[Update: More here, at The New Ledger. I suspect we've come to a fork in the road. One way brings us to Agreed Framework III, and the other clears a major obstacle toward intensifying sanctions, and an adult response to a crisis that talks without clear benchmarks and objectives have only exacerbated. Place your own bets.]
Former President Clinton is in Pyongyang to ask for the freedom of Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
As I’ve said before, it hardly matters how Ling and Lee got across the border as far as the policy of our government is concerned. Either way, a detention of this length is unjustified and clearly aimed at gaining some ransom, whether monetary of diplomatic. As such, it should be treated as false imprisonment and therefore, terrorism. Either way, no ransom should be discussed, offered, or paid. And either way, the North Koreans should understand that some particularly painful sanction will be applied with increasing force until Ling and Lee are freed. Predictably, however, things have taken a different turn. So who thinks Clinton is arriving empty-handed? Obviously, there’s much about this mission that’s hidden from us, but there are a few things that we either know or can infer with near certainty:
1. There was a price of admission. The terms of the visit were negotiated with the North Koreans for months, meaning that North Korea didn’t let Clinton in without at least the prospect of a payoff. The converse must also be true:
“The question is going to be how could he go to Pyongyang without some assurance that they would be released,” Snyder said. “For someone at his level to go without a prior assurance of some kind would be to risk a huge loss of face.”
Despite the Administration’s admirable efforts to keep this issue separate from the nuclear diplomacy, the subject will almost certainly come up and probably already has. Both Clinton and the North Koreans are involved in their own intrigues against President Obama, and I wonder why Obama decided to trust Clinton with a venture like this. A man of lower stature and higher integrity would have been far more suitable, which suggests that the North Koreans have already won round one of these negotiations. Indeed, the very fact of negotiating for the freedom of these women means that.
2. Bill Clinton doesn’t take insults directed at his wife’s appearance personally.
3. Reports that Kim Kye Gwan was purged were greatly exaggerated. He was there at the airport to greet Clinton. It’s yet more evidence that the Norh Koreans seek linkage between their hostage-holding and the nuclear negotiations. North Korea tends to send low-ranking officials to greet high-ranking Americans as a particular form of insult (Ralph Cossa thinks Kim Jong Il will have to meet Clinton, but Ralph Cossa is wrong about a lot of things).
In all likelihood, this story will end the way talks with North Korea always do — with North Korea being rewarded its evil acts, and with North Korea no less of a threat to us than when the story began. And because North Korea has learned to profit from ransom, there will be more hostages taken as a result.