JISHOU, HUNAN — It was only for a minute or two, but my voice went out all over the world. Did you hear me?
This morning, I wrote a reaction to former president Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea to retrieve the two American journalists imprisoned there. Tonight, while I was chatting online with one of my students, Lynfay, my website notified me that a comment was awaiting moderation. About 90 minutes later, I decided to check the comment out.
My first reaction was disbelief. The comment was from a woman identifying herself as Shaimaa Khalil, a journalist with the BBC World Service, who said she wanted me to say something on the program, “World, Have Your Say.” After four years of dealing with comment spam, I checked out the website and by golly, there really is a Shaimaa Khalil who works for a real BBC program called “World, Have Your Say.”
[Sorry, Beeb, this program is broadcast live at 1 am China time, so I have never listened to it and had never heard of it. Nothing personal.]
Anyway, Ms Khalil wanted my telephone number so she could talk to me a bit before the program. We spoke briefly around 10:30 pm my time, and she filled me in on the program’s topic of the day: “With the two US journalists now freed, did Bill Clinton’s visit only reward North Korea’s bad behaviour?” Sensitive to the late hour, she said they would try to have me speak on the phone during the first 15 minutes of the program, which airs at 1 in the morning here.
Good thing I’m a night owl.
The gist of my remarks was essentially what I said in my blog post this morning. There is no argument that it’s wonderful to have brought Euna Lee and Laura Ling back home. Meanwhile, North Korea was able to save face and get some nice positive news coverage for a change, and Washington was able to get a foot in the door that North Korea normally keeps shut tighter than Fort Knox.
Other reactions have been less positive. Given North Korea’s refusal to play by international rules, Clinton’s visit could be seen as giving the dictatorship there some measure of legitimacy. Those of us in the studio and on the phones volleyed these ideas around during the hour-long program. If you’re interest in hearing it, the BBC just put in online at the WHYS website.
Ms Khalil also asked me how people in China had reacted to Clinton’s visit. I didn’t get a chance to talk about it on air, so I will here.
The official word from government-run Xinhua News Agency was profusely positive. Skirting the issue of the grounds for the arrest of Lee and Ling, Xinhua noted that North Korea and the US were both able to save face. Clinton was 万选 — Wan Xuan (one in a thousand), “Mr Right” for the job of retrieving the pair.
Xinhua also noted Clinton’s visit with North Korea’s frail leader, Kim Jong Il, might open doors to negotiating a halt to North Korea’s nuclear arms program. Like North Korea’s other neighbors, China is just a little nervous about the Pyongyang regime having nukes to shoot around.
Did Clinton and the USA play into North Korea’s hands? North Korea did, as the Washington Post reported today, specifically ask for Clinton to come to Pyongyang. Had he not, one wonders whether Lee and Ling would be home with their families now. Certainly, Kim got some good press at home and abroad. North Korea got to save face, and the USA had to (maybe) lose a little. We don’t know what Clinton and Kim talked about in their private meeting, so perhaps North Korea privately had to lose something, too.
What it does highlight is the new administration’s willingness to actually talk to other governments before sending in the shock troops. Conservatives pilloried Barack Obama for his campaign statements that he would open dialogues with “rogue” nations like North Korea and Cuba, but the Obama administration has demonstrated that diplomacy works. We should all be grateful that this little bit of history had a happy ending.