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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Recent news reports on Hillary Clinton’s emails indicate that former President Bill Clinton sought permission from the State Department for a paid speaking engagement in North Korea while his spouse was secretary of state. ABC News reported on August 28th that it “obtained State Department e-mails that shed light on Bill Clinton’s lucrative speaking engagements and show he and the Clinton Foundation tried to get approval for invitations related to two of the most repressive countries in the world – North Korea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” A May 2012 email, titled “North Korea invitation,” from the Clinton Foundation to then-Hillary Clinton chief of staff Cheryl Mills read, “Is it safe to assume (the U.S. Government) would have concerns about WJC accepting the attached invitation related to North Korea?” Mills replied, “Decline it.” In a follow-up email the Clinton Foundation noted that the invitation came via Secretary Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham.
Most modern American presidents had very contentious relations with North Korea
At first glance it would seem rather peculiar for North Korea to offer to fund a speech by the former president of a nation which is the subject of its annual “Struggle Against U.S. Imperialism Month.” Most modern American presidents had very contentious relations with North Korea. Harry Truman must rank at the bottom of Pyongyang’s popularity list since his swift intervention in response to Pyongyang’s attack in 1950 stymied North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s plans to re-unify the peninsula by force. Pyongyang would also not “like Ike” as Eisenhower’s campaign pledge in 1952 that “I shall go to Korea” to resolve a stalemated war is partially credited for his subsequent landslide victory. (President-elect Eisenhower became the first American civilian leader to visit Korea.)
Pyongyang then used the crisis over the Vietnam War to play brinkmanship with both Lyndon Johnson, seizing the USS Pueblo on the eve of the Tet offensive in January 1968; and with Gerald Ford, carrying out the axe murders of two U.S. army officers in the DMZ in the summer of 1976, 16 months after Ford had ordered the evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon. And President George W. Bush earned the eternal enmity of Pyongyang by including North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address.
DEADLOCK TO DEAL
President Clinton also faced grave initial problems with Pyongyang. A nuclear-related confrontation early in his administration in June 1994 created the greatest crisis on the peninsula since the Korean War. Clinton’s then-Defense Secretary William Perry revealed in a 1999 CNN interview that the United States and North Korea were then “on the brink of war.” Perry stated that he had ordered planning for a preemptive strike on North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor but ultimately rejected it. It was a last-minute telephone call to Washington from former President Jimmy Carter, then on a private North Korean visit which included a meeting with “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, which brought the two sides back from the brink.
Yet after this very bumpy start, President Clinton and North Korea reached a diplomatic accommodation. The Agreed Framework, signed in October 1994, called for Pyongyang’s freezing of plutonium production at its Yongbyon reactor in exchange for the provision of 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO) annually and the ultimate construction (never completed) of two light-water reactors to meet North Korea’s energy needs.
The Agreed Framework also opened the spigot of U.S. economic assistance. A Congressional Research Service report of April 2, 2014, titled “Foreign Assistance to North Korea” notes that “between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with more than $1.3 billion in assistance: slightly more than 50 percent for food aid and about 40 percent for energy assistance. Since early 2009, the United States has provided virtually no aid to North Korea, though episodically there have been discussions about resuming large-scale food aid.” (The Agreed Framework ultimately broke down during the George W. Bush administration when the United States received evidence that Pyongyang had been pursuing a second path to nuclear weaponry via a covert, highly enriched uranium program.)
U.S.-North Korean relations dramatically improved late in his administration when President Clinton pursued a diplomatic breakthrough as a legacy issue. On October 9, 2000, Vice Marshall Jo Myong Rok, the second-most senior official in North Korea, arrived in Washington as the special envoy of Kim Jong Il, with a personal letter from him to the American president. (American protocol officials were apparently oblivious to the historic significance of Jo’s arrival date although it was likely not lost on Pyongyang – on October 9, 1983 a bomb planted by North Korean agents in Rangoon, Burma decimated the cabinet of America’s South Korean ally even though it failed in its mission to assassinate the South Korean President.) Vice Marshall Jo not only met with President Clinton but also held discussions with then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and then Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
A communiqué issued at the conclusion of Jo’s White House meeting announced the imminent visit to North Korea of the Secretary of State. Approximately 10 days afterward, with the clock rapidly ticking down toward the November 7, 2000 presidential election, Secretary Albright made her reciprocal visit to Pyongyang, partly to scope out a possible subsequent trip by a lame duck President Clinton. (Clinton, engaged with another diplomatic legacy issue, attempting to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian Camp David Summit, would ultimately run out of time to visit North Korea.)
