Bill Clinton’s Trip to North Korea

Today, former President Bill Clinton returned from North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists who were imprisoned in North Korea after being charged with spying and sentenced to 12 years in a hard labor camp.

The diplomatic trip and the reunion of the journalists with their families received a great deal of media coverage.  Many considered the venture to be a positive development, while conservatives were quick to criticize Clinton and the Obama administration and accuse them of trading something for the release of the American prisoners.

Clinton’s trip had several potential benefits.  One obvious one is the liberation of two innocent women.  Another is the intelligence that Clinton could provide in terms of seeing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il face-to-face and judging his health condition, which some believe is deteriorating to the point where Kim might soon die.  A third aspect is the opening of diplomatic channels with an isolated nation that the international community believes is strategically significant because of its nuclear and missile programs.

Potential downsides to the trip include the perception that the US might have given the North Korean regime something in exchange for the prisoners, thereby submitting to a form of blackmail and rewarding the communist state for its insolent behavior (conservative critics have failed to mention that former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon, traded arms for hostages with Iran in the 1980s).  If some sort of deal was struck, it could encourage the North Koreans to repeat what they have been doing, namely taking provocative steps like taking hostages, launching missiles over Japan and testing nuclear weapons in order to gain international attention and gain leverage for diplomatic negotiations.

There are no good options for the US and its allies when it comes to dealing with North Korea.  At this point, the international community can do little to punish North Korea besides imposing additional economic sanctions on the communist state, but Kim Jong-Il has demonstrated that he is fairly unconcerned with the economic welfare of his people, with the exception of the military and political elites, so it is unlikely that further sanctions will permanently alter his behavior. The US and its partners can offer diplomatic and economic incentives to the North in hopes that such things will help change the DPRK’s policies and improve the security situation in East Asia, but it is doubtful if Kim Jong-Il’s regime will adhere to any agreements in the long term if history is any indicator.

The best that the US and its partners can hope for is to elicit temporary pauses in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs while deterring the rogue nation from attacking other countries.  American administrations should continue doing this until the communist state collapses, much like the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites did two decades ago.

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