DPRK Leader Kim Jong II is a past master at handling his country's troubled relations with the United States. He knows exactly how to push a crisis to the brink and somehow manages to retain the initiative even when North Korea appears isolated in the international community. Over the past year, Kim has led US negotiator Hill by the nose and cleverly played the results of the Six-party Talks. This time round, Kim has made the most of a tiny opportunity by skillfully playing the hostage card. It not only revealed his personality and thinking, but also put him back in the driving seat in the search for a solution to the North Korea Nuclear Crisis.
The visit by Former President Clinton followed lengthy negotiations between the United States and DPRK at the United Nations. The DPRK agreed to release Laura Ling and Euna Lee as a goodwill gesture to the United States. The journalists were arrested on March 17th for crossing the DPRK border and allegedly committing “hostile actions,” and were subsequently sentenced to 12 years hard labor. In return for freeing them, the DPRK demanded a visit by senior officials or influential former politicians and a public apology from the US.
The United States insisted they would only send a non-governmental representative. Having denounced the DPRK for re-starting its nuclear test program, the US was determined the journalists would not become diplomatic bargaining chips to force it to accept the DPRK's nuclear power status and lift economic sanctions. In other words, the US hoped to separate the hostage incident from the nuclear issue, and did not want to offer any quid-pro-quos to the DPRK.
The initial candidate for envoy was former Vice-President Al Gore, boss of Current TV, the employer of the two journalists. But it is thought the U.S. State Department vetoed the idea. In the end, the DPRK proposed Clinton and the US accepted. The DPRK chose Clinton because, in office, he followed a policy of engagement with the DPRK that led to the Agreed Framework that alleviated the first DPRK Nuclear Crisis (1992-1994). In 2000, just before his term ended, Clinton met with Cho Myong Rok, the second-most-powerful man in the DPRK. The two sides issued a joint statement of mutual respect for sovereignty, non-use of force and non-interference in other countries' internal affairs. Afterwards, Clinton sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the DPRK to organize a Presidential visit and talk about a bilateral missile treaty. Although Clinton never made the trip, Kim Jong-il continued to see him as someone he could do business with, and who could contribute to creating a new era in US-DPRK relations.
It seems Clinton's visit to the DPRK was mainly limited to dealing with the release of the two journalists. He had no authority to negotiate with Kim on the nuclear issue. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied that Clinton had carried a message from President Obama to Kim Jong-il. But Kim Jong-il had obviously carefully planned the visit as a way of extricating the DPRK from its current predicament. He wanted to have a sincere conversation with Clinton to get him to understand that why the DPRK has a nuclear program. Moreover, Kim Jong-il hoped Clinton would act as a messenger and mediate between the two countries, and help restart negotiations on the nuclear issue.
Kim Jong Il is a master under desperate circumstances and is capable of making astonishing and bold suggestions. The conversation with Bill Clinton may have gone like this: First, the DPRK could completely give up its nuclear weapons but the process would be in two stages; first giving up new nuclear programs and materials, followed by a comprehensive renunciation of nuclear weapons five to eight years later. During this period, the US would help the DPRK launch scientific satellites, build light water reactors, and renew its electrical power network. The US and DPRK would sign a peace treaty, and the US also would provide substantial economic aid and promise not to intervene in DPRK' s internal affairs. The DPRK would allow only limited inspections to verify their renunciation of nuclear weapons, but the leadership would solemnly promise that their submissions were true. In other words, the DPRK would fundamentally accept US proposals for a solution to the crisis, but on certain conditions. Talks would be limited to the US and DPRK, but China, Russia and the ROK would be allowed to participate in the enforcement process. Since Japan cannot promise aid to the DPRK, it would be excluded from multi-party talks.
Clinton will convey the message to President Obama. The US government is probably willing to enter into a dialogue with the DPRK on behalf of China, Russia, ROK and Japan, after consulting with them. But many in the US, Japan and ROK doubt the sincerity of the DPRK, and are likely to consider the proposals another delaying tactic. They believe the DPRK's proposed solutions are neither feasible nor reliable. If President Obama cannot convince the doubters in the allied governments, the antagonism between the DPRK and the international community will continue.