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Pyongyang's Pardons

Interviewee: Scott A. Snyder, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Korea Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 4, 2009

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Scott A. Snyder, a CFR expert on North Korea, says the visit of former U.S. President Bill Clinton to North Korea, which resulted in the announced pardon of two U.S. journalists, has potentially larger implications. He says the meeting between Clinton and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il "broadened the bandwidth for messages to be passed between Washington and Pyongyang" at a time when the Obama administration's policy on how to engage North Korea is stalled. It also provided an opportunity, Snyder says, "for there to be an informal exchange between a current leader, Kim Jong-Il, and a former leader, Bill Clinton, about the broader geopolitical situation in North Korea." He says that the meeting and a dinner Kim held for Clinton also allowed the former president to judge Kim's physical health in light of the continued speculation on succession in North Korea.

U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were captured by North Korea in March and sentenced to twelve years in "hard labor" †have been pardoned †by Kim Jong-Il, who met with former President Bill Clinton in Pyongyang today. Were you surprised?

I was surprised that it was Clinton, but I'm not surprised it was a person of this stature. In order for this kind of trip to occur, there has to have been some behind-the-scenes understandings forged, or at least hinted at, between the two sides.

Do you think the United States had to give something substantial for this?

One thing that clearly occurred was that Kim Jong-Il got the opportunity to meet with the former president. That was the main item that the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] was seeking as part of this process. Of course, there was the opportunity for there to be an informal exchange between a current leader, Kim Jong-Il, and a former leader, Bill Clinton, about the broader geopolitical situation in North Korea.

The issue since the end of last year has been North Korea's nuclear program, which earlier it had agreed to suspend in return for aid and other promises. But then it took a more belligerent attitude for almost all of this year,†conducting another nuclear test, and test-firing missiles. So now, almost making a 360-degree turn, Kim†Jong-Il gives a dinner in Clinton's honor, and releases the two prisoners to him. The tone has changed dramatically, hasn't it?

The visit runs against the dominant tone. We'll have to wait and see if it enables a real change in approach by the DPRK, or by the United States, in terms of how to deal with the nuclear issue.

In the last two weeks, North Korea said it wanted a bilateral meeting?

That's right. The North Korean ambassador held a press conference last week at which he stated that the DPRK was not against a dialogue. At the same time, the DPRK foreign ministry released a statement that referred to what they call a "specific and reserved form of dialogue that can address the current situation." In light of these developments, that form of dialogue was probably referencing the possibility of a visit by former President Clinton.

The White House has insisted that Clinton had no other mission but to discuss the status of the two reporters. Do you agree that it's inconceivable that they could have met without talking about anything else?

Of course, other issues had to be discussed. If nothing else, there was an opportunity for discussion over a wide range of issues over dinner. The administration insists that this was a humanitarian matter. But in the DPRK, nothing is separated from politics. Of course, they perceived the issue of the two journalists through a political lens.

Of the people who met Clinton at the airport, one was†North Korea's†chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan.

That is interesting because there had been some rumors floating around that he might not be in good graces with the North Korean leadership. Obviously, those rumors prove to be untrue. Also, his presence certainly does suggest that the DPRK was prepared to talk about issues beyond the release of the two journalists. No doubt, Kim Kye-gwan's presence at the airport and also at other points during the visit would have given an opportunity for a variety of forms of discussion about nuclear issues.

What implications does Clinton's trip have for Washington's North Korea policy?

First, it's broadened the bandwidth for messages to be passed between Washington and Pyongyang. I'm sure that President Clinton, even if this was a private visit, shared his own opinions about the current situation with the North Korean leadership. Also, this provided the North Korean leadership [with an opportunity] to give a picture of its own view of the world. This is all information that President Clinton will bring back and will be digested by the Obama administration. Information gained from the Clinton visit may have some influence on the direction of the administration's North Korean policy. It had virtually stalled as a result of the imprisonment of the two women and other provocations that had occurred in the past few months. The administration will want to consult with its partners and allies involved in the North Korean negotiations.

North Korea had said that it was†finished with the Six-Party Talks. It just wanted bilateral talks. Is it possible the United States might represent the other parties in a bilateral session?

The DPRK has continued to assert that the Six-Party Talks are dead. We don't know if anything that they might have heard from President Clinton could have facilitated an adjustment with that approach. The Obama administration, in order to maintain cohesion among the other parties, will probably need to continue to identify a resumption of the Six-Party Talks as an objective of any bilateral talks that go forward coming out of this trip.

Lastly, do you think there's any chance that Bill Clinton got any idea on the succession from the meeting today?

He certainly got a chance to see Kim Jong-Il in action to make a judgment about his†health-and of course [Kim's] health would be related to the timing of the succession. It'll be interesting to see who else was in the room and whether or not there were any remarks made by North Korean interlocutors during the trip that shed light on that question.

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