Earlier this week, Bill Clinton made a well documented trip to North Korea, returning with two journalists who had been jailed for illegally entering North Korea. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il pardoned the American journalists after Clinton apologized for their actions.
However, while this is a feel good story, this move has no positive impact on North Korean – US relations. They will remain as cold and stagnant as ever.
The US, by sending Clinton, has given Kim a propaganda coup at home. The US came to beg and grovel for the release of these journalists, and the glorious leader let them go, wise leader that he is.
Kim brought Clinton to North Korea; Kim showed mercy to the ‘ignorant’ journalists; Kim can negotiate successfully with the US. This will be how the North Korean government portrays the events to its people.
The US, on the other hand, will do its best to project a cautiously optimistic sense of future relations with North Korea. Perhaps peaceful North Korean nuclear disarmament is possible.
However, there are winners from this situation. Obviously, the imprisoned journalists score the victory of their lives, now free from North Korean captivity. Bill Clinton gets tons of good publicity, having brought the journalists home. Lastly, dear leader Kim Jong Il gets the previously discussed propaganda victory.
Despite these wins, a few important losers have come out of this situation. The most important loser is the US government. Any time Kim can improve his image with the North Korean people is a blow to US efforts. While this isn’t a game changer, it certainly doesn’t help either.
Furthermore, the US is hurt because this may have potentially hurt the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The six-party talks are important as they include the interests of regional powers, most of whom have an interest in keeping North Korea nuke free. North Korea doesn’t particularly like the six-party talks, partially because any agreement would have to please everyone, whereas when negotiating straight with the US, they would only have to please the US.
If North Korean leadership looks at this as an ‘in’ to be able to negotiate bi-laterally with the US one-on-one, the potential for success of the six party talks is damaged. On top of that, it can only serve to further annoy US officials, who have made it clear they do not want to participate in bi-lateral discussions. The US prefers the six-party talks because that mode is more likely to create long term stability in the region.
Was it all worth the release of the journalists? The political scientist in me says ‘no’, but the US citizen in me is comforted by the US efforts to release its people from foreign custody.
On a side-note, during the campaign we all wondered what Bill’s role would be in a Hillary White House, or with her as secretary of state. It would appear as if we’ve found a potential answer…