Can Clinton Reverse the U.S.–North Korea Downward Spiral of Diplomacy?

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Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee arrive home to their families at Hangar 25 on Aug. 5, 2009, in Burbank, Calif., after being released by North Korean authorities

Shortly after former President Bill Clinton finished having dinner with Kim Jong Il on Aug. 4 in Pyongyang, North Korean's state-run news agency issued a release saying that the two men had met and that Clinton had brought a message to the North Korean leader from President Barack Obama.

In a flash, the White House issued its own statement: No, he hadn't.

And with that, the questions about the former President's visit to Pyongyang — and about where relations with Kim's North Korea go from here — begin. As expected once he arrived, Clinton departed North Korea Wednesday morning with the two American TV journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, that he had come to spring from detention there. A senior Administration official revealed on Aug. 4 that the North Koreans had, in effect, directly requested that the former President visit Pyongyang. If Clinton did visit, the North Koreans told their two prisoners, they would be granted "amnesty" and freed.

Lee and Ling passed that on to their families in the occasional phone calls they were permitted from the guesthouse where they were held, and former Vice President Al Gore — who co-founded the network that the two women were on assignment for — called his former boss to suggest the trip. Once assured that the North Koreans meant what they said, the White House signed off on the idea. The visit ended the journalist's 4½ month nightmare after being arrested March 17 and held in North Korea as punishment for allegedly crossing the border while filming a report on refugees in northeast China. Their plane touched down early Wednesday morning in Los Angeles, where Lee and Ling are sure to have an emotional reunion with family members.

The release removes one obvious thorn between Washington and Pyongyang, whose relations in the past six months have sunk to a level "that's as bad as I've ever seen them," as Clinton's former ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson, said on Tuesday. Now the question of the moment is, Will the former President's visit reverse that deteriorating dynamic? Clinton met with Kim for 3½ hours on Tuesday evening. Even if the former President didn't — as the White House insisted — bring a specific message to Kim from Obama, it's safe to assume the two men didn't play hearts (Clinton's favorite card game) for three hours. Matters of substance, in some detail, came up, and even before Clinton can be debriefed, the outside world has learned at least a couple of things from the visit.

First and most obviously, photos from the meeting show a grinning Kim, the ailing dictator, looking much better physically — surprisingly so, in fact — than he has since suffering a stroke last August. The South Korean press had reported earlier this summer that Kim might be suffering form pancreatic cancer, and recent photos showed him looking haggard and not well. In recent weeks, intelligence agencies had been scrambling to nail down reports that a succession struggle was under way in Pyongyang and that Kim might not be long for the world. Foreign Ministries and intelligence agencies in East Asia — Japanese, South Korean and Chinese — and the U.S. are not of a single mind as to Kim's health, but the U.S., says a senior diplomat in Seoul, has concluded that "he may be around for a while."

If that's true, it's possible that Kim is once again trying to direct North Korea out of the corner it's crawled into. Pyongyang, even amid recent tirades against the U.S. aimed at Clinton's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has left the door open to the possibility of re-engaging Washington in talks — though not in the so-called six-party format, which includes all of North Korea's direct neighbors, that Obama favors. "We must pay keen attention to what signal North Korea sent to Bill Clinton," says Yun Duk min, a professor at a think tank affiliated with the South Korean Foreign Ministry. "A key to break the stalemate may lie in there."

At a recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Thailand, Hillary Clinton said talks were the "only place" North Korea had left to go. She was right. The U.S. and its partners in the six-party talks ratcheted up the North's isolation after its second nuclear test back in May. Even China, the North's principal patron, was dismayed by Pyongyang's behavior. Now, however, the Clinton visit arguably puts the onus of international diplomacy back on the Obama Administration, which came into office very much wanting to engage the North.

If, as seems plausible, Kim told the former President on Aug. 4 that he is willing to reopen talks about his nuclear program but only directly with the U.S., what will Obama say in response? Is it likely that the President will insist on a diplomatic arrangement that is entirely a product of the Bush Administration? The White House likes to think of itself as guided by cold-blooded realists — diplomats who keep their eyes strictly on U.S. interests. Three successive Administrations — Clinton, Bush and now Obama — have decided the only real goal that matters when it comes to North Korea is getting it to climb off the nuclear ledge. (Whether that, in fact, is a realistic goal, is a separate question.) If Kim, apparently back in the saddle again, told Clinton he wants to talk directly to the U.S. about doing yet another nuclear deal, there's only one answer from President Obama's standpoint that makes sense.

— With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul