It can’t be helped that Bill Clinton’s presence in Pyongyang sends a message. Another, less prestigious envoy may have been more appropriate. But he’s there, and it looks like he will be bringing the reporters home. Certainly that is cause for celebration. Unfortunately, there is no doubt that Kim Jong-il will see such a high level visit as a win, providing him incentive to perpetuate provocative action, including the ongoing development of missile technology and atomic weapons. The photo-ops of the trip already point to this.
The greater danger, however, is that past mistakes will be repeated. In 1994, as now, pressure was building on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Former President Jimmy Carter came to the rescue. He came back with an offer from Kim Jong-il’s father to freeze the program. In exchange, the then Clinton Administration dropped its effort to bring pressure to bear on North Korea and began down a road that led to the ill-fated 1994 Framework Agreement, an agreement that, among other things, promised delivery to North Korea of two nuclear power plants and heavy fuel oil. In 2002, it was discovered that they were cheating on their end of the agreement.
So, while Clinton’s presence and the North Korean “pardon” indicate a likely breakthrough in backchannel negotiations that will result in the release of the two female American journalists held since March, it is imperative that the complete and verifiable abandonment of its nuclear weapons programs remain the only basis for moving forward in the broader relationship with North Korea. In the meantime, the sanctions provided for under U.N. resolutions must be enforced with full cooperation from other U.N. member nations. If anything, the US should be looking for ways to strengthen those provisions and continue pursuing its own unilateral sanction efforts.
As important as it is to secure the return of captives in North Korea, the world, and Kim in particular, must have no misunderstanding that the United States may be so easily derailed from its commitment to the aforementioned objectives. Hopefully, the only concession made to Kim was a chance in front of the cameras with a former president and husband of the secretary of state.