This morning, former President William J. Clinton arrived in
North Korea on a surprise mission to obtain the release of two
jailed U.S. reporters. It is likely that Clinton's trip will serve
as the catalyst for Pyongyang to release the journalists, the
culmination of months of quiet bilateral diplomacy. Recent U.S.
statements indirectly admitting the guilt of the reporters and
sending a senior-level envoy are consistent with previous U.S.
actions that led Pyongyang to release American citizens who had
illegally entered into North Korea.
While gaining the freedom of the two journalists would be a
welcome development, Clinton's mission risks undermining ongoing
international efforts to pressure North Korea to abandon its
nuclear weapons. The Obama Administration should have instead
insisted on resolving the issue through existing diplomatic
channels, including special envoy Ambassador Stephen Bosworth.
Clinton may be tempted to freelance U.S. diplomacy, negotiating
his own vision of a nuclear agreement with North Korea, as former
President Jimmy Carter disastrously did in 1994. Even if Clinton
focuses solely on gaining the release of the journalists, China and
Russia would seize upon any perceived diplomatic "breakthrough"
with North Korea as justification for rescinding sanctions imposed
against Pyongyang for repeatedly violating U.N. resolutions.
Abandoning these punitive measures prior to North Korea taking
meaningful steps to comply with U.N. resolutions would mark a
dangerous weakening of international resolve to secure complete
North Korean denuclearization. The Obama Administration must ensure
that former President Clinton remains constrained by narrowly
defined negotiating parameters and insist that the issues of the
two U.S. journalists and North Korean compliance with U.N.
resolutions be seen as clearly separate issues.
Progress on Attaining Reporters'
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subtly
altered the Obama Administration's position toward the jailed
reporters. Previously, Washington had demanded their release on
humanitarian grounds, dismissing the charges against the reporters
as baseless. Following the reporters' public admission of guilt in
mid-July, Secretary Clinton requested North Korea provide them
amnesty, thus acknowledging wrongdoing. She emphasized that the two
reporters had expressed "great remorse for the incident" and that
"everyone is very sorry that it happened." U.S. diplomatic sources
privately confirmed that Secretary Clinton's comments were meant as
a signal to Pyongyang.
The contrite U.S. statements, coupled with the prestige of
sending a former President as an envoy, might provide Pyongyang
with sufficient reason to release the reporters. Both the U.S. and
North Korea have maintained a low-key response to the arrest of the
journalists and neither government linked their fate to the nuclear
issue. North Korea announced the reporters had not yet been sent to
a prison to serve their 12-year sentence of hard labor but instead
were residing in a guesthouse.
In both 1994 and 1996, North Korea arrested U.S. citizens who
had strayed into North Korea. In both instances, a form of U.S.
apology and the dispatch of then-Congressman Bill Richardson as
presidential envoy caused North Korea to release the Americans.
Sending a Signal, Intended or Not
The presence of Bill Clinton is rife with symbolism and will be
parsed for suggestions of a change in policy by both North Korea
and the Obama Administration. At the tail end of his presidency,
Clinton was on the verge of agreeing to travel to Pyongyang for a
summit meeting with Kim Jong-il to sign an agreement constricting
North Korea's missile programs. Pyongyang's failure to make
progress in preparatory meetings with U.S. officials doomed the
Clinton was greeted at the airport by Kim Kye-kwan, North
Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, generating speculation that
Pyongyang seeks to use his visit as a springboard to establishing
bilateral dialogue with the Obama Administration. North Korea has
abandoned the six-party talks but indicated it is amenable to
discussing its nuclear weapons programs bilaterally with
North Korea's agreement to receive Clinton will be
misinterpreted as a signal that Pyongyang is now willing to resume
nuclear negotiations, perhaps because it feels sufficiently
comfortable on establishing its leadership succession plans.
Pyongyang will continue to insist, however, on preconditions
unacceptable to the U.S., such as first being accepted as a nuclear
weapons state and Washington reducing its military posture toward
The Obama Administration's acquiescence to sending Bill Clinton,
when it had reportedly rejected requests from Bill Richardson and
former Vice President Al Gore, will raise speculation over possible
policy reversals on this and other North Korean issues. Will the
Obama Administration accept less than it previously insisted upon
in order to make progress with North Korea? U.S. allies South Korea
and Japan remain exceedingly nervous that Obama will eventually
abandon the U.S. policy of denuclearizing North Korea and accept a
lower standard of merely preventing future nuclear
U.S. Should Remain Resolute on Full Compliance
Clinton's visit has roiled the North Korean policy waters beyond
their already tumultuous state. There are great uncertainties over
North Korean and U.S. intentions, escalating the risk of
miscalculation, confrontation, and crisis.
The Obama Administration should make it clear that while freeing
the U.S. journalists removes a potential friction point between the
U.S. and North Korea, it does not serve as a substitute for
Pyongyang's full compliance with U.N. Resolutions 1874 and 1718.
Washington should continue to insist that North Korea express its
clear commitment to abide by all of its previous six-party talks
pledges to completely and verifiably abandon its nuclear weapons
Until North Korea does so, Washington should continue to press
the United Nations member states to fully implement the
counter-proliferation and financial sanctions required under U.N.
resolutions. Pressuring North Korea, while concurrently holding
open the potential for the regime to receive significant benefits
if it abandons its nuclear weapons, offers the most viable
potential for resolving the North Korean nuclear problem.
Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.