Former US president Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was seen by some as a triumph for the North Korean leader.
Clinton was asked by US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to undertake what the White House said was a private humanitarian mission to bring home two Asian-American journalists who blundered into North Korea from northeastern China in March. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Bill Clinton had “expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong-il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists against the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea] after illegally intruding into it.”
KCNA said: “Clinton courteously conveyed a verbal message of US President Barack Obama expressing profound thanks” for releasing Laura Ling (凌志美) and Euna Lee.
In the world of Confucian thought, most of life is governed by superior-inferior relationships — king-subject, father-son, husband-wife, older brother-young brother. Only friend-friend is similar to the Western concept of equality. In his own view, Kim evidently believes he had the upper hand over Bill Clinton and the Obama administration.
This could lead him to be tougher in negotiations with the US, South Korea and Japan. It may also indicate that he has enhanced his grip on power amid speculation of dissent in the power hierarchy as a result of his recent illness and because he has not fully prepared his successor.
Pictures of a smiling, self-assured Kim and a somber looking Clinton were splashed all over the North Korean press so that no citizen would doubt the message: “Look, a leader of the powerful United States has come to Pyongyang to plead with the leader of North Korea.”
As a Japanese analyst said: “The photographs ooze out a sense of Kim Jong-il crossing verbal swords with Clinton on more than an equal footing.”
A Chinese academic said: “The DPRK’s supreme leader is a master at handling US-DPRK [crises] and other crisis issues.”
“Kim played the ‘hostage card’ by promptly and skillfully grasping this little opportunity presented by the United States,” he said.
A columnist for the Chosun Ilbo, the newspaper with the highest circulation in South Korea, wrote: “The Obama administration can emphasize all it likes that the rescue operation was private and humanitarian.”
“If the North does not see it that way, it will not be so. Kim Jong-il would hardly have spent more than three hours with Clinton just to eat,” the columnist wrote.
Clinton joined a stream of US, South Korean and Japanese leaders who have traveled to Pyongyang to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, and his son Kim Jong-il. It began 15 years ago with a visit by former US president Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang.
Then came South Korean president Kim Dae-jung and his “Sunshine Policy,” for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, made the journey later that same year and former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi went to Pyongyang twice, in 2002 and 2004.
Koizumi wrangled from Kim an admission that North Korean agents had kidnapped scores of Japanese citizens, and he brought back to Japan five of those captives. Apart from that, those who have visited Pyongyang, including Clinton, have little to show for their efforts. Kim has continued to develop nuclear weapons and missiles and pose a threat to South Korea, Japan and the US.
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.
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