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Clinton in Pyongyang: The Real Deal

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Jimmy Carter, the saying goes, was destined to be a great former president. The jury is still out on Bill Clinton, but he certainly accomplished his mission to Pyongyang quickly and successfully.

Last week, Clinton flew to North Korea, met with Kim Jong Il, and brought home Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two journalists who'd been detained since March. The former president, who very nearly visited Pyongyang back in 2000, comported himself with unusual gravity, hardly cracking a smile. And the notoriously garrulous Clinton has kept to the official script that this was a "solely private" undertaking that focused on the journalists and nothing more, though it strains credulity to imagine the former president restricting his long chat with North Korea's leader to media ethics.

Despite this success, the right-wing media in the United States went after Bill as ruthlessly as the North Korean media pillories imperialists. As Joe Conason points out in Salon, Clinton's feat should have been a moment to celebrate: "But not for Gordon Liddy, the demented felon and radio bigot who cackled about 'Ling Ling and Wee Wee being locked up for nine hours in an airplane with Bill Clinton.' Not for Rush Limbaugh, the obsessive guttersnipe who wondered aloud whether Clinton 'hit on those two female journalists on the long flight home.'"

Compared to the rabid right, John Bolton only showed a few flecks of foam on his walrus mustache when commenting on Bill's excellent adventure in North Korea. Bolton, the former UN representative for the Bush administration, has unrestricted access to the opinion pages of the top newspapers these days. As the go-to guy on the right for comment on North Korea, he can be counted on for predictably pugnacious views. He called Clinton's trip "poorly thought-out gesture politics" reminiscent of the equally malign trip that Jimmy Carter took to Pyongyang in 1994. That Clinton freed two U.S. journalists and Carter managed to avert war between the United States and North Korea doesn't seem to satisfy Bolton, whose wildly intemperate views during the Bush years should have consigned him to the lunatic fringe rather than the dead center of the media universe.

The liberal pundits applauded Clinton's efforts, but took pains to emphasize that it's no time to lessen our newly rehabilitated hard-line position toward perfidious North Korea. "Now it is up to President Obama to make it clear to Pyongyang that it is no longer good enough to make easily broken promises," The New York Times editorialized (without detailing our own easily broken promises). Tighten the screws, Nicholas Kristof chimed in from the other side of the opinion pages. Finally, in a journalistic trifecta, New York Times reporter David Sanger penned a piece on the new consensus on containment in Washington. Everyone agrees: We can't let the North Koreans think that sending Bill Clinton -- as opposed to a B-1 bomber -- is a sign of softness.

It took Maureen Dowd of all people to point out the obvious: "The former Bush bullies have no credibility on diplomacy," the columnist wrote. "They spent eight years wrecking it, and the score for them on North Korea is 0-6; zero meetings with Kim and enough plutonium for six nuclear bombs." She didn't take the next logical step, however, and point out that the Obama administration will have just as little success if it persists with its Bush-style containment policy.

In all the commentary on Clinton's trip, journalists and pundits spent so much time cataloging North Korea's sins, they missed several key points.

First of all, the North Korean courts certainly handed down harsh verdicts against the two journalists. But Pyongyang was fully within its rights to detain Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who very stupidly made an illegal crossing into the country. We journalists often raise irresponsibility to the level of moral principle (we must do such-and-such because of the public's right to know). But Ling and Lee were unusually irresponsible, not just in breaking the law of a country but endangering their contacts in China and upsetting delicate relations between two historic adversaries. Despite some complaints from the two released captives, they were treated quite humanely -- particularly if you compare their treatment to how the U.S. border patrol handles Mexicans who illegally cross into this country. I'm very glad that they're home safe, but frankly it's up to their journalist colleagues to rake them -- and their scoop-hungry handlers -- over the coals for misconduct.

Second, North Korea wants to talk. Its demand to talk bilaterally with the United States is nothing new. It has always insisted on face-to-face communications. And, honestly, negotiations have only made progress when they have come after such bilateral talks. But the Obama administration has taken a significant step backward by insisting that North Korea meet certain preconditions before we talk to them. "We're not going to reward the North Koreans by agreeing to meet with them without some specific actions that they have to take," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly recently paraphrased the views of his boss, Hillary Clinton.

Third, we shouldn't assume that North Korea doesn't want to give up its nuclear weapons. The more we say this in print, the more likely that North Korea will adopt this as a default position.

If Bill Clinton had gone to Pyongyang a decade ago, in the waning days of his presidency, we might be seeing a very different North Korea today. Détente between North Korea and the United States might have made irreversible the country's economic reforms and its rapprochement with the South. Instead, winter has closed over the hermit kingdom, and the aging hardliners cling to their ideologies like misers clutching worthless banknotes. Bill's excellent adventure last week was a brief and welcome return of engagement on both sides. It's now up to Obama to ignore the bogus critics and orchestrate a most excellent follow-up.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post.

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