Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bill and Kim's Excellent Adventure

Bill Clinton, Kim Jung-Il and the rest of the cast of the new CBS prime-time drama Pyongyang [based loosely on Dallas, with Kim earning uproarious reviews as the "Korean Miss Ellie"] pose for a publicity photo on Tuesday.

Well, no one can accuse former President Bill Clinton of lacking in drama. The former Chief Executive left North Korea on Wednesday morning after a surreal 20-hour odyssey, in which he won the freedom of two American journalists, seemingly opened a diplomatic channel to North Korea’s reclusive government and dined with the North’s ailing leader, Kim Jong-Il. No doubt, they traded stories about dating in your sixties.

Clinton managed to extricate journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Although both match Clinton's dating age criteria [both are in their 30s], this is one time when the former President was jetting around with two women and not having sex. Between that and the sight of Kim in the flesh, I'm thinking the former is more noteworthy than the latter, but that's just me.

In June, the North Korean government had sentenced the women to 12 years of hard labor [as if being stuck in North Korea for a dozen years weren't punishment enough] for "illegally" entering North Korean territory. Pyongyang made it very clear that Kim had pardoned the women only after Clinton "apologized" to Kim for their actions. And, if there's one thing Bill Clinton is well-versed at, it's apologizing. For what it's worth National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones adamantly refuted Pyongyang's claim regarding Clinton's apology.

Clinton’s mission to Pyongyang was the most visible by an American in nearly a decade. It came at a time when the United States’ relationship with North Korea had reached near-code blue status, after North Korea’s test of its second nuclear device in May and a series of missile launchings.

On a personal level, Clinton's actions ended a harrowing ordeal for the two women, who were stopped on March 17 by soldiers near North Korea’s border with China while researching a report about women and human trafficking. They faced years of imprisonment in the gulag-like confines of a North Korean prison camp. Although, exactly how you can tell a North Korean prison camp from a North Korean summer camp is still unclear.

More importantly for bloggers like me, however, Clinton's actions catapulted Bubba back onto the global stage. The irony, of course, is he did so on behalf of a president who defeated his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a bitter primary campaign last year, only to choose her to be his secretary of state six months later.

Hillary Clinton was deeply involved in the case, too. She originally proposed sending various people - including former Vice President Al Gore [who co-founded Current TV, the San Francisco-based media company that employees Ling and Lee] - to Pyongyang to lobby for the release of the women. It was then, however, that the North Koreans made their own preference clear. In conversations they had with Ling and Lee, North Korea signaled its desire to have Bill Clinton act as a special envoy. Ling and Lee then relayed that message to their families in the middle of July. That message, in turn, was passed to Gore 10 days ago. Gore then contacted the White House, which then explored whether such a mission would be successful. They asked Gore to ask President Clinton if he would be willing to undertake the trip. Bill Clinton agreed.

The riveting drama of a former president, jetting into a diplomatic crisis while his wife was embarking on a tour of Africa in her role as the nation’s chief diplomat, underscored the unique and enduring role of the Clintons, even in the Obama era. The trip came just two weeks after North Korea issued a harsh personal attack on Hillary Clinton, in response to comments she made comparing its nuclear test and missile launchings to the behavior of an attention-seeking teenager. The North Korean Foreign Ministry objected to her “vulgar remarks” and called her “a funny lady” who was neither intelligent nor diplomatic. “Sometimes she looks like a primary-school girl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping,” a spokesman said at the time. Apparently, a pensioner going shopping is the North Korean equivalent of the English word 'bitch'.

Despite Pyongyang's harsh rhetoric toward the Secretary of State, the episode did not stop consideration of sending her husband as an envoy. In a town that keeps a secret about as well as Lindsay Lohan keeps a boyfriend, the initiative was cloaked in secrecy and came after weeks of back-channel talks between the United States and North Korea through its United Nations mission - all without any leaks. In addition to Gore, the White House’s list of potential candidates included Gov. Bill Richardson [D, New Mexico]. Needless to say we're all thanking God that didn't happen. If it had, Ling and Lee might have been sentenced to an additional 12 years if Kim had been forced to dine with the gluttonous Richardson.

President Obama did not speak directly with President Clinton before the mission. But his national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, contacted the former president to brief him what - and what not - to say. The Obama Administration also did what it called “due diligence” with the North Koreans to ensure that - if Bill Clinton went - he would return with the journalists.

So, why did Kim choose Bubba? It really is an amazing story in its simplicity, and it speaks to the universal humanity that even a lunatic like Kim has [somewhere] within him. It turns out that, as president, Clinton had sent Kim a letter of condolence on the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung. Kim apparently was deeply touched when he received the letter. For Kim, it turns out, freeing the women was a “reciprocal humanitarian gesture.”

The families of the American journalists issued a statement saying they were “overjoyed” by news of the pardon and thanked Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. “We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home,” the statement said.

Administration officials were clear in making the point that President Clinton went to North Korea as a private citizen, and did not carry a message from Obama for Kim and had the authority to negotiate only for the women’s release. Considering Clinton's ability to interpret "authority", you can bet Obama Administration officials made Clinton repeat his instructions back to them just so that they could be sure he understood it. Otherwise, who knows what Clinton might agree to? “This was 100 percent about the journalists,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to be named while essentially calling Clinton an unpredictable prick. "We knew Kim Jong-Il would probably seek a meeting with Clinton. But that’s not what this visit was about.”

Still, North Korea, clearly seeing a propaganda opportunity at home and a rare chance for a measure of favorable publicity abroad, welcomed Clinton with the fanfare of a state visit. It broadcast a group portrait that looked not unlike the 1978 publicity photo taken by the cast of Dallas. The event was also portrayed through photos of Kim gesturing and talking to Clinton; of the former president accepting flowers from a North Korean girl; and of Clinton, seated across a negotiating table from Kim, each flanked by their aides.

Among those greeting Clinton at the airport was Kim Kye-Gwan, North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator. Among those accompanying Clinton was David Straub, a former director of the Korea desk at the State Department, who had held talks with the North Koreans through what is known as the “New York connection” - the U.N. Clinton was joined by John Podesta, an informal adviser to the Obama administration who served as Clinton’s chief of staff in the final years of his presidency, when the former president yearned to travel to North Korea to clinch a deal that would have curbed its nuclear program.

That visit never happened — partly because the White House concluded that a deal was not assured — and President George W. Bush put the kibosh on direct talks with North Korea, setting the stage for eight years of largely fruitless efforts to stop the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Given Clinton’s stature and his long interest in the North Korean nuclear issue, and his inability to follow instructions, you can bet that his discussions in North Korea ranged well beyond obtaining the release of Ling and Lee.

The visit also was another reminder of the awkward dance Bill Clinton and President Obama have been engaged in. The last time the two spoke was in March, when Obama invited Clinton to a ceremony in Washington for signing legislation expanding the AmeriCorps program created by President Clinton. In interviews last spring, Clinton said that he would be happy to do anything Obama asked him to do, but that “I try to stay out of their way.”

Ironically, Bill Clinton’s mission may be less of an issue for Obama than for his Secretary of State. The same day he landed in North Korea, Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Kenya, kicking off an 11-day journey through Africa — a visit now largely eclipsed by her husband’s travels.

Not the first - nor, I'm sure, the last - time Bill's upstaged Hillary. At least this time there was no intern involved.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

No comments:

Post a Comment