Bill Clinton's successful rescue mission to North Korea has stirred relief, hope, and a measure of unease in Asian capitals that are grappling with the risk posed by an unpredictable nuclear-armed neighbor.
By using a diplomatic back channel to obtain the release of two jailed American reporters, the Obama administration has shown that it wants to be flexible in its pursuit of reduced tensions. But some critics – with an eye to years of unfruitful six-party talks – have warned that the US must be wary of paving the way for dialogue that could sidestep the North's neighbors.
That skepticism may be warranted, though much depends on what message, if any, Mr. Clinton brings back to the Obama administration, says Daniel Pinkston, an analyst in Seoul, South Korea, for the International Crisis Group. But knocking the visit as detrimental to regional diplomacy is a stretch, given that six-party talks are in hiatus and relations are so frayed.
"The situation is already so bad that I don't think that this visit could make it worse," he says.
Still, US allies in Asia are seeking reassurances that the US isn't giving into North Korean demands for bilateral nuclear-disarmament talks. So far, US officials have publicly resisted, arguing that North Korea should return to the six-party talks that bring together China, Japan, Russia, the US, and North and South Korea. That stance has been welcomed by negotiating parties, who were told in advance of the visit.
Clinton's brief stop in Pyongyang made him the highest-level US visitor since President Carter in 1994. That was a propaganda coup for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, who is in poor health and trying to ensure his succession, according to experts on the secretive regime.
Mr. Kim spiked tensions in the region when he conducted a nuclear test in May and unleashed subsequent missile launches.
Playing into Kim Jong-il's hands?
Some critics in South Korea, which is wary of a US diplomatic end-run around it, have sniped at Clinton for playing into Mr. Kim's hands. In an editorial, conservative daily Joong Ang warned that the US and other nations must "avoid the mistakes of the past, when they blindly pursed dialog and ended up falling right into the hands of the North."
He says China is also wary of being "marginalized" by any bilateral track between the US and North Korea, particularly at a time when it is being pressed to apply stricter UN sanctions to North Korea.
In an editorial, China's state-owned Global Times welcomed Clinton's visit, but cautioned that the diplomatic goal must be the revival of six-party peace talks.
"That goal can only be realized if the US and North Korea make sincere, substantial efforts," it said.
While Beijing wants North Korea back at the negotiating table, it won't squeeze its impoverished ally over its bad behavior, says Chris McNally, an expert on China at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Using economic sanctions as leverage runs contrary to Beijing's priorities during a period of uncertainty in North Korea.
"China hold several aces but doesn't want to play them because it fears the collapse of North Korea more than anything else, so will continue to send food and energy," he says.
Underscoring the high stakes in North Korea, Japan marked the anniversary Thursday of the US atomic attack on Hiroshima in 1945.
In a speech, the city's mayor praised President Obama for saying that the US had a moral duty to seek a nuclear-free world.
Abducted Japanese, detained S. Koreans
In the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea abducted at least 13 Japanese citizens, of which five were later allowed to return to Japan after a brief détente in 2002. Doubts over the fate of the others, whom Pyongyang said had died, have stirred intense public anger in Japan toward North Korea.
Takeshi Akamatsu, a spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry, says that Clinton had raised the issue on Japan's behalf during his meeting with Kim.
"We are thankful for the action taken by the American side. For Japan, we will strengthen our efforts to resolve the abductees issue," he says.
Clinton also asked for the return of a South Korean fishing boat and its crew that strayed into North Korean waters last week, according to reports from Seoul.