Former President Bill Clinton’s Trip to North Korea
August 4, 2009
Q1: What is the main purpose of President Clinton’s trip to North Korea?
A1: Clinton is in North Korea on a humanitarian mission to receive the return of Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two American journalists who were captured by the North Koreans for reportedly trespassing into North Korean territory. The two journalists have been held since March 2009 and were sentenced by the North Korean high court to 12 years of labor. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked the North Korean government to grant amnesty to these two individuals.
Q2: Why does Bill Clinton have to go? Why doesn’t the North just release them?
A2: As I argued in a Washington Post editorial on May 9, 2009, the release of these two Americans would inevitably require a high-level individual to visit the North. Clinton has credibility for the North Koreans because: (1) he is a former head of state (Jimmy Carter went to North Korea in 1994); (2) he is the husband of the standing secretary of state; and (3) as president, Clinton seriously considered making a trip to North Korea at the end of his term of office. For the North Koreans, political face is as important as substance and someone of Clinton’s stature gives them enough face to release the two women on humanitarian grounds.
Q3: Is this visit related to the Six-Party Talks and the nuclear crisis?
A3: U.S. government officials state that this visit is purely humanitarian—a private mission that was requested by the families of the detained Americans. Neither of the two U.S. special envoys for North Korea (Ambassadors Bosworth or Kim) is traveling with Clinton. While this may be true, it is hard to imagine that the former president will not both scold North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests and reiterate the Obama administration’s desire to reengage in negotiations if the North is serious about denuclearization. In this sense, the visit offers an opportunity to lower the level of ongoing tension since the May nuclear tests and open a path to negotiations.
Q4: Will Clinton meet the North Korean leader?
A4: Diplomatic protocol suggests that he should meet with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. But Kim’s ailing health could prevent a meeting, which would be an indication of how severe his state of health is.
Q5: How long will Clinton stay in North Korea?
A5: If his primary purpose is to secure the release of the two Americans, without a protracted negotiation, then he should be out within a day of his arrival.
Q6: If Lee and Ling are released, what comes next?
A6: If Clinton’s visit provides the face necessary to get the North Koreans back to the nuclear negotiations, then a key policy challenge for the Obama administration will be to resist pressure from the Chinese and Russians to stop implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which levies counterproliferation sanctions on the North. As long as the North possesses nuclear weapons, there is a proliferation threat posed by Pyongyang that these actions must continue to address even as negotiations come back on line.
Victor D. Cha is a senior adviser and hold the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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