Former President Bill Clinton arrived in Los Angeles Wednesday with journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee who, just hours earlier, had been prisoners of Kim Jong-il’s North Korean regime. Every American should be relieved that Lee and Ling are home safe, but Americans should also know that this is not the first time North Korea has captured Americans and been rewarded with a high-ranking American envoy.
In 1994 and then again in 1996, then-Congressman Bill Richardson met with the North Korean regime to free American prisoners. The danger is not just again rewarding North Korea’s Mafiaesque behavior with a legitimizing photo-op, but also what else Clinton conveyed to North Korea in their “exhaustive conservation.” Heritage Asian Studies Center senior research fellow Bruce Klingner elaborates:
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 Washington.
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 regime.
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 proliferation.