Mr. Clinton Goes to N. Korea -- What a (Handy) Tool
Current TV reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling are going to be pardoned by North Korean President Kim Jong-il, as many folks (including OS'er Kathy Riordan) have noted. They were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor. This release (and it's not yet confirmed whether they've already been released or are yet to be sent home) was arranged during a visit by former president Bill Clinton, and he's getting the lion's share of the credit for their release.
I like Bill Clinton, too, but let's take a breath before we name him Diplomat of the Century. He was instrumental in winning amnesty for Laura Ling and Euna Lee, certainly -- but as with any instrument, he was simply that: an instrument. A tool. I don't mean that in the "dude, you're a tool" way that's so popular with les enfants de frat; I mean that Clinton was deployed the way that one deploys a hammer to a situation where there's a nail sticking up.
North Korea wanted a diplomat of a certain cachet to visit and make nice. The former president/world traveler/husband of the Secretary of State was a perfect choice for this. It's the diplomatic equivalent of a Hallmark card: North Korea read it, flipped it over to the back, checked that the cost was appropriately high. Since there's a state-released photo of Clinton glaring in company with several glaring NK counterparts, including Kim Jong-Il, I'd say it was. I expect that photo is being prepared for delivery to most of North Korea with captions like "Famous U.S. President Acqueiseces to North Korean Superiority, Begs for Release of Criminals." Don't forget, the State Department has recently switched from asking for the women to be released to asking for the women to be pardoned -- admitting some culpability after earlier declaring the charges against them baseless.
I take this as a good sign, actually: North Korea demanding the ego-stroke of a visit and kow-towing from a top-level foreign dignitary is still North Korea seeking contact. Yeah, it's a pretty terrible way for them to arrange it -- they basically demanded Clinton's visit as ransom for two women's lives. Yet this is still, somehow, a step forward. It's North Korea playing on the world stage, even if it's still likely at any moment they will pick up their game pieces (or possibly to snatch some of ours) and storm back home to sulk.
I'm glad the two women are being released, and I'm glad that Bill Clinton was the tool needed for the job. What I'm really glad about, though, is the signal here that North Korea might be open to talking to the West more often. Certainly, in this instance, the meeting happened completely on their terms and will likely be broadcast to their advantage, but once the talking stops, well... let's hope it's harder to stop.