- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009


In East Asia where Confucian thought is still influential from Seoul to Singapore, former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-il was immediately seen as a triumph for the North Korean leader who had maneuvered the American into being a supplicant seeking a favor.

Mr. Clinton was asked by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former president’s wife, to undertake what the White House said was a private humanitarian mission to bring home two inexperienced Asian-American journalists who blundered into North Korea from northeastern China in March. They were arrested, tried, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The former president, said the official [North] Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), “expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong-il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists against the D.P.R.K. after illegally intruding into it.” D.P.R.K. refers to North Korea’s formal name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. KCNA said, “Clinton courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama expressing profound thanks” for releasing Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

In the Confucian world, most of life is governed by superior-inferior relationships — king-subject, father-son, husband-wife, older brother-young brother. Among equals, only friend-friend is similar to the Western standard of equality. In the “Analects,” Confucius emphasized the superior and inferior knowing their places: “There is government when the prince is prince and the minister is minister; when the father is father and the son is son.”

Mr. Kim has evidently concluded he has the upper hand over Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama, making two consequences of the Clinton mission likely. First, Mr. Kim will be tougher than ever in negotiations with the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Second, he has enhanced his grip on power amid speculation that unease and dissent runs through Mr. Kim’s hierarchy because he has been ill and has not fully prepared a successor.

Pictures of a smiling, self-assured Mr. Kim and a somber-looking Mr. Clinton were splashed all over the North Korean press so no citizen would doubt the message. As a Japanese analyst asserted: “The photographs ooze out a sense of Kim Jong-il crossing verbal swords with Clinton on more than an equal footing.”

A Chinese scholar contended: “The DPRK’s supreme leader is a master at handling U.S.-D.P.R.K. crisis and other crisis issues.” He added: “Kim played the ‘hostage card’ by promptly and skillfully grasping this little opportunity presented by the United States.”

A columnist in the Chosun Ilbo, the largest-circulation newspaper in South Korea, argued: “The Obama administration can emphasize all it likes that the rescue operation was private and humanitarian; but if the North does not see it that way, it will not be so. Kim Jong-il would hardly have spent more than three hours with Clinton just to eat.”

Mr. Clinton joined a stream of American, South Korean, and Japanese leaders who have made their way to Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder who died in 1994, and Kim Jong-il, his son. It began 15 years ago, when former President Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang.

Then came South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in 2000 to promote his “Sunshine Policy.” U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, made the journey later that same year. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan went to Pyongyang twice, in 2002 and 2004, and wangled from Mr. Kim an admission that North Korean agents had kidnapped scores of Japanese citizens and Mr. Koizumi brought back to Japan five of those captives.

In the long run, however, all the high-level visitors to Pyongyang, including Mr. Clinton, have little to show for their efforts. They have only strengthened Mr. Kim’s hand as he has kept right on developing nuclear weapons, missiles and other threats to South Korea, Japan, and U.S. forces in Asia.

Richard Halloran is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.

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