The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Giving Baby Its Bottle

By Sending Bill Clinton, Obama Provided Kim Jong-Il with a “Teachable Moment” about the Differences Between Good Attention and Bad Attention

The release of two American journalists by North Korea in the wake of former President Bill Clinton’s surprise visit is wonderful news. North Korean officials arrested Euna Lee and Laura Ling near the Chinese border four months ago, while the two women journalists were on a reporting trip for Current TV, a media service owned by former Vice-President Al Gore. In June, North Korea sentenced the pair to twelve years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in “hostile acts.”

The White House described Clinton’s visit as a “solely private” effort to win the journalists’ freedom. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied Clinton carried any message from President Obama or that he engaged in official negotiations with the North Korean on any subject.

Unsurprisingly, Pyongyang had a slightly different take on things. During his visit, Clinton received honors typically reserved for heads of state, not the least of which was a direct meeting with Kim Jong-Il. State-run North Korean media insisted the two men engaged in “wide-ranging and exhaustive” talks during their meeting and that Clinton “courteously” conveyed a verbal message to Kim from Obama. North Korean heralded the women’s release as proof of its “humanitarian and peace-loving policy.”

The true nature of Clinton’s mission likely fell somewhere in-between the conflicting pictures painted by Washington and the North Koreans respectively. Clinton’s visit was neither serendipitous nor autonomous but rather the product of weeks of quiet negotiations between the U.S. State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations.

As Daniel Sneider, Associate Director of Research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, explains, “[Clinton] didn’t go to negotiate this, he went to reap the fruits of the negotiation.”

At the same time, Clinton’s non-official status within the Obama Administration gave the U.S. an opportunity to allow Kim to save face through freeing the reporters without expending any real diplomatic capital of our own.

Conservative hawks viewed this strategy dourly. The ink had not yet dried on the reporters’ prison release papers before former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wet his own ink on the pages of the Washington Post to criticize the decision.

“Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama Administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former President to do so,” he huffed. Bolton conceded the safe release of the two women as “welcome news” but fretted it did not “mitigate the future risks entailed.”

Later, in the Wall Street Journal, Gordon Chang, an expert and forthcoming author on the North Korean regime, expanded on that risk. Chang expressed hope that any negotiations to free the journalists did not “include undeserved concessions on North Korea’s nuclear program or an agreement to ignore the plight of the country’s numerous other detainees.”

Yet the high-profile nature of Clinton as an emissary, so objectionable to some critics, is undoubtedly at the heart of his choice by the Obama Administration. The key to dealing with North Korea is to understand that the thing most craved by Kim Jong-Il is international attention, which provides him authority and legitimacy among his impoverished subjects. Given his country’s isolation and dwindling circle of allies, Kim has undertaken a series of provocative and highly dangerous moves to garner that attention.

Especially given his history with North Korea, Bill Clinton represented the most glittering trophy for Kim to display who nevertheless is not an official representative of the U.S. government. Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, understands this approach very well. Back on July 20, she told ABC’s Good Morning America that the consistent factor in dealing with Kim over the years has been his “constant demand for attention.”

Of course, in that same interview, Clinton darkened a few brows within Kim’s inner circle by observing, “Maybe it's the mother in me or the experience that I've had with small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention – don't give it to them, they don't deserve it, they are acting out.”

Why then would her boss use her own husband seemingly to undercut Clinton’s wisdom? Perhaps because his own experiences as a father have taught Obama a thing or two about how to deal with an infant in tantrums.

Sometimes it is best to let a crying baby howl away, so it learns that others will not always meet its demands with positive reinforcement. In other situations, it is the better part of discretion to simply give baby its bottle. This is especially true when baby’s crying could cause discomfit to others, such as in a crowded room. Such was the case this time between the U.S. and North Korea, with two American journalists’ lives/freedom on the line.

In a sense, Bill Clinton was the biggest, shiniest bottle Obama could send to Kim’s crying baby. It did succor him with desired attention but nothing beyond this. Moreover, it just might help Kim to see the different possible outcomes between good attention and bad attention.

Should the U.S. and its allies regard the women’s release as worthy of concessions in their opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program? Absolutely not. Should the U.S. reward North Korea with two-party talks? Probably not. How about relaxing the international embargo to give Kim a few of the goods, both basics and luxuries, that he uses to maintain his control over North Korea’s populace? Possibly.

In the best outcome, combining this carrot with the appropriate subsequent discipline, the U.S. may entice North Korea’s government to return to the six-party disarmament talks from which Kim walked angrily away earlier this year.

Obama had an opportunity to provide Kim with a “teachable moment.” He could not invite the North Korean leader to the White House for a beer, so he sent Bill Clinton to Pyongyang with a bottle of a different sort. Baby Kim gurgled happily in response. Now it remains to see if nuclear Kim learned any lessons in the process.

No comments: