JISHOU, HUNAN — A surprise visit Tuesday by former President Bill Clinton may or may not have facilitated the release of two US journalists imprisoned in North Korea, but Clinton’s involvement probably helped North Korea save face.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling had been researching human trafficking across North Korea border with China when North Korea soldiers arrested them in March. It’s unclear what side of the border Lee and Ling were on at the time, but they were convicted of entering the country illegally, and were due to start 12-year prison sentences.
North Korea’s frail leader, Kim Jong Il, rules the country with an iron hand, and citizens have few freedoms and next to no contact with the outside world. By comparison, China looks like a liberal democracy.
North Korea has been making everyone — including China and especially Japan — nervous with its plans to develop nuclear arms. Its relations with the USA are barely cordial, so the arrest and conviction of Lee and Ling made poor relations even worse.
According to MSNBC, State Department officials had been negotiating with North Korea’s UN delegation for weeks, and Clinton’s involvement was a related, though “private” affair.
It’s a win-win solution for both sides, nonetheless.
North Korea, despite its hardline militarism and distrust of the rest of the world, wants to look like it’s somewhat reasonably civilized. At the same time, it made a big stink about Lee and Ling being on the wrong side of the border, eventually convicting them. A totalitarian state does not easily admit to error — to do so would show weakness to its citizens, even if it were the right thing to grant clemency to the reporters.
Meanwhile, Kim has been out of the public eye after a stroke several months ago. There have been questions (outside N. Korea) whether he is strong enough to continue leading the country.
Enter Bill Clinton. He’s a former US president, of equal status to Kim. His wife happens to the Secretary of State. President Barack Obama and he are in the same political party, so he’s like an Obama surrogate. And he’s not part of the official diplomatic corps, so using him as a go-between eliminates touchy issues of protocol when two countries have no official diplomatic relations.
My guess is that State offered Clinton as the grease to make the clemency wheels turn faster. Kim was able to appear publicly (for his adoring public to witness) with a former president of the USA, and show his magnanimity by releasing the two American “criminals” to Clinton’s care. So, whatever face Kim loses by setting Lee and Ling free he more than recovers by schmoozing with Clinton.
(Or so I assume. My understanding of “face” is still in its infancy.)
Meanwhile, Washington was able to offer a laurel branch to North Korea, to keep the lines of communication open with the troublesome country. Both parties acted like reasonable people.
The MSNBC reports mentions two other possible envoys, New Mexican Gov. Bill Richardson, who had visited North Korea a decade ago on a similar mission, or Clinton’s vice-president Al Gore. My surmise is Clinton was the best choice, because Kim would consider him more of an equal. Richardson and Gore don’t have the same clout, and Kim will lose even more face meeting with them.
[Of course, we have other former presidents still alive: Jimmy Carter, who has undertaken humanitarian/quasi-diplomatic missions before, and both Bushes. Carter is 84 and George H.W. Bush is 85, and (politics aside) neither may not have been up to the task. As for George W. Bush … well, let’s just say he’s not well-liked outside of the USA (or in it, for that matter).]