Clinton’s Pyongyang Visit Rescue Mission: No Change to US Foreign Policy

| September 16, 2009
International Voices forum

A month has already passed since former US President Bill Clinton, husband of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, flew to North Korea to broker the release of two American journalists.

The apparent political objective of Clinton’s trip was to lay some groundwork for possible negotiations between the United States and North Korea, who recently indicated a desire to engage the Obama administration in direct talks. In the short term, there is no apparent change in relations between the rogue state and the US.

The Obama administration has been eager to separate Clinton’s mission from their official policy regarding North Korea ever since his plane left for Pyongyang. Indeed, no government officials travelled with the former president and he chartered a private jet, instead of using a government plane.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been detained since March, after they were sentenced to 12years in a labour camp for allegedly crossing the border while filming a report on North Korean refugees in northeast China. Within hours of Clinton’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on August 4, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the two American journalists had been granted “a special pardon” and they departed Pyongyang with Clinton on his plane.

International Voices forumThe KCNA reported that Clinton carried a message from President Obama, a claim a White House spokesman quickly denied insisting his visit was “a private mission.” The KCNA also reported that the release was evidence of North Korea’s "humanitarian and peace-loving policy."

Since the election of President Barack Obama, there is an apparent change in the direction of American foreign policy. The White House has moved away from the “axis of evil” terminology and spin of the Bush administration. Whilst Clinton’s visit was symbolic and historical, it seems unlikely and premature to think that North Korea will immediately abandon its nuclear ambition; which is Washington’s main concern.

Over the past six months, the United Nations and the Obama Administration have made it clear that the nuclear program of North Korea will not be tolerated. The US led condemnation of the April 5 test launch of a long-range missile resulted in the rogue state pulling out of the six-party talks involving the US, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

Pyongyang’s second nuclear test on May 25 resulted in tougher UN sanctions, which Australia quickly adopted. As recently as July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton harshly attacked North Korea at the ASEAN summit in Thailand for allegedly supplying nuclear and missile material to the Burmese junta.

While many were confident that Clinton’s visit was evidence of direct talks between the US and North Korea, that seems rather optimistic.

Firstly, the Obama administration has continued the Bush presidency’s policy of only engaging Pyongyang through the six-party talks. This policy has remained unchanged even though on July 24, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) ambassador to the UN announced at a press conference that Pyongyang was interested in direct talks with the Obama administration on issues of “common concern”.

Secondly, as the Washington Post reported, the Obama administration had initially chosen former Vice President Al Gore to go to North Korea. This seems likely more than speculation due to Gore being the co-founder of the Current TV channel; the employer of the two American journalists. It fosters further doubt that Clinton was formally engaging North Korea with the Obama administration.

Washington’s inability to engage Pyongyang is also a matter of concern in Canberra. Following the second nuclear test in May, the Prime Minister’s office released a statement that the government “strongly condemns” the nuclear test and will “join our partners in the region in taking a firm stand against the DPRK’s behaviour.” Then, following the rescue mission last month, no government media release was issued.

Clearly the Rudd government did not see Clinton’s visit as a major development in opening up relations with North Korea.

Furthermore the Australia government is a strong supporter of the six party talks and is committed to working “closely with member countries” to encourage the denuclearisation of North Korea’s missile program.

The Rudd government also adopted the UN resolution 1874, which involves tougher sanctions against the rogue state following the May nuclear test. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Australian government has imposed “its own autonomous sanctions” on North Korea since 2006 including visa bans to DPRK citizens, a port ban on North Korean vessels, and a suspension of Bilateral aid since 2002.

Whilst Clinton brokered the release of the two detained journalists in North Korea, his visit was little more than a rescue mission.


Andrew Wilson is a postgraduate student at the University of Sydney studying Media Practice. He has a degree in International Relations and works as a freelance journalist.