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Clinton's North Korea Mission: Success For Obama Or Kim?

  • Andrew Tully

Former President Bill Clinton (left) and Vice President Al Gore greet freed journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee (right) upon their arrival in the United States.

Former President Bill Clinton (left) and Vice President Al Gore greet freed journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee (right) upon their arrival in the United States.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton returned to the United States on August 5 with two American journalists who had been held in North Korea since March.

At the White House, Obama had words of gratitude for both Clinton and his former vice president, Al Gore, who helped found Current TV, for which the Laura Ling and Euna Lee work.

Obama thanked Clinton "for the extraordinary humanitarian effort that resulted in the release of the two journalists. I want to thank Vice President Al Gore, who worked tirelessly in order to achieve a positive outcome."

But was the mission entirely humanitarian? Mostly, says Thomas Carothers, a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy research center in Washington.

In Carothers' view, Clinton's mission also may help open a channel between Washington and Pyongyang after years in which, he says, the administration of former President George W. Bush sought to isolate North Korea.

"Freezing out the North Korean government over the last decade really hasn't led us to much, and so we're forced [to face] the fact that we have to deal with this government in some fashion," Carothers says.

"This does come at a time when [North Korean officials have] been extremely disrespectful and, in fact, openly aggressive toward the United States. But simply further freezing them out doesn't seem very promising," he adds.

"So it's not really clear what the North Korean government gets out of this, other than a picture of their president next to our former president."

Encouraging Bad Behavior?

Nicholas Eberstadt, who studies global politics at the American Enterprise Institute, another Washington think tank, agrees that there is much to applaud in Clinton's visit to North Korea. But he says there is also a risk.

From a humanitarian standpoint, he says, all hostages and similar captives should be freed. But Eberstadt also points to a similar situation regarding Iran, another country that the United States is trying to persuade to give up its nuclear program.

Did North Korea get anything besides a photo of Kim Jong Il (right) with Bill Clinton.
"Look at what's happened just over the last couple of days: Three Americans on the Iranian border were just captured by Iranian soldiers and brought in for presumably trial and penal subjugation," Eberstadt says.

"It looks like people learn from these game plans," he adds. "I wonder if the Iranians are expecting President Clinton to come and negotiate for the freedom of the Americans in their country now. The Iranian government watches the news and learns from North Korea's diplomatic experiments."

Still, Eberstadt says, it is possible that Obama sent Clinton to Pyongyang to help "make a bigger North Korean problem into a smaller North Korean problem." If that's so, he says, that would be a sensible approach to resuming meaningful contacts with Kim's government.

A Clinton/Clinton Conflict?

Whether Obama uses Clinton for similar missions in the future is another matter, regardless of how well this effort turned out. One potentially sticky problem is that he is married to Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state in Obama's administration.

Carothers says he doesn't necessarily expect Bill Clinton to take similar missions in the future. And if he did, he doesn't think his relationship with Hillary would be an impediment.

He describes the North Korea mission as "somewhat exceptional in the sense there was the need, quickly, for someone. And it appears that the North Koreans wanted him in particular. Others may not [in future cases like this]."

Carothers adds that he doesn't "see the harm here in the fact that one Clinton is related to the other. It probably helped the visit come about, and helped -- potentially -- give it maybe a bit more significance than it otherwise would."

Eberstadt, too, thinks there shouldn't be a question of conflict of interest if Bill Clinton is a special envoy of the U.S. government while his wife executes that government's foreign policy. But Eberstadt raises the question of who takes the blame if Clinton goes on a mission that fails.

He says it would be "almost impossible" for Hillary Clinton "to avoid spillover or blowback" from such a failure. "There's a high risk, I think, to her, perhaps unfairly, through guilt by familial association or whatever, if any future missions by President Bill Clinton were to explode or end in some sort of unfortunate denouement."

Bill Clinton may be popular overseas, and justifiably so, Eberstadt says. But it probably would be wise of Obama not to use him as a special representative, if only to protect his secretary of state.

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