpreted as a policy reversal by the Obama administration, namely an abandonment of the hard-line policy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in favor of a return to the engagement policy of President Bill Clinton. It raises questions as to what other policy changes might ensue, such as accepting North Korea as a nuclear state or a less vigorous U.S. enforcement of financial sanctions. Or do the apparently conflicting North Korea policy signals reflect a divided administration reminiscent of the warring factions of the Bush administration?

Third, the visit suggests the Obama administration is resorting to high-level bilateral dialogue to resolve U.S. concerns at the expense of insisting upon multilateral negotiations to address issues of import to South Korea and Japan. Despite U.S. reassurances, the allies remain wary that Washington will diplomatically finesse previously sacrosanct preconditions in order to entice Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

Already U.S. and South Korean pundits are claiming that the release of the journalists was a diplomatic breakthrough indicative of a more benevolent and accommodating North Korea. Media articles have advocated responding to the North Korean gesture with a reciprocal U.S. concession and a softening of UN sanctions.

There have even been suggestions for a return to musical diplomacy by allowing the Pyongyang Symphony Orchestra to play in New York. Last year's performance of the New York Philharmonic in North Korea was naively described as a "16-inch broadside of soft power into the hearts and minds of the North Korean people."

North Korea had several objectives for seeking a visit by Bill Clinton. First, it provided the opportunity to show that Kim Jong-il is healthy and remains in control. Second, Pyongyang signaled it was willing to continue nuclear negotiations, albeit bilaterally with the U.S. and under North Korean conditions. Third, by showing that high-level dialogue was successful, Pyongyang sought to lay the groundwork for a future summit meeting with President Obama.

Fourth, the regime sought to mitigate the effectiveness of UN sanctions by undermining international consensus on their need. Fifth, releasing the U.S. prisoners would increase domestic criticism of President Lee Myung-bak for failing to secure the freedom of South Korean abductees.

The Obama administration should not allow itself to be pressured into abandoning international punitive measures levied in response to North Korean violations of UN resolutions. To be effective, the UN sanctions require firm implementation by many nations. However, some countries may now question the utility of pressuring North Korea when the U.S. is willing to dispatch a former president to conduct deals.

The U.S. should continue to insist on North Korea's complete compliance with UN resolutions as well as its commitment to its six-party talks pledges to completely and verifiably abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

The inherent danger is that North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear weapons and missile-delivery capabilities.

Bruce Klingner, is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia, Southeast Asia

First Appeared in JoongAng Ilbo