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North Korea: Obama's Search for New Diplomatic Options

Former President Bill Clinton paid a surprise one-day visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on August 4,2009, and met among others, President Kim Jong-il.

2. The visit had an ostensibly humanitarian purpose-namely, to seek the release of Laura King and Euna Lee, two women journalists of the US, who had been convicted by a North Korean court and sentenced to a long period of imprisonment on a charge of illegally entering North Korea in March. The fact that Kim Jong-il issued a State pardon of the convicted journalists shortly after Clinton’s meeting with him, thereby enabling Clinton to leave for the US the same night with the pardoned journalists indicated that North Korea had most probably agreed to the pardon even before Clinton’s arrival and that Clinton went to Pyongyang not to seek their release, but to accept them.

3. Even though the US does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, US officials had been visiting North Korea in the past. Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State during Clinton’s second term as the President, had visited Pyongyang. US diplomats associated with the six-party talks on North Korean denuclearisation had also been visiting Pyongyang off and on.

4. However, Clinton’s visit has a special significance which none of the previous visits of other American emissaries had. This significance arises not merely from the fact that he is a former President of the US, but also from the fact that he is reputed to be playing an important role in advising the administration of President Barack Obama on important foreign policy matters.

5. The humanitarian purpose of the visit, which even hardline anti-Pyongyang hawks in the US cannot criticise, conceals an underlying political purpose—- namely, to begin an exploration of new diplomatic options for pressurising or persuading North Korea to agree to denuclearisation. The developments after North Korea carried out its nuclear test of May 25,2009, and the intransigence of North Korea have clearly brought out two things: firstly, China’s unwillingness or inability to exercise pressure on North Korea beyond a limit. Secondly, the six-power talks on the denuclearisation issue on which the US had put all its eggs till now appeared to have run out of steam.

6. Instead of continuing to depend on China to bring about a moderation of North Korean policies, the Obama Adminstration would appear to have decided to try a direct diplomatic approach by using the Clinton visit to see whether other options—more productive than the six-power talks– are available.

7. Three things are certain. Firstly, it was a political visit under a humanitarian cover. Secondly, the visit must have been undertaken with the knowledge and prior approval of Obama. Thirdly, when Clinton met Kim they must have discussed not only the release of the two journalists but also political issues of concern to the two countries such as US concerns over North Korea’s nuclearisation and North Korea’s concerns over a US-Japan-South Korea threat to its security.

8. The fact that Clinton was in Pyongyang only for a few hours would indicate that any discussions of a political significance would have been of a general, ice-breaking nature without going into details.

9. Kim’s decision to receive Clinton and to respond positively to the request for the release of the journalists would clearly show that his hold over power is as strong as ever despite recent reports of a decline in his health.

10. Will the visit turn out to be of only one-shot significance relating to the release of the journalists or will there be a political follow-up? One has to wait and see.

11. Certain other questions of considerable interest are: How was the ground prepared for the visit? Did China play a role? If not, who did? Why have the relatives of the released journalists thanked Clinton as well as Al Gore, his Vice-President, for making the release possible? Were Japan and South Korea kept in the picture?

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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