The Monitor's View

Clinton 'rescue' in North Korea leaves Obama on the spot

By letting a former president hold talks with North Korea, the current president leaves a democratic ally, South Korea, in the cold.

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The welcomed release of two female American journalists from a North Korean prison – while humanitarian for them and their families – was hardly done with a humanitarian goal in mind by Kim Jong-il, that country's cunning despot.

What did Mr. Kim really achieve by working behind the scenes with the Obama administration, by insisting on a former US president as the rescuing envoy, and then putting Bill Clinton through nearly four hours of discussions on issues between the countries?

For one, Kim was able to raise suspicions in South Korea about the US as a reliable ally, especially when Mr. Clinton didn't bring home five South Korean citizens – a factory worker and four fishermen – held captive in North Korea.

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Lost in all the coverage of this "pardon" and homecoming of Laura Ling and Euna Lee is the basic fact that the 1950-53 Korean War has never officially ended. The evidence for that is clear to anyone who visits the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two nations and sees the US soldiers stationed there, like potential road bumps for hundreds of North Korean tanks on the ready.

Like his father, Kim still maintains the aggressive goal of uniting the two countries – by force. And he can only do that someday by steadily eroding the will of Americans to defend South Korea. A key aim of his often-erratic diplomacy is to split Washington and Seoul from their long alliance. And by making the Clinton "mission" look like a state visit in all but name, he came one step closer to the official US recognition that he needs.

China, too, has long asked for US recognition of North Korea, especially after it established ties with South Korea in 1992. During this crisis, Beijing probably played a critical role in the two women's release, reflected in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent enthusiasm for China's help on many diplomat fronts.

China hasn't been so helpful in South Korea's pleas with North Korea for the release of its citizens. And it would be interesting to know if President Clinton brought up their case with Kim, as well as the many Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in past decades.

"North Korea has freed the US journalists, but rejected talks on the release of South Koreans. This is not fair,'' said Lee Jong-joo, a spokesman for Seoul's Ministry of Unification.

President Obama must be careful not to put the US interest in resolving the North's nuclear arsenal ahead of the long-standing US commitment to the defense of South Korea. Defending this democracy against the bullying aggression of a dictatorship is still in the US interest, even if the cold war is over.

By focusing too much on nuclear proliferation, and North Korea's role in spreading such weapons and the missiles that carry them, Mr. Obama may lose sight of the US treaty commitment to a vulnerable, democratic nation.

The nuclear issue with North Korea is still better handled within the six-party talks (that includes China, Russia, and Japan), and not as a bilateral issue between the US and the Pyongyang regime. While bilateral talks on nuclear matters can take place on the sidelines of these multilateral forums, as they have in the past, Obama should be wary of bilateral talks on other issues. He needs to keep a united front with South Korea in dealing with North Korea.

Early in the Obama administration, South Korea had doubts about the new president's commitment to the alliance, and rightly so. But since then, Obama has made formal statements about the "joint vision for the alliance."

Now, he must repeat such assurances, if he wants to continue the American ideal of defending democratic allies.

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