WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s successful mission to Pyongyang to win freedom for two jailed American journalists carries with it new risks to the Obama administration’s efforts to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.
Clinton’s talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Tuesday led to Kim’s “special pardon” for journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling of U.S. media outlet Current TV, which was co-founded by Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore.
The two women’s release after being held since their arrest on the North Korea-China border in March and a sentence of 12 years of hard labor was widely expected once Clinton turned up in Pyongyang. It would have been all but unthinkable for Clinton to travel to Pyongyang without a guaranteed outcome.
North Korean state media described the Clinton-Kim meetings as “candid and in-depth discussions on the pending issues between the DPRK (North Korea) and the U.S.” that “reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them.”
Clinton has yet to speak publicly on his mission, while the Obama administration has denied North Korean media assertions the former president carried a message from President Barack Obama.
But Clinton’s mission raises issues, including Pyongyang’s consistent record of harvesting diplomatic rewards from belligerent behavior, that could unsettle U.S. allies and make it harder to resolve a long-standing dispute over the reclusive communist state’s nuclear weapons programs.
Nicholas Szechenyi, a Northeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the biggest risk was that North Korea would demand a similar U.S. approach to the nuclear issue.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the North Koreans don’t budge on the nuclear issue, for example, unless someone of Clinton’s stature is involved,” he said.
North Korea grudgingly joined the United States in five years of on-and-off six-party negotiations that also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. But it quit them last year and has insisted on bilateral talks with Washington.
“We’ve seen this pattern before and it could send a very bad signal to the region if the administration suddenly shifts to a bilateral approach,” said Szechenyi.
“That is a cause for concern in Seoul and Tokyo,” he added.
U.S. allies South Korea and Japan both have politically sensitive concerns about citizens held in North Korea. Beyond those issues is a fear that the example of Clinton’s trip will weaken Obama’s firm stance against rewarding North Korean bad behavior.
“South Korea and Japan remain exceedingly nervous that Obama will eventually abandon the U.S. policy of denuclearizing North Korea and accept a lower standard of merely preventing future nuclear proliferation,” wrote Korea expert Bruce Klingner of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Parallel with that concern are worries that China and Russia, traditional friends of Pyongyang who backed U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed after North Korean nuclear and missile tests this past spring, will push to ease those curbs now that the North shows signs of talking.
Stressing that North Korea must do more than talk, Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Washington said, “The U.N. Security Council resolutions do not say that if the North Koreans agree to dialogue, then all sanctions are off.”
The Obama administration, which had vowed to wean North Korea from its habit of expecting “rewards in return for recalcitrance,” needs to hold tight to that pledge and not rush to seek a nuclear breakthrough, he said.
“That former President Clinton was not in a position to commit the administration in a particular way provides cover and an opportunity for Obama to evaluate the results,” added Snyder.
The challenge for Obama is to exploit whatever goodwill the Clinton visit might have generated, while keeping the five parties in nuclear talks united around holding North Korea’s feet to the fire over the nuclear issue.
“Pressuring North Korea, while concurrently holding open the potential for the regime to receive significant benefits if it abandons its nuclear weapons, offers the most viable potential for resolving the North Korean nuclear problem,” wrote Klingner. (Editing by Peter Cooney)