The Albright visit had its ironic moments. She began with a trip to the Kim Il Sung Memorial Palace to, according to ABC News, “pay respects at the mausoleum of Kim Jong Il’s father” (the man who launched a war that killed an estimated 33,686 U.S. soldiers.) ABC News also noted how the secretary danced with children at a kindergarten under a banner which read: “Thanks To The Respected Generalissimo Kim Il Sung.”
Albright replied: ‘Of course it was uncomfortable’
In a March 27, 2003 interview with PBS’s Frontline, Albright described how Kim Jong Il, in the midst of negotiations about a potential missile launch moratorium, took her to a stadium for a public performance. Albright told PBS: “And then the performance itself was kind of two-tiered. You know how they do those flash cards at our big football games where students can deliver various messages? … And then there was one, and they were so good at it that they could make a rocket go up by moving the cards. At that point he turned to me, and it was a Taepodong missile.”
When asked if this made her uncomfortable, Albright replied: “Of course it was uncomfortable. I didn’t have the sense that people were looking at me. He was the center of attraction, and to have everybody robotically applauding him, it was like being in some very strange movie myself.” ABC News reported that the visit ended at a farewell banquet where Kim Jong Il said to Albright, “Please give me your e-mail address.” President Clinton said of his secretary’s visit that, “We have some hope of resolving our outstanding differences with North Korea and looking forward to the day when they will truly close the last chapter in the aftermath of the Korean War.”
BILL IS DUE
While Bill Clinton never made it to Pyongyang as president, he did eventually join Jimmy Carter in becoming one of only two ex-U.S. presidents to visit North Korea. The background of Clinton’s ultimate mission to Pyongyang makes for a story itself. At the beginning of the Obama Administration, on March 17, 2009, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were seized by North Korean border agents and taken into North Korea while working on a news story about North Korean defectors. The chairman of the two journalists’ then-employer Current TV was former Vice President Al Gore and Laura’s older sister Lisa is a prominent American journalist. In Laura and Lisa Ling’s subsequent co-authored book, Somewhere Inside, they describe North Korea’s clear insistence that former President Clinton come as the envoy to obtain the journalists’ release.
Laura recounts how one of her North Korean captors told her that “we don’t care about money” (for her release). He mentioned how the U.S, had once sent an envoy, then-Congressman Bill Richardson, to free another detained American citizen. Al Gore was subsequently proposed as an envoy but the North Koreans made it clear that he was not acceptable. They suggested former presidents “Carter or Clinton. Those sound like good options.” Later, however, a North Korean prosecutor yelled at Laura: “Carter, Carter, Carter! All you talked about was Carter! And you acted as if you were speaking for the DPRK government! You have upset many people by asking for Carter!” He made it clear that “Clinton is your best and last option.”
Returning together from Pyongyang in August 2009 after their release, President Clinton told the two journalists that Kim Jong Il had greeted him with the words “I’ve always wanted to meet you.” Clinton added that during their meeting Kim told him how much he appreciated the phone call Clinton made to him when his father, Kim Il Sung, passed away in July 1994. “You were the first one to call me, even before my allies, and I’ve always remembered that.” When Laura commented about President Clinton’s stoic expression when standing next to a beaming Kim Jong Il in their official photograph, Clinton explained that, “I had to practice that. Seriously, I wanted to be very careful not to smile or smirk. Hillary and Chelsea had to coach me.”
And so, every indication is that, even with a grimace on his face, Bill Clinton remains the most popular president in Pyongyang. That would explain the Hillary email revelation that North Korea is even ready to pay a hefty speaker’s fee to get Bill back.