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The Obama administration characterized Bill Clinton’s unexpected visit to Pyongyang to secure the release of two American reporters, held unjustifiably by North Korea for nearly five months, as a private, humanitarian mission. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has insisted that the fate of the women who strayed into the North (whether accidentally or deliberately is still not clear), should be separated from the unresolved issue of the North’s nuclear weapons program.
But North Korea has seen it very differently. Former president Clinton was met at Pyongyang’s airport by notables led by Kim Kye Gwan, the North’s long-time chief nuclear negotiator, an unmistakable symbol of linkage. In Pyongyang’s view, the two reporters are pawns in the larger game of enhancing the regime’s legitimacy and gaining direct access to important U.S. figures. The reporters’ arrest, show trial and subsequent imprisonment (twelve years hard labor) was hostage taking, essentially an act of state terrorism. So the Clinton trip is a significant propaganda victory for North Korea, whether or not he carried an official message from President Obama. Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former president to do so.
While the United States is properly concerned whenever its citizens are abused or held hostage, efforts to protect them should not create potentially greater risks for other Americans in the future. Yet that is exactly the consequence of visits by former presidents or other dignitaries as a form of political ransom to obtain their release. Iran and other autocracies are presumably closely watching the scenario in North Korea. With three American hikers freshly in Tehran’s captivity, will Clinton be packing his bags again for another act of obeisance? And, looking ahead, what American hostages will not be sufficiently important to merit the presidential treatment? What about Roxana Saberi and other Americans previously held in Tehran? What was it about them that made them unworthy of a presidential visit? These are the consequences of poorly thought-out gesture politics, however well-intentioned or compassionately motivated. Indeed, the release of the two reporters–welcome news–doesn’t mitigate the future risks entailed.
The Clinton visit may have many other negative effects. In some ways the trip is a flashback to the unfortunate 1994 journey of former president Jimmy Carter, who disrupted the Clinton administration’s nuclear negotiations with North Korea and led directly to the misbegotten “Agreed Framework.” By supplying both political legitimacy and tangible economic resources to Pyongyang, the Agreed Framework provided the North and other rogue states a roadmap for maximizing the benefits of illicit nuclear programs. North Korea violated the framework almost from the outset but nonetheless enticed the Bush administration into negotiations (the six-party talks) to discuss yet again ending its nuclear program in exchange for even more political and economic benefits. This history is of the United States rewarding dangerous and unacceptable behavior, a lesson well learned by other would-be nuclear proliferators.
We cannot presently foretell whether or not Clinton’s visit will lead to renewed negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program, but that appears to be the conclusion the Obama administration hopes to draw. Ironically, both Kim and Obama may well want to kick start bilateral negotiations, or, failing that, at least renew the six-party talks. Obama’s “open hand” promise in his inaugural address isn’t having much success around the world, and North Korea can always use new infusions of economic aid, which may well be the hidden cargo of the Clinton mission.
The point to be made on the Clinton visit is that the knee-jerk impulse for negotiations above all inevitably brings more costs than its advocates foresee. Negotiating from a position of strength, where the benefits to American interests will exceed the costs, is one thing. Negotiating merely for the sake of it, in the face of palpable recent failures, is something else indeed.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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