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Bill Clinton in North Korea, Trying to Free U.S. Journalists

by Doug Bandow

Former President Bill Clinton is currently in Pyongyang attempting to win the release of two journalists arrested after entering North Korea. His visit creates a useful channel of communication with the North and should be employed to encourage the Kim Jong-il regime to reengage the international community over its missile and nuclear programs.

President Clinton's first responsibility is to address the journalists' imprisonment; he should urge their release on humanitarian grounds, rather than treat the two as bargaining chips for which U.S. concessions must be provided. At the same time, the Obama administration should use his visit to encourage Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party nuclear talks as well as engage in bilateral discussions with the U.S. over the full range of issues between Washington and North Korea. The administration should indicate its willingness to treat the North with respect--by, for instance, sending a former president and husband of the current Secretary of State to Pyongyang--but insist that it will expect the U.S. to be treated with respect in return.

At the same time, Washington must refashion its strategy towards North Korea. The U.S. must make cooperation with the North's neighbors, particularly South Korea and China, a priority. China has the greatest influence in Pyongyang, followed by the South. The Obama administration should promote a common strategy that mixes the threat of serious pressure with the promise of positive rewards for the North's cooperation. China should be privately encouraged to consider using its power to promote regime change if North Korea fails to respond appropriately.

President Clinton's visit to the North is a positive development, so long as expectations are kept low. There is no guarantee that Pyongyang will ever agree to yield up its nuclear weapons. But U.S. engagement with North Korea is an important part of any strategy of dealing with the North, especially one directed at more effectively enlisting China's assistance in promoting a stable and nuclear-free Korean peninsula.


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