x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Much being read into Clinton's Pyongyang visit

White House calls trip private but analysts say former president would not have gone to North Korea without Obama administration's blessing.

WASHINGTON // Bill Clinton's 20-hour diplomatic mission to Pyongyang, during which he managed to dine with Kim Jong Il and secure the freedom of two imprisoned American journalists, could also go a long way towards improving the strained relationship between the United States and North Korea, analysts say. Mr Clinton triumphantly returned yesterday to the United States, with Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, both of whom had been sentenced to 12 years hard labour before they were pardoned. Some say the former president also brought back a new opening for co-operation with North Korea at a time when tensions over its nuclear programme were rising. North Korea recently quit six-party talks involving China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. In May, it tested its second nuclear device, drawing a swift rebuke from Barack Obama, the US president, who called the action "reckless". Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, last month likened North Korean actions to those of "unruly teenagers", comments that served only to deepen the discord. But Scott Snyder, an expert on US-Korea relations at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr Clinton's trip could be "the equivalent of hitting the 'reset' button". Mr Snyder noted in an interview on the council's website that the visit "broadened the bandwidth for messages to be passed between Washington and Pyongyang". Many have praised the visit for allowing the United States to listen to North Korean leaders without preconditions or the normal diplomatic filters. It also offered US leaders a rare first-hand assessment of Mr Kim's physical condition. The frail-looking dictator is rumoured to have suffered a stroke last year and is likely looking for a successor. The White House, for its part, has maintained that Mr Clinton was on a "private humanitarian mission" and did not carry a message from the administration. Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary, said during his briefing with reporters on Tuesday that Mr Clinton and Mr Obama had not talked since they met at the White House in March. Mr Obama said yesterday morning that he had called Mr Clinton to thank him for his efforts. He also thanked Al Gore, the former vice president and co-founder of Current TV, which employed the kidnapped journalists, for his work behind the scenes to secure their release. Appearing in the driveway of the South Lawn of the White House, Mr Obama continued to frame Mr Clinton's trip as a "humanitarian" effort. But those familiar with such high-level diplomacy have said the trip was not only approved at the highest levels of the administration, but probably involved weeks of planning and back-channel deals at the US state department. Mr Clinton was accompanied on the trip by John Podesta, his former White House chief of staff, who led Mr Obama's transition team. "The former president wouldn't go unless he had the backing of the president and there was a clear understanding that the journalists would be released," Robert Hunter, who served as the Nato ambassador under Mr Clinton, told The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. Many have also said the conversations between Mr Kim and Mr Clinton - reported to have lasted more than three hours - would have inevitably touched on an array of political issues including North Korea's nuclear programme. "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," said Mr Snyder, referring to a banquet that Mr Kim reportedly held in Mr Clinton's honour. "In the DPRK nothing is separated from politics." The trip does not come without risks and critics have pointed out that images of Mr Clinton's meeting with Mr Kim are already being used to bolster the dictator's legitimacy within the secretive country's borders. Some have also worried about Mr Clinton delving into diplomacy at a time when his wife is secretary of state. John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations under George W Bush, wrote in an op-ed article in The Washington Post that the trip was a "significant propaganda victory for North Korea". He wrote that a visit by someone of Mr Clinton's stature confers legitimacy on the tactic of kidnapping US citizens and using them as diplomatic pawns and sends the wrong message to other "autocracies" such as Iran, where three American hitchhikers were recently arrested. Mr Bolton wrote that "the knee-jerk impulse for negotiations above all inevitably brings more costs than its advocates foresee". Still, the reaction in the United States has been overwhelmingly positive. Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico who negotiated with North Korea during the Clinton administration, told MSNBC on Tuesday that the trip would improve the "atmospherics" and perhaps jump-start bilateral talks. "The vibes have been very good on this trip," he said. An easing of tensions would be a contrast to the tenor of the relationship under Mr Bush, who labelled North Korea as part of the "axis of evil". Another former president, Jimmy Carter, visited Pyongyang 15 years ago during Mr Clinton's presidency. Mr Carter's visit with the late Kim Il Sung, Mr Kim's father, was credited with temporarily thawing relations between the two countries. North Korea agreed not to restart its nuclear reactor nor reprocess the plant's spent fuel. Critics point out, however, that North Korea quickly violated those agreements. sstanek@thenational.ae