Friday, August 7, 2009

Two American Women Released in North Korea: Good News of Bad?

After former President Bill Clinton visits North Korea, two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were released from prison.

The women were held for five months after their arrest on March 17th along North Korea's border with China. There were accused of entering the country illegally from China. The two were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. However, they were held in a guest house and not yet transferred to the labor camp when Kim Jong Il pardoned them. They returned to the US with President Clinton on August 5th.

Was this is a happy outcome of private diplomacy or did it provide a diplomatic coup for Kim Jong Il?

Clearly, the journalists and their families and many Americans rejoiced that the unjustly imprisoned pair were free. Personally, I was very happy to see them reunited with their families and friends.

But what about the cost? Did the visit of a former US President reward North Korea for becoming a nuclear state?

Did it open a possible avenue for diplomacy with this reclusive leader and rogue state?

Or was this a follow-up to Clinton’s agenda of opening dialog with North Korea?

Commentators have expressed a variety of opinions. Conservatives and some scholars of North Korea have pointed out that the visit of Clinton will be seen as a great victory for Kim Jong Il. The critics see this as a bad move.

Which Path Should We Take?
But, in my opinion, Kim Jong Il is not your typical rational leader who plays by the rules and can be influenced by sanctions, criticism or a hands-off approach. The “Axis of Evil” label meant nothing and the North went on to develop their nuclear capabilities without regard to the constant criticism of the Bush Administration. The Bush approach did not accomplish anything. Our hands may be “clean” by not giving in, but we gained nothing.

On the other hand, Clinton was considering dialog with the North. While that did not happen on his watch, he did have a long talk with Kim Jong Il. Many speculate that the discuss was on a broad range of issues.

Some will say the North Korean leader is evil and maybe a little short of working on all cylinders, so therefore we should not talk, or at least not talk without conditions. But, we can continue to never talk and the North will continue their nuclear program. What does that get us?

My opinion is sometimes it’s best to talk directly with the devil. Engagement can provide opportunities for leverage. Maybe policy gains can be made.

So, while I’m not overly optimistic for a significant change in actions and policy in North Korea. But, maybe this trip has opened an opportunity for dialog that may lead to better relations.

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