Wed, Nov 01, 2000 - Page 9 News List

A Clinton trip to North Korea: Why the haste?

Once the idea of a US leader going to Pyongyang was laughable. Now it's possible -- but is it diplomacy or just a case of wanting to go out with a bang?

By Ronald Meinardus

Some journalists profess to know more than they ought to. While President Bill Clinton insists a decision regarding a possible visit to North Korea has not been taken, some media have already published details of a Clinton itinerary. According to one such report the US president's two-day visit to Pyong-yang will begin on Nov. 12 -- just ahead of the APEC-summit meeting in Brunei. The source of this information (if we may call it that) is an unidentified South Korean government official. Similar unspecified information has been published in other media.

While the anonymity of a reporter's source is a vital element of the journalistic trade, the inflationary use of anonymous sources does not necessarily promote the credibility of the media. In South Korea I have noticed abundant use of this technique of quoting people, without giving their names, a practice all the more frustrating, when the predictions published under the guise of secrecy turn out to be false.

Times like these with but a few official statements regarding the US government's intentions are good for rumors and speculations. One widespread method to spice up a report is quoting unspecified diplomatic sources. This may give respectability to a story, as diplomats are assumed to have access to sensitive, often also classified information. Every so often, though, the quotes appearing in the papers attributed to diplomats are either made up or this being the better case are chunks of information caught up at cocktail parties or other social gatherings. In these days many such events take place in Seoul. And indeed many interesting bits of information and viewpoints may be gathered there.

Diplomatic talk

In the course of one more recent encounter with a senior diplomat of an important Western nation, I heard a rather convincing argument in support of the view that the presidential visit to Pyongyang is for all practical purposes a decided matter. Argued the diplomat: Clinton is in the final stages of his term and a visit to the former arch enemy would undoubtedly add to his historic legacy. The North Korean dictator, too, would rather see Clinton come today than tomorrow, as he must worry that a possible Republican successor would be much less tolerant in dealing with his regime. And lastly the South Koreans: President Kim Dae-jung has made no secret, that he wants the US president to visit the North. One Korean paper even wrote that Kim urged Clinton to travel to Pyong-yang. So, as all three major players favor the presidential visit, it is a foregone conclusion that it will materialize, the diplomat argued quite convincingly.

Clinton in North Korea? Just a few weeks ago this would have been all but unthinkable. But on the Korean peninsula just a few weeks have changed the world. Considering the political importance and implications of a presidential visit, the public debate whether he should go or not is crucial. Thanks to the Internet editorial opinions in the US on this matter may be followed easily from a distance. Evidently, those voices deeming any high level contact with the North Korean communists should be avoided are dying out. From what I gather the issue the US commentators is undecided on, is not so much whether Washington should engage with North Korea or not, but whether the timing and the conditions are ripe for the visit of the chief executive.

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