- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009


Former President Bill Clinton has returned from Pyongyang with former Vice President Al Gore’s employees Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The two women, reporters for Mr. Gore’s Current TV operation, were seized by North Korean border guards on March 17 along the frozen Tumen River — the border between North Korea and China.

On June 8, following a five-day “trial,” Pyongyang’s Central Court convicted the women of “illegal entry to commit hostilities against the Korean nation” and sentenced them to 12 years at hard labor.

On Aug. 3, Mr. Clinton, accompanied by a doctor and his former Chief of Staff John Podesta, arrived in Pyongyang aboard the private jet of real estate mogul, Hollywood producer and Democratic Party donor Steve Bing. On arrival at Pyongyang’s nearly deserted Sunan International Airport, they were met by Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s longtime senior nuclear negotiator. Twenty hours later, after what the North Korean media described as “exhaustive” talks with “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, the 67-year-old dictator issued a “special pardon,” and Mr. Clinton headed home with Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee.

It is good that the women have been reunited with their families and loved ones. Their release is being hailed by the White House as a “great gesture,” and kudos are being showered on Mr. Clinton for his “initiative.” The O-Team maintains that North Korean press reports of Mr. Clinton conveying a message from Mr. Obama “expressing apologies … profound thanks … and ways of improving relations between the two countries” are untrue. Though the Clinton aircraft was refueled at U.S. air bases in Alaska and Japan, the Obama administration insists the former president and party were on a strictly “private humanitarian mission” and that “there was no quid pro quo” for the release.

We all know better. The smile pasted on Mr. Kim’s face in the official photographs taken with Mr. Clinton tells the story. A price was paid. The North Koreans know what it is. The Obama administration knows what it is. But the American people don’t — and we won’t unless transcripts of the Clinton-Kim “conversations” are released. Don’t count on that happening soon.

The administration that promised to be “the most transparent in history” has made secrecy in foreign affairs a way of life.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with democratic governments engaging in secret diplomacy. Benjamin Franklin’s covert negotiations with the government of King Louis XVI resulted in the French monarchy becoming our ally in the American Revolution. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made clandestine arrangements with London to aid the British against Nazi Germany before the United States entered World War II. In these — and innumerable other cases — the United States has engaged in secret diplomacy with allies to confound common adversaries, and the American people have not been told about it until years, sometimes decades, later. However, when our government conducts covert contacts with our opponents — even for a humanitarian purpose like freeing hostages — it nearly always blows up in our faces. I should know.

Here’s why secret government negotiations with bad guys such as the regime in Pyongyang so often go wrong:

c First, those who hold the prisoners or hostages want something in return. When the captors get what they deem to be an acceptable offer, the captive will be released. The very process of negotiating a “price” or ransom for the life or freedom of an American citizen is a painful process. I know that, too.

In the 1980s — when the Iranians controlled the fate of Americans being bludgeoned and battered in Beirut dungeons, the price was 500 Israeli TOW missiles. In this week’s case, the ransom may have been the Kim-Clinton photo-op, the legitimacy bestowed on the aging dictator by the visit of a former U.S. president, a sub-rosa “apology” and an implied commitment to open direct U.S.-North Korean talks. It may not be as tangible as money, but it’s still a ransom.

c Second, in our government, nothing stays secret for long. The official U.S. negotiator and the captor may initially be the only ones who know what is being demanded and offered. But the U.S. government is ultimately vulnerable to the hostage holders’ decision to make public anything they want — true or false — about what the U.S. side was willing to give. Pyongyang already has disputed the O-Team version of what Mr. Clinton said.

c Finally, when governments pay ransom — political or otherwise — they establish a precedent other adversaries will replicate. That’s why most hostage negotiations — like those for crews held captive by Somali pirates — are conducted by trusted private emissaries, not highly visible former heads of state. Plausible deniability really does matter.

Since the O-Team apparently has decided to forgo all of these hard-learned lessons, perhaps it should try a similar gambit with Tehran. The Iranian regime is holding three American hikers — Joshua Fattal, Shane Bower and Sarah Shourd — for “illegally entering the Islamic Republic.” Sound familiar?

Mr. Clinton, call home. Your wife wants to send you on another trip.

Oliver North is the host of “War Stories” on the Fox News Channel, the author of “American Heroes” and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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