President Clinton In N. Korea To Negotiate Journalists' Release

Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea today to negotiate the release of imprisoned American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Some say his visit all but assures their release, while others are more skeptical.

Clinton's visit is a surprise, and Clinton is the highest-profile American to go to North Korea since Madeline Albright's trip in 2000 (Jimmy Carter went in 1994). The Obama administration reportedly considered a number of other possible envoys, including John Kerry. The choice is especially surprising given that Hillary Clinton has been so deeply involved in efforts to free Ling and Lee. However, she has recently been trading insults with North Korean officials, comparing them to "small children and unruly teenagers." The North Korean Foreign Ministry in turn called her a "funny lady" who "is by no means intelligent." Bill Clinton, on the other hand, maybe popular in North Korea because US-North Korean relations were at their best during his administration.

Researcher and ex-North Korean official Jang Cheol-hyeon says Clinton "can surely bring the two journalists back home." Victor Cha, a former Bush advisor on North Korea, concurs, saying, "it would be very difficult for the North not to give these people up" to Clinton. Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation, however, has concerns. He tells the LA Times, "The question is going to be how could he go to Pyongyang without some assurance that they would be released. For someone at his level to go without a prior assurance of some kind would be to risk a huge loss of face." But analyst Mike Chinoy thinks this is actually evidence that Clinton is confident about the journalists' release. He says, "I suspect that it was made pretty clear in advance that Bill Clinton would be able to return with these two women otherwise it would be a terrible loss of face for him."

Experts are debating the larger diplomatic implications of the visit as well. Obama administration officials say Clinton will try to avoid linking the issue of Ling and Lee to North Korea's nuclear program, and that they aren't willing to offer the North incentives to return to six-party diplomatic talks. But South Korean professor Kim Yong-hyun says of Clinton's visit, "I think it's not just about journalists. It will serve as a turning point in the US-North Korea relations." Senator Lindsay Graham agrees, saying, "Maybe we can build on this to do something better with nuclear weapons. ... I don't know if this is the beginning of something bigger." Jack Kim of Reuters reports that the former President's trip "allows the [North Korean] government to show to a domestic audience, facing deepening poverty, that the nuclear weapons program is making the outside world take it more seriously and the visit will be certain to be portrayed as tribute by the United States." And North Korea expert B.R. Myers says, "It sends all the wrong signals," such as that the United States will reward kidnapping with high-level attention.

However, at least one expert thinks Clinton's trip offers a valuable intelligence opportunity as well as a humanitarian one. Think tank president Ralph Cossa says Clinton will be able to gauge Kim Jong Il's reportedly failing health, and find out who is really running North Korea. He says,

For me, this is a stroke of genius on the part of the Obama administration. Kim Jong Il will have to meet with a former U.S. president. Given his ego and desire for attention, this is a photo opportunity he doesn't want to miss. If he doesn't meet with Clinton, we'll know he is on life support.

Reports: Bill Clinton Arrives In N. Korea [Washington Post]
Bill Clinton Arrives In North Korea [Guardian]
Bill Clinton Visits North Korea In Bid To Free Journalists [LA Times]
Bill Clinton In North Korea To Seek Release Of U.S. Reporters [NY Times]
Bill Clinton In N. Korea For Journalists [CNN]
Bill Clinton In North Korea To Win Reporters' Release [Reuters]
White House Mostly Mum On Clinton's NKorea Mission [AP]