Bill Clinton’s ‘Nefarious’ Meeting with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il
Two scenes sum up Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang to bring home jailed American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. One is now filling our TV screens with feel-good footage. The other may seem mere backdrop, but it is fuel to a global gathering storm.
The happy scene is of course the moment on Wednesday, when the door of Clinton’s plane opened, and Ling and Lee, safely back on U.S. soil, descended to hug their families. For their release from almost five months in North Korean captivity, Ling thanked both Clinton and a beaming Al Gore, whose Current TV the two women were working for when North Korean forces captured them along the Chinese border in March.
This reunion is the event that President Obama chose to underscore, with his immediate and effusive comments. He described it as “a source of happiness not only for the families but for the entire country.” He suggested that in welcoming back the two journalists, “All Americans should be grateful to both former President Clinton and Vice President Gore for their extraordinary work.” It was all a “positive outcome,” and Obama was “very pleased”–so pleased, apparently, that he said not a critical word of North Korea.
The other image involved in all this is a lot less juicy for American TV. But it is a tableau with implications likely to haunt and harm us all. Future victims may well include both innocent Americans and ordinary North Koreans–not least, some of the trafficked and abused North Korean women whose sufferings Ling and Lee were reportedly trying to document when they were detained.
I’m talking about the scene of Bill Clinton in Pyongyang, posing for an official photo side by side with the North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il. For North Korea, this was in all likelihood much more than just some ritual photo-op or bit of loopy and irrelevant propaganda. Nor was it just a display that Kim is still able to sit upright, despite signs of poor health and rumors of terminal illness, interesting though that is.
I think that for North Korea, this photo, and the accompanying dinner and photographed stroll, was a potent bit of advertising–of the worst sort.
There’s been a lot of debate over how Clinton’s trip might play into any future U.S. negotiations with North Korea. The White House said Tuesday that it was a strictly “private mission.” North Korea’s state news agency described Clinton as apologizing and bringing a message from President Obama. A White House spokesman denied that there was any such message.
But whatever the truth of those conflicting accounts, I think the entire encounter staged by North Korea between Clinton and Kim was part of a North Korean message meant for consumption not only by North Koreans and Americans, but by Kim Jong Il’s business partners. Those would be the partners in rackets that stretch from Myanmar to Iran and beyond, and include the kind of North Korean trading companies and fronts that have turned up in places from Macau to Austria to Switzerland, with tentacles reaching into the U.S. itself.
Obama is now trying to ratchet up pressure on North Korea’s missile and nuclear arms projects by targeting more of its weapons-related activities for sanctions. That entails shutting down some of Kim’s business relationships. In response to Kim’s illicit nuclear test in May, both the U.S. Treasury and the United Nations added a number of North Korean individuals and entities to their blacklists. The aim is to freeze assets, hinder deals and block travel related to North Korean proliferation.
But the U.S. has limited jurisdiction. And while U.N. sanctions are described as binding on all 192 member states, their enforcement depends in practice on voluntary cooperation by each member state. Among the least scrupulous nations any such cooperation is more likely to stem from fear of crossing swords with the U.S. than from good will in helping maintain a civilized and peaceful world order. The record of big-time sanctions busters in past cases–notably the Oil-for-Food scandal in Iraq–includes Russia, China and Syria, none of which prosecuted anyone for violating U.N. sanctions on Iraq, and all of which are business partners of North Korea.
To this mix we can add a ripple of alarming reports out of Australia this past week, that with the help of North Korea, Myanmar–like Syria until the Israelis bombed its secret reactor in 2007–may be pursuing clandestine nuclear projects.
The unfortunate message of that Clinton-Kim photo-op, their dinner together and Clinton’s trip to North Korea overall is that despite the sanctions brandished by Washington and grudgingly adopted in part by the U.N. Security Council, Kim Jong Il and his ruling circle know how to get the whip hand.
All it takes is to snatch two Americans, slap a prison sentence on them that turns them into de facto hostages, and give them the chance to phone home. Kim did this, and in short order he was able to present himself as granting an audience in Pyongyang to a former commander in chief of the world’s superpower. In Clinton’s case, it was a two-fer coup for Pyongyang. Not only is Clinton a former U.S. president, he is the husband of Obama’s secretary of State.
Clinton, during his own presidency, dealt with a nuclear breakout crisis in Pyongyang in 1994 via a trip there by former president Jimmy Carter–which produced the debacle of a nuclear freeze deal on which Kim cheated, while collecting a heap of goodies that helped sustain him in power. But faced with a de facto hostage crisis in North Korea in December, 1994, Clinton had more sense than to have someone as prominent as Carter go negotiate with Pyongyang. That was the case in which a U.S. Army helicopter with two men aboard strayed across the demilitarized zone into North Korea. The North Koreans shot it down, killing one man and capturing the other, Warrant Officer Bobby Hall. To deal with that, Clinton threatened North Korea with a cutoff of promised aid; to bring Hall home, Clinton sent a deputy assistant secretary of State.
When America kowtows to North Korea–and with Clinton’s trip, that’s exactly what has happened–regimes such as those of Russia, China, Iran, Myanmar and Syria, as well as their intermediaries in places more subject to normal law, have every reason to read such behavior as license to go deal with North Korea as they please. The message is that the rules are malleable, and the U.S. allows itself plenty of wiggle room, regardless of the sanctions pushed out on paper by the U.N. Security Council.
There’s a case to be made that this was a hostage situation, involving profound ethical and political dilemmas, as well as basic humanitarian concerns. But even if one believes Clinton’s trip was the right thing to do–and was the only recourse (I am unconvinced)–there is still no good reason once the hostages are safely back home to treat North Korea with any deference whatsoever.
Once Ling and Lee set foot on American tarmac, where was Obama’s immediate and forthright condemnation of North Korea’s manipulations and abuses? Where was the immediate public demand by the White House for full international access to, and investigation of, Kim’s isolated gulag, where by some estimates hundreds of thousands of North Koreans right now endure the murderous hell that Ling and Lee are so relieved to have been spared?
While Obama is suggesting that all Americans be happy and grateful, the message the rogue regimes of the world are likely to take away is that they may with relative impunity carry on sanctions-busting traffic with North Korea, or anyplace else involved in the web of weapons trafficking and nuclear proliferation that increasingly enables tyrants to bully, shake down and manipulate the leaders of the free world.
In case the U.S. wants to get uppity about any of that, prudent dictatorships have now learned a lesson in the uses of scarfing up stray Americans: to have a stock of hostages ready to bargain over. If two captured Americans mean Kim Jong Il could summon Bill Clinton for an audience, then what will three hostage Americans get you? Iran, which picked up a trio of American hikers along the Iraqi border last week, is getting ready to find out.
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