The Policy Fallout From Bill Clinton's Trip to North Korea

Laura Ling, top, and Euna Lee arrive in California.
Laura Ling, top, and Euna Lee arrive in California. (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
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By Henry A. Kissinger
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Amid the widespread relief that American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee have avoided the brutal fate meted out to them by a North Korean court, it may seem captious to consider the long-term implications of President Bill Clinton's trip.

The impulse to save two young women from 12 years of hard labor in a North Korean gulag is powerful. Yet now that this goal has been achieved, we need to balance the emotions of the moment against the precedent for the future.

It is inherent in hostage situations that potentially heartbreaking human conditions are used to overwhelm policy judgments. Therein lies the bargaining strength of the hostage-taker. On the other hand, at any given moment, several million Americans reside or travel abroad. How are they best protected? Is the lesson of this episode that any ruthless group or government can demand a symbolic meeting with a senior American by seizing hostages or threatening inhuman treatment for prisoners in their hand? If it should be said that North Korea is a special case because of its nuclear capability, does that create new incentives for proliferation?

Context matters. Less than six months ago, Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test and resumed the production of weapons-grade plutonium in violation of an agreement signed in February 2007 at the "six-power" conference in Beijing. Recently, North Korea refused a visit by the new U.S. envoy charged with discussing its proliferation efforts. Pyongyang has rejected various U.N. Security Council resolutions to desist from these activities and to return to the talks with the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. A visit by a former president, who is married to the secretary of state, will enable Kim Jong Il to convey to North Koreans, and perhaps to other countries, that his country is being accepted into the international community -- precisely the opposite of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has defined as the goal of U.S. policy until Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons program.

Already, speculation is rife that the Clinton visit inaugurates the prospect of a change of course of American policy and of a bilateral U.S.-North Korea solution. But two-party talks outside the six-party framework never made any sense. North Korean nuclear weapons threaten the North's neighbors more than they do the United States. The other members of the six-party talks are needed to help enforce any agreement that may be made or to sustain sanctions on the way to it. These countries should not be made to feel that the United States uses them as pawns for its global designs. To be sure, the Obama administration has disavowed any intentions for separate, two-power talks. But the other parties will be tempted to hedge against the prospect that these assurances may be modified. That feeling is likely to be particularly strong in Japan, where a national election campaign is underway and where Tokyo already feels it has secured inadequate support on behalf of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

The pains the Obama administration has taken to cast the Clinton mission as a private, humanitarian visit and the restrained manner in which the trip was conducted demonstrate an awareness of those risks. Though the distinction between private and public is likely to prove elusive when concerning a former president who is the spouse of the secretary of state, the administration is still in a position to achieve a beneficent long-term outcome.

The root cause of our decade-old controversy with Pyongyang is that there is no middle ground between North Korea being a nuclear-weapons state and a state without nuclear weapons. At the end of a negotiation, North Korea will either destroy its nuclear arsenal or it will become a de facto nuclear state. So far, Pyongyang has used the negotiating forums available to it in a skillful campaign of procrastination, alternating leaps in technological progress with negotiating phases to consolidate it.

We seem to be approaching such a consolidating phase. North Korea may return to its well-established tactic of diverting us with the prospect of imminent breakthroughs. This is exactly what happened after the Korean nuclear weapons test in 2006. Pyongyang undoubtedly will continue seeking to achieve de facto acceptance as a nuclear weapons state by endlessly protracted diplomacy. The benign atmosphere by which it culminated its latest blackmail must not tempt us or our partners into bypaths that confuse atmosphere with substance. Any outcome other than the elimination of the North Korean nuclear military capability in a fixed time frame is a blow to nonproliferation prospects worldwide and to peace and stability globally.

The writer was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.

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