Kim Jong-il has granted a “special pardon” to Euna Lee and Laura Ling, the two reporters who were arrested at the North Korea-China border and sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp for “illegal entry” and “hostile acts.” Former President Bill Clinton touched down in North Korea on Tuesday to seek the release of the two journalists, and, after less than a day in the communist country, was able to negotiate their release.
In a June community conference call, Council for a Livable World Members joined board member Dr. Jim Walsh, a Research Associate in MIT’s Security Studies Program, for a discussion of current events in North Korea and Iran. In a response to a Council member’s question on the capture of the two journalists, Dr. Walsh emphasized the importance of “face” and respect to North Koreans:
“My guess is that once this trial is concluded, Bill Richardson, who the North Koreans know well…he may very well travel to North Korea, and he may very well do what was suggested, and there’s at least a shot that he could come back with those arrested journalists.”
President Clinton’s successful trip again brings to light the importance of “face” to North Korea.
Although the Obama Administration has made clear that, “the mission was humanitarian, and had nothing to do with the nuclear dispute between the two countries,” as Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund identified, Clinton “jumpstart[ed] the successful diplomacy he had done 15 years earlier.”
This kind of private diplomacy has a history of proving fruitful in the past. Bill Richardson twice traveled to the North to bring back detained American citizens, once in 1994 and again in 1996. Earlier in 1994, former President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea to meet with then-ruler Kim Il-sung regarding the country’s nuclear program. Not only did Carter’s efforts lead a breakthrough in U.S. relations with the North, but the trip promoted dialogue between the North and the South and defused tensions at a time when hardliners were debating a military strike against the country amidst a military buildup and discussion of sanctions. Carter’s visit paved the way for U.S. negotiators, among them Robert Gallucci (a recipient of the Council’s 2009 Drinan Award), to negotiate a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program in the October 1994 Agreed Framework.
Let’s hope for new progress, now that there are signs that the ice is thawing.