[Viewpoint] The Clinton mission and peaceThe National Security Council of the United States has long had a custom that a report that reaches the president should not be over two pages long. Taking into account the busy schedule of the president, the NSC will summarize as much as possible and boil issues down to the most significant points.
However, when the war clouds were hanging over the Korean Peninsula over the North’s nuclear program in the summer of 1994, the NSC produced a nine-page presidential report. Robert Gallucci, who represented Washington in the U.S.-North negotiation in Geneva, wrote in his 2004 book “Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis” that the report became so long because the NSC contained within it various strategies and options. President Bill Clinton thoroughly read the lengthy report, underlining important points, and returned it with comments and questions. This illustrated how grave and complicated the touch-and-go situation was.
According to Gallucci, President Clinton showed special interest in what is called the “Rudolf Hess option.” It is named after a high-ranking leader from Nazi Germany who went to England to negotiate peace by himself during World War II. The option is based on the logic that when chasing a mouse, an escape hole should be provided. The core dispute of the first North Korean nuclear crisis was how to process spent fuel rods. The NSC decided that this would constantly cause troubles as long as North Korea kept fuel rods after use. Based on the Rudolf Hess option, President Clinton repeatedly emphasized that Washington needed to provide an escape hole for North Korea to keep face while backing down. So the NSC came up with an idea of shipping the spent rods from Yongbyon reactors to China, not the United States. Washington offered an escape that, had Pyongyang agreed, might have let North Korea sidestep United Nations Security Council sanctions.
As Clinton flew to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of two American journalists, he must have recalled the situation 15 years ago. Reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, a former U.S. president was visiting Pyongyang as a troubleshooter. Clinton might have felt the ironic weight of history.
Clinton traveled to Pyongyang after the release of the journalists had been mostly arranged through unofficial contacts. Having personally handled the North Korean nuclear crisis in the past, Clinton knew better than anyone what his visit to Pyongyang meant.
He is surely aware that his visit was a Rudolf Hess option that President Barack Obama had chosen to help Kim Jong-il save face.
The 67-year-old chairman of the North Korean Defense Commission is standing on the edge. He put himself there by launching a series of missiles and carrying out a second nuclear test. Washington has since been tightening screws on the North with unprecedentedly powerful sanctions through the United Nations.
However, it is unimaginable for Pyongyang that the “Dear Leader” can easily be pressured to back away from the cliff. Someone has to stretch out a hand so that Chairman Kim can take it and back down while keeping face. Perhaps, Pyongyang and Washington had an agreement that President Clinton would offer the hand. The truth about Clinton’s Pyongyang visit will be revealed over time. We cannot rush to a conclusion whether it was a one-time humanitarian event for the release of the journalists or a more advanced political maneuver to achieve a negotiation breakthrough.
However, looking back at the situation 15 years ago, the latter is more likely. From the meeting with the late leader Kim Il Sung, Jimmy Carter produced the compromise of freezing the North’s nuclear program in return for light-water reactors. That plan was finalized in a subsequent high-level official meeting between Pyongyang and Washington.
For the North, the geopolitical situation of having China as a friendly neighbor and being so close to Korea and Japan means the United States will not attack first. It could either wait until the North Korean system crumbles under its own weight, or resolves tension through dialogue.
However, if the U.S. lets the crisis grow, North Korea’s status as a nuclear power will only solidify. There is already speculation that nuclear proliferation has expanded to Myanmar. Washington cannot afford to sit back and wait. With Clinton’s visit, Chairman Kim has secured a justification to back away from the cliff while keeping face. He has already scored a jackpot domestically.
The persistent showmanship of twisting the arm of the U.S. by taking two American journalists hostage is uncanny. Kim is enjoying the effects of calming public concerns about his health, succession issues and the arduous sanctions of the international community.
Whether there are six-party talks or a bilateral dialogue, the format is not essential. After the summer vacation season is over in Washington, the United States and North Korea might sit down to discuss a “comprehensive package” under the mediation of China.
As long as both sides are willing to negotiate, an appropriate format can be accommodated to facilitate talks. The 20-year-long history of North Korean nuclear program is proof. After all, history repeats itself.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok