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Clinton’s visit to the North raises hopes and questions

Pyongyang may see trip as opening door to negotiation

Aug 06,2009
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, seated left, and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il, seated right, pose for a picture in Pyongyang in this photo released by North Korean official news agency KCNA Tuesday. [REUTERS]
To some, the dramatic, clandestine trip to North Korea by former United States President Bill Clinton reveals the “same bed, different dreams” situation of Pyongyang and Washington over the improvement of their ties.

An upbeat North Korea did not hide its expectations for better relations with the U.S. “The DPRK visit of Clinton and his party will contribute to deepening the understanding between the DPRK and the U.S. and building the bilateral confidence,” the country’s state-run media Korean Central News Agency reported yesterday. DPRK stands for the North’s formal name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Clinton received treatment usually reserved for a state guest during his 20-hour stay in the reclusive country. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il personally hosted a dinner for the former president at the Paekhwawon State Guest House Tuesday night. On his arrival at the airport,

Clinton was welcomed by senior North Korean officials, received a bouquet and was transported by a Lincoln Continental limousine. All of this was conspicuously special treatment given that the Barack Obama administration had recently approved harsh sanctions against Pyongyang.

High-profile officials accompanied Kim Tuesday night during his meeting with Clinton to discuss the fate of two jailed American journalists. The presences at the meeting of Kang Sok-ju, first vice minister of Foreign Ministry, and Kim Yang-gon, the director of the Workers Party’s Unification Front Department which overseas foreign and South Korea policies, hint at the North’s intention to define the session as a top-level dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, not merely as humanitarian negotiations to free reporters.

The North also insisted that Clinton had delivered a message from Obama, which the White House denied. The Obama administration had said the nuclear aspirations of North Korea would be handled separately from the release of the journalists. Perhaps in an effort to not give a wrong signal, Clinton maintained a solemn expression throughout his stay, while North Korean leader Kim was visibly upbeat.

“Pyongyang really wanted to see a breakthrough for direct talks with Washington,” a South Korean official said. “During the course of preparing a high-profile figure’s visit to the North, Pyongyang has persistently demanded that a special envoy be sent for political talks. The U.S. administration, however, made clear that the matters should be dealt with separately.”

Although Clinton was not an official U.S. envoy, Pyongyang appears to have secured momentum to resume bilateral talks with Washington. The so-called “New York channel,” used extensively to plan the Clinton trip, is expected to play a role in future possible talks between North Korea and the United States to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear arms programs.

While the Obama administration insisted that efforts to free the reporters and those to rid Pyongyang of its nuclear arms program are two separate matters, a senior U.S. official told Reuters that Clinton did talk to the North’s leadership about the “positive things that could flow” from releasing the women. Speaking on condition of anonymity after the reporters and Clinton left the North, the official added, “I’m sure President Clinton gave President Kim his views on denuclearization.”

The official also acknowledged that Clinton had been briefed in advance by members of Obama’s national security team, Reuters reported, despite White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs earlier labeling the trip a “solely private mission.”

Meanwhile, the Lee Myung-bak administration faced criticism for its lack of capability to persuade North Korea to free five South Koreans. The main opposition Democratic Party yesterday urged the Lee administration to swiftly change its North Korea policy.

“Clinton’s trip will open up bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang,” said Representative Lee Kang-rae, floor leader of the DP. “We need to be more active to reflect the changed situation.” He urged that the South Korean government declare the change by the Aug. 15 Liberation Day and send a special envoy to the North.

“I hope the envoy can resolve inter-Korean issues including the detention of a South Korean worker in the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the issue of the boat Yeonan,” he said.

A South Korean worker has been detained at the complex since April on charges of defaming the North’s administration. Then on July 30, a South Korean fishing boat with four crew members strayed north of the border and was tugged away by a North Korean patrol boat.

The administration said it will do its best to bring back the detainees.

“The government sees their release as the top priority in the inter-Korean relations,” said Lee Jong-joo, deputy spokeswoman of the Unification Ministry. “At this point, there is no discussion ongoing to send a special envoy or to have a special inter-Korean dialogue.” Noting that the worker in Kaesong was arrested around the same time as the now-freed American reporters, Lee said the government has been closely following the Clinton mission.

A senior Blue House official said the administration had received enough information about Clinton’s trip in advance and close consultations took place. “Through the discussion, Clinton went to North Korea with enough understanding about the Kaesong detainee and the arrest of the fishermen,” he said, adding that it was yet to be confirmed whether Clinton addressed the South Korean detainees’ release during his meeting with Kim.


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]




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