Clinton's Trip a Winner for Kim Jong-Il

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In East Asia where Confucian thought is still influential from Seoul to Singapore, former President Bill Clinton's visit to Pyongyang to meet North Korea's Kim Jong Il was immediately seen as a triumph for the North Korean leader who had maneuvered the American into being a supplicant seeking a favor.

Clinton was asked by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former president's wife, to undertake what the White House said was a private humanitarian mission to bring home two inexperienced Asian-American journalists who blundered into North Korea from northeastern China in March. They were arrested, tried, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The former president, said the official [North] Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), "expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists against the DPRK after illegally intruding into it." DPRK refers to North Korea's formal name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

KCNA said "Clinton courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama expressing profound thanks" for releasing Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

In the Confucian world, most of life is governed by superior-inferior relationships-king-subject, father-son, husband-wife, older brother-young brother. Only friend-friend is similar to the Western standard of equality. In his own view, Kim has evidently concluded that he has the upper hand over Clinton and the Obama administration.

That makes two consequences of the Clinton mission seem likely. First, Kim will be tougher than ever in negotiations with the US, South Korea, and Japan. Second, he has enhanced his grip on power amid speculation that unease and dissent runs through Kim's hierarchy because he has been ill and not fully prepared a successor.

Pictures of a smiling, self-assured Kim and a somber looking Clinton were splashed all over the North Korean press so that no citizen would doubt the message: "Look, a leader of the powerful United States has come to Pyongyang to plead with the leader of North Korea."

As a Japanese analyst asserted: "The photographs ooze out a sense of Kim Jong Il crossing verbal swords with Clinton on more than an equal footing."

A Chinese scholar contended: "The DPRK's supreme leader is a master at handling US-DPRK crisis and other crisis issues." He added: "Kim played the 'hostage card' by promptly and skillfully grasping this little opportunity presented by the United States."

A columnist in the Chosun Ilbo, the largest circulating newspaper in South Korea, argued: "The Obama administration can emphasize all it likes that the rescue operation was private and humanitarian; but if the North does not see it that way, it will not be so. Kim Jong-il would hardly have spent more than three hours with Clinton just to eat."

Clinton joined a stream of American, South Korean, and Japanese leaders who have made their way to Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder who died in 1994, and the Kim Jong Il, his son. It began 15 years ago, when former President Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang.

Then came President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea in 2000 to promote his "Sunshine Policy" for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. President Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, made the journey later that same year. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan went to Pyongyang twice, in 2002 and 2004.

Koizumi wrangled from Kim an admission that North Korean agents had kidnapped scores of Japanese citizens and he brought back to Japan five of those captives. Otherwise, all the visitors to Pyongyang, including Clinton, have little to show for their efforts as Kim has kept right on developing nuclear weapons, missiles and other threats to South Korea, Japan, and the US.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for 10 years.
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