Clinton’s North Korean Diplomacy

Bill Clinton’s successful diplomatic mission to North Korea is instructive for a number of reasons. To begin with, the entire episode exemplifies North Korea’s method in general — namely, hostage-taking and blackmail. In this case, the hostages were the two American reporters whose freedom Clinton managed to secure. In the case of North Korea’s nuclear program, the hostages are the entire Korean peninsula and regional stability at large.

The case of the reporters is instructive also for what it reveals about North Korea’s objective: respect. Laura Rozen’s behind-the-scenes play-by-play shows the degree to which the mission’s success depended on an envoy who could convey the necessary level of stature required by the North Korean regime to play ball. Now, just because the criticism of playing along with that demand will come from “the usual suspects” doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. Gestures that convey status and legitimacy — no matter how superficial — should be weighed heavily before being offered. Because the critics are right when they argue that there are costs to this kind of diplomatic stunt.

But there are also opportunities. Without being naive about the dependability of the North Korean regime, this could open the way to jumpstarting the broader diplomatic effort on the nuclear front.

It’s also important to factor timing into policy. There are plenty of times when gestures that convey legitimacy are ill-advised, as illustrated by the argument against engaging Iran while its government is wracked by internal divisions and challenged by popular opposition. But by all accounts, North Korea has entered into a transition of power, with the succession to Kim Jong-Il being prepared. The choice in North Korea is not between a repressive regime and an open one, but between a repressive regime that represents continuity and a repressive regime that’s even more unpredictable than what we’ve got now. Given all the dangers that a destabilized North Korea represents, that’s actually a good moment to toss Kim a small bone.