Bill Clinton's 'rock star status' delivers in North Korea

The former president succeeded in securing the release of two American journalists partly because he brought Pyongyang the prestige it craves.

Former US president Bill Clinton (c.) participates in talks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il (not pictured) in Pyongyang on Tuesday.

Bill Clinton's successful mission in securing the freedom of two American journalists jailed by North Korea – a testament to the clout the former president still has abroad – could represent something of a two-edged sword for President Obama.

The release of the two journalists removes a thorn from the increasingly irritated relations between the US and North Korea. More broadly, it also constitutes a glimmer of hope for Mr. Obama's faith in dialogue as a foreign policy tool, some diplomatic analysts say.

But the high-profile talks between the US and North Korea – carried out between a former US president and Pyongyang's dictator, Kim Jong-il – will also raise the discomfort level of US allies Japan and South Korea, both of which worry that a Washington-Pyongyang détente could come at their expense.

Moreover, Mr. Clinton's success could increase pressure for a similar high-profile diplomatic mission to Tehran to secure the release of three Americans detained by Iranian officials after wandering into Iranian territory from Iraq.

Clinton arrived in Pyongyang on a surprise visit Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, Pyongyang time, state media were reporting that Mr. Kim had issued a "special pardon" to Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two American journalists convicted in June of entering the country illegally.

North Korean media also reported that Clinton had an "exhaustive conversation" with a "wide-ranging exchange of views on the matters of common concern" over dinner with Kim and his top aides.

Clinton's status

Clinton's visit was successful because it delivered the prestige North Korea craves, experts on North Korea say.

"People here [in the US] forget how highly Clinton is regarded around the world, and without the political baggage associated with him at home," says Benjamin Ladner, former president of American University in Washington and an international relations specialist.

"North Korea is so isolated it's really very desperate to be regarded with some dignity and legitimacy," he adds. "For Kim, Bill Clinton's rock-star status delivers that."

But Dr. Ladner says the mission's success could also cast a positive light on Obama's brand of diplomacy by dialogue and increased contact – even with adversaries. "The real story beyond the immediate success of this mission may be the breakthrough it represents for Obama's efforts to find different ways to engage others and address the toughest diplomatic cases," he says.

Worried allies

Clinton is sure to debrief administration officials on his meeting with Kim, and world capitals as varied as Tokyo and Moscow will watch for any impact on US policy from the Clinton visit, diplomatic experts say. Tokyo and Seoul in particular will be nervous about any softening by Washington towards their nuclear-armed neighbor.

The Obama administration must reassure its allies that Clinton's humanitarian mission was kept separate from the issue of North Korea's nuclear program, says Bruce Klingner, a North Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Others suggest Obama should use other approaches involving greater contacts and people-to-people exchanges to reduce regional tensions while the nuclear question is addressed.

"Japan and South Korea are always going to be nervous about North Korea, and that's understandable" given their proximity, says Ladner, who visited North Korea during the Clinton administration. "But that doesn't mean some innovative diplomatic approaches shouldn't be tried at the same time."


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