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NORTH KOREA: After Clinton’s Trip, More Questions Than Answers Remain

Analysis by Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Aug 9 2009 (IPS) - Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s trip to North Korea to secure the release of two U.S. journalists has called attention to the lack of engagement over the past five-months since Pyongyang quit the six-party talks.

While Clinton’s trip is widely seen as a positive development and the first step in re-engaging Pyongyang in negotiating the future of their nuclear programme, more questions than answers remain about what was discussed during North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and Clinton’s three hour meeting and how the meeting will impact the future of regional diplomacy in Northeast Asia.

At an individual level, the trip can only be interpreted as a public relations bonanza for both Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il.

Clinton – his image still burnished from his wife’s presidential run where he served as a political attack dog – hasn’t enjoyed such positive publicity since his term in office expired in 2001. Those who questioned whether Clinton had "lost his touch" as a world class political operative and media darling would be hard-pressed to express anything but admiration for his handling of the meetings with North Korean leadership and his pivotal role in producing a fairy tale ending. An ending complete with the assistance of Hollywood producer, and Clinton confidante, Steve Bing – who funded the trip and provided his personal 737 – to what was an unpleasant situation, which could have gotten considerably worse.

Kim Jong Il – also a master politician – reinforced his cult of personality and took steps once again to reinforce his political legitimacy by securing the visit of one of the most well known men in the world. Although the White House might deny that an apology was made, North Korean audiences will interpret the events as a former U.S. president personally apologising for the actions taken by American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

This is no doubt a public relations coup in North Korea – all the more strengthened by North Korean control over news media and an iron grip on how the story is framed – where Kim Jong Il appears to be grooming his son Kim Jong-un to succeed him and will be in need of all the political legitimacy and positive publicity he can get during the transition.

The question of how the events of this week will impact the de- nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and how this will play out for the future of the six-party talks – whose members include: China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the US, and North Korea – is the lasting question which analysts continue to explore as precious little in details emerge from what Clinton and Kim Jong-Il discussed for three hours.

The few "leaks" which have surfaced – as discussed by Chris Nelson on The Nelson Report – seem to be carefully calibrated to ease Japanese, South Korean, Chinese and Russian concerns that the trip by Clinton was the beginning of bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, which would ignore the interests of other regional stakeholders.

The "leaks" reinforce that other members of the six-party talks were consulted before the trip took place and that concerns about North Korean abductions of South Korean and Japanese citizens – a perpetual stumbling block in six-party negotiations – were raised in the meeting between Clinton and Kim Jong-Il.

Despite the official Obama Administration and State Department stance that they seek to restart the six-party talks if and when Pyongyang returns to the table; there is little credible evidence to suggest that North Korea has any intention of negotiating away its nuclear programme or going back on its April declaration that it "will never again take part in such talks and will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks."

"Clinton may have just given North Korea a ‘face-saving way’ back to negotiations in the six-party talks – and North Korea may have found a valuable informal back channel to both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to partially sate its own yearning for direct bilateral talks with the United States that America can’t endorse given other stakeholders in Northeast Asia committed to a six-party process," writes Steve Clemons in The Washington Note.

Clemons’ optimistic analysis underscores the difficult position facing the Obama administration if North Korea stays true to their word and refuses to freeze their nuclear programme or return to the six-party talks.

For the Obama administration to pursue bilateral talks with Pyongyang – which might implicitly suggest an acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear programme – would have domestic political consequences. Accusations would come from regional stakeholders in Northeast Asia that the U.S. has abandoned their interests and, in the most extreme cases, their security.

While some analysts are seeing the contact between Clinton and Kim Jong-Il as the opening of a "back channel" form of diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang, it seems unlikely that the U.S. can seriously pursue diplomacy with North Korea which implicitly or explicitly accepts the North’s nuclear programme and is conducted outside of the framework – and regional diplomacy – of the six-party talks.

The concrete benefits gained from Clinton’s trip would seem to be the most obvious. Bill Clinton gained some high profile – and well earned – positive publicity; Kim Jong-Il reinforced his domestic political legitimacy as his efforts for this year seem focused on facilitating the succession of his son to replace him as the leader of North Korea; and the Obama administration showed themselves as pragmatic and resourceful diplomats in finding a mutually agreeable solution to free the two journalists.

As for a long term breakthrough in negotiations – either at the bilateral or regional level – it seems unlikely that Pyongyang will have much interest in making any concessions while a succession of leadership is taking place.

While the events from earlier this week show that North Korea and the U.S. can work together on individual issues of diplomacy or protocol, it still looks unlikely that the six-party talks and negotiations to end the North’s nuclear programme can be restarted while Pyongyang focuses on domestic political legitimacy and succession in leadership.

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