Escape From North Korea

North Korea's jailing of the two American female journalists who had foolishly entered their forbidden nation last March set off a remarkable chain of diplomatic events, culminating in President Bill Clinton's triumphant rescue mission last week to Pyongyang.

Clinton conducted himself with dignity and gravitas, making sure never to smile at the North Koreans. Even so, they were clearly thrilled -- even giddy with excitement, or as giddy as grim, Klingon-like North Koreans get -- to have the fabled former American celebrity president in their isolated, most unpopular nation. Kudos to Bill Clinton.

One even suspects that behind their scowls, the North Koreans have a rather eccentric, sunnier side. "Beloved Leader" Kim Jong-il loves James Bond movies and vintage Bordeaux (supplies of which the unsporting US has tried to cut off). His elder son, and, until recently, heir apparent, was caught trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland on a faked passport.

After months of secret negotiations, the North Koreans made clear they would only release the captives if Clinton came to get them. During his presidency, the US and North Korea came close to normalizing relations and ending the North's nuclear program in exchange for US aid and a lifting of US-led sanctions.

But when President George Bush and his neoconservative supporters took power, they quickly sabotaged Clinton's deal with Pyongyang and began beating the war drums. North Korea was high on the neocon's target list because it was believed to be an enemy of Israel for allegedly selling missile technology to Iran, Pakistan, and certain Arab states.

The neocons are now spreading the bizarre scare story that North Korea is selling decrepit Burma (Myanmar) a reactor to supposedly make nuclear weapons. What Burma would do with nuclear weapons goes unexplained. Bomb Laos?

The American captives are safely home. But was it right to give in to North Korea's obvious diplomatic blackmail? What about abducted South Koreans and Japanese being held under horrible conditions in North Korea?

Morality says no, but common sense says yes. This case was too important to ignore, and the opportunity too appealing. Clinton held his nose and did the right thing.

Isolated, threadbare North Korea desperately craves recognition by the United States and an end to punishing, American-led sanctions and treatment of Stalinist North Korea as a pariah state.

North Korea has at least six nuclear weapons aimed at Japan and South Korea, where nearly 100,000 US military personnel are based. Washington's recent threats to stop and board North Korean merchantmen on the high seas brought the two nations to the brink of hostilities.

Add to the tensions a looming succession struggle in North Korea. During Clinton's visit, the reclusive, ailing North Korean "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, who reportedly suffered a stroke, looked shockingly wizened, frail and old.

No one knows who will take power after the "Beloved Leader." The most likely candidates: Kim's youngest son, Jong-un; senior military commanders; or the party's politburo.

President Clinton and the Obama administration made the right move at the right time. Clinton's visit may thaw frozen negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons. Kim's nukes are not designed to attack the US but to deter the US from using its nuclear weapons against North Korea.

Everyone in tense North Asia will be relieved. North Korea is a volcano waiting to erupt. The United States is the only nation that seems capable of keeping some sort of order in the region and even helping North Korea achieve an orderly post-Kim succession. The US also plays a highly positive role in keeping Japan and Korea from each others throats, and modulating Japanese-Chinese tensions.

Japan, South Korea and even China mightily fear North Korea will implode when the "Beloved Leader" is no more. Ugly and brutal as his regime is, this devil we know may be better than what could come next. Ironically, North Korea's neighbors and the US might even end up propping up the demonized Kim regime rather than face the alternatives.

North Korea's collapse could send millions of starving refugees into South Korea, China, and across the narrow sea to Japan.

This column hears talk that China has a contingency plan to send its army into North Korea if it collapses. China would seize North Korea's nuclear weapons and impose a temporary protectorate over the North.

South Korea is terrified by the prospect of what it calls "unexpected reunification:" meaning the titanic cost of feeding 23.4 million starving North Koreans and rebuilding that battered nation. Japan is not anxious to see a united Korea. China does not want to see a US-dominated united Korea that would threaten its sensitive northeast industrial and military region of Manchuria.

So, those two errant lady reporters did everyone a favor by allowing Washington to reconnect to Pyongyang. This process must not be allowed to stop. Washington should join South Korea, Japan, China and Russia in preparing for the post-Kim era by opening wider talks with Pyongyang, discreetly assure North Korea it will not be attacked, and relaxing sanctions in exchange for important concessions from Pyongyang.

This is intelligent diplomacy, and the kind of positive statecraft the US should be conducting in Mideast and towards Russia.