x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Clinton's surprise trip could mean breakthrough in nuclear stand-off

Ex-US president meets the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to secure release of journalists.

The former US president Bill Clinton meets with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The former US president Bill Clinton meets with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

BEIJING // The former US president Bill Clinton's surprise visit to North Korea yesterday and meeting with its leader, Kim Jong-Il, was about more than securing the release of two detained US journalists and possibly heralded a "breakthrough" in the nuclear diplomacy, analysts said. North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Mr Clinton delivered a "verbal" message from US President Barack Obama and in response, Mr Kim "expressed thanks". It didn't elaborate on what Mr Obama's message was.

The two then "had an exhaustive conversation on wide-ranging matters of common concern", KCNA said. The North Korean foreign minister, Kang Sok-ju, and a Workers' Party director, Kim Yang-gon, attended the meeting, KCNA said. Mr Clinton later attended a dinner, hosted by Mr Kim at the state guesthouse, according to the report. The White House was quick to play down enthusiasm for a possible breakthrough in the chequered relationship between the two adversaries, characterising the trip as private. "While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardise the success of former president Clinton's mission," spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Earlier in the day, KCNA made a terse report on Mr Clinton's visit, saying the nation's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, and other officials greeted Mr Clinton at the airport. The short report did not give further details, such as the purpose of his visit and his itinerary. Apparently, however, the trip is viewed as an effort to win the release of the two detained American journalists. Yesterday marked the 139th day since Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested along the China-North Korea border. Washington has pushed for an amnesty for the two women and reportedly had a series of "intense" discussions with the North through its UN mission in New York to negotiate their release.

But Mr Clinton's visit, which was a well-kept secret until the last minute, also raised hopes for a breakthrough in the nuclear standoff and a new momentum for dialogue between the two countries. "I am very optimistic about the prospect of this visit," said Paik Hak-soon, an expert on North Korea at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in South Korea. Brushing aside the White House report that stressed the nature of Mr Clinton's visit as "private," Mr Paik said, "That's what they say to journalists."

He said: "If Clinton's visit is simply to secure the release of the two journalists, North Korea wouldn't have accepted him. That's a common sense. The fact that Pyongyang accepted Clinton means that Kim Jong Il wants to give him a 'present' and vice versa. There will be a give and take. " Jin Jingyi, a Chinese expert on North Korea at Beijing's Peking University, agrees. "It's likely to be a turning point in their bilateral relationship," he said.

Mr Jin compared Mr Clinton's visit to that of Jimmy Carter. At the height of the first nuclear crisis in 1994. Former US president Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang and held talks with Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder and father of the current leader, Kim Jong Il. With the resulting tension thawing, the US scrapped its plan for a "surgical air strike" on North Korea's nuclear site near Pyongyang. Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, also agrees on the special nature of the visit. "I don't think Clinton would have gone there unless there are some possibilities," he said, but he stopped short of predicting a breakthrough, citing the presence of "a number of obstacles and difficulties" between the two.

Tetsuo Kotani, a security expert at the Ocean Policy Research Foundation in Tokyo, is more cautious. "I don't think Clinton has a secret mission. I don't think the Obama administration is asking Bill Clinton to talk about the nuclear issue this time. That's Obama's job. Not a former president's." With Mr Clinton's visit to North Korea, analysts all agree that now the release of the American journalists is a matter of time, with some pointing out the possibility that they are likely to return with Mr Clinton in the same aeroplane.

The North Korean leader is believed to be seriously ill and keen attention was paid earlier as to whether he would really show up to meet Mr Clinton. According to Mr Paik, the ailing leader's decision to meet the former US president came because "he wants to give his heir a better security environment to succeed by improving relations with the US. "Kim Jong-Il wouldn't want to let go of this golden opportunity."

Mr Clinton's visit to North Korea came as the two nations' relationship had been deteriorating after Pyongyang escalated tensions with missile and nuclear launches, inviting US-led sanctions, meted out by the UN. Just weeks ago, Mr Clinton's wife, secretary of state Hillary Clinton, engaged in verbal sparring with North Korean officials. Mrs Clinton said North Korea was behaving like an "unruly child". North Korea retorted, calling her "vulgar and unintelligent".

Although some sceptical critics suspect North Korea is using the visit by Mr Clinton as a barter to avoid UN-implemented sanctions, Mr Paik disagrees, and foresees a package deal in a "grand bargain" between the two. "The US is making a critical choice now that will fundamentally and profoundly change its relationship with North Korea," he said. slee@thenational.ae