Freed U.S. Journalists Arrive Home

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KRT / Reuters

In an image taken from video footage, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pose for a picture in Pyongyang on Aug. 4, 2009

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The current mission was quite different. In addition to freedom for Ling and Lee, Clinton no doubt intended to explore ways to arrest the diplomatic downward spiral that's ensued since Obama entered the White House in January. The North has tested its second nuclear bomb (the first test was in October 2006) as well as a long-range missile and has said it has no intention of ever rejoining the so-called six-party talks — the Bush Administration's ultimately futile attempt to get the North to, in effect, re-enact the Agreed Framework of the Clinton era.

Indeed, the former President's trip to Pyongyang evokes the never-ending back-to-the-future quality of dealing with North Korea. "They've repeated the same pattern over the past two decades," says Yun Duk-min of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, a Foreign Ministry think tank. Ratchet up the nuclear tensions, declare diplomacy dead, and then hope to win even bigger concessions as talks reconvene later. But since taking office, Obama has proved no slouch at playing the game from the other side. In the wake of the nuclear test this past spring, the President dropped the rhetoric of engagement, went to the U.N. for new economic sanctions against Pyongyang and — perhaps most important — had his Treasury Department start to put into effect unilateral financial sanctions against North Korean companies and individuals. It was precisely those sorts of sanctions — and their effectiveness — that infuriated the North Koreans during George W. Bush's second term, when they stormed out of the six-party nuclear talks and didn't return until Treasury sanctions were removed. The Obama Administration, moreover, has constantly reiterated what Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this past spring after the second nuclear test: "We're not going to buy the same horse twice"; that is, North Korea cannot expect to be rewarded for its recent cantankerous behavior.

Internally, the North will portray Clinton's visit as a great victory. It will probably say the former President's trip showed that the Dear Leader brought Washington to its knees to beg for the release of the two journalists. In fact, it shows that the diplomatic reset button is about to be hit — yet again — in Pyongyang and in Washington. Clinton almost certainly bore a message that Washington wants to talk again, in some forum. And while the U.S. might not want to "buy the same horse" now, who knows what it might be in the diplomatic market for several months hence? As for Pyongyang, as the former President's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recently put it, North Korea doesn't really have "anywhere else to go." Now that the journalists are finally free, expect the diplomacy to begin anew — as it always seems to — even if it never ends up quite where Washington wants.

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