U.S.-North Korea Fragile Relations

Published on August 11, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Khaleej Times – August 12, 2009

It has been nine years since Bill Clinton, the forty-second and the third-youngest president of the United States of America, left the White House. He is the second former U.S. president to visit North Korea. Jimmy Carter, the thirty-ninth U.S. president, visited the communist nation during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

The first high-profile visit by a former U.S. president in 1994 was planned by a sitting president. Similarly, the second high-profile former U.S. president’s visit is also most likely to have been arranged by a sitting president.

Clinton’s visit is widely described as a private visit to secure the release of two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea.


“While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardize the success of former president Clinton’s mission,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on August 4.

The situation is similar to 1994 when the then-president Bill Clinton recruited Jimmy Carter, but was publicized that the visit was Carter’s private mission. President Carter was sent to negotiate with the then-North Korean president Kim Il-Sung, father of president Kim Jong-Il, to reach a peace agreement on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

At that time, North Korea was expelling investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency and was threatening to begin processing spent nuclear fuel. In a response to Pyongyang’s action, president Clinton pressured for sanctions and ordered a troop build up in the area.

The mission successfully negotiated a deal with North Korea. Under the agreement, Pyongyang agreed to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear program, and to comply with its nonproliferation obligations. In return, North Korea was to receive oil supplies, construct light water reactors to replace graphite reactors and start holding discussions to normalize diplomatic relations with the United States.

The fragile bilateral relations collapsed in 2002. In January 2002, former president George W. Bush branded North Korea as part of “axis of evil,” which further heightened the strained relations. However, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the “axis of evil” list in October 2008 after Pyongyang agreed to allow in atomic experts to inspect declared nuclear facilities and undeclared sites.

In July of this year, there was a war of words flying back and forth between U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the North Korean leadership at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ meeting in Thailand. The secretary of state compared the leadership in Pyongyang to “small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention.”

The North Korean foreign ministry spokesman called Hillary Clinton “by no means intelligent” and a “funny lady. Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.”

Despite Pyongyang’s strained relations with Washington, the North Korean leadership wants to have high-level direct talks on its nuclear program, which Washington has rejected so far. The Obama administration has expressed its willingness for bilateral talk within the framework of the six-party talks, which includes China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and the United States.

While North Korea has been condemned by the international community over its nuclear test in May and the subsequent U.N. Security Council’s unanimously adopted tightened sanctions, Pyongyang is seeking a chance to show its good actions to the world.

The latest development on securing the successful release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee was a sign of seeing room for resolving the strained relations between Washington and Pyongyang through diplomatic means. The pardon and release was described as “humanitarian and peace-loving policy” by the North Korean leadership.

If there continues to exist a willingness on the part of both Washington and Pyongyang for a negotiated solution, there is hope that the North Korean nuclear crisis can be resolved diplomatically.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a political analyst and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Asia for many leading international newspapers.