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Pressure Point
The release of two American journalists is no reason to ease up on North Korea.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

AMERICAN journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee are free from North Korea and safe in the arms of their families once again. Hats off to former president Bill Clinton for his tactful performance while retrieving them from Kim Jong Il. He achieved a happy ending to a terrible drama that began in March when the two women, reporters for former vice president Al Gore's Current TV who were working on a story about North Korean refugees in China, were arrested for allegedly straying into that country's hermetically sealed territory. They faced the prospect of a dozen years in Mr. Kim's notorious gulag.

One question for U.S. foreign policy is whether Washington paid an acceptable price for the release of what were, in effect, hostages of the North Korean regime. The Obama administration says that Mr. Clinton's mission was a private humanitarian one and denies North Korean claims that he delivered an "apology" from Washington. Still, the administration paid political ransom, both by acceding to Mr. Kim's demand for an American envoy of the former president's stature and by accepting a "pardon" for the journalists rather than unconditional release. "The two journalists and their families have expressed great remorse for this incident, and I think everyone is very sorry that it happened," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last month -- which was not quite an official apology but did implicitly accept the North Korean case against the two, including their "confessions."

These are not ideal signals to send, either to North Korea or to other hostage-taking, repressive states. But the Obama administration did not cross the line between placating North Korea and capitulating to it. The important thing was not to adjust U.S. policy on the nuclear issue in return for the hostages; so far the administration seems to have avoided that. Mrs. Clinton reiterated Wednesday that Mr. Kim's audience with her husband was not a prelude to meeting North Korea's demand for direct talks outside the regional framework that includes Japan, South Korea, China and Russia. The administration will have to back that up by insisting on full enforcement of U.N. sanctions, which were toughened two months ago in response to North Korea's recent nuclear test and missile launches. China and Russia back the sanctions, a departure from their past indulgence that might also explain Pyongyang's desire to behave more tractably.

For 15 years, North Korea has been stringing Washington and other governments along, pocketing billions of dollars in aid without fully complying with commitments to denuclearize. Mr. Obama is right not to repurchase concessions that North Korea has sold before.

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