Irony of Clintons on N. Korea
By Lee Chang-sup
The Clintons are an unusual husband and wife. Husband Bill was the U.S. President, and wife Hilary is now serving in the U.S. No. 2 post as secretary of state. It is the first time in U.S. history for a husband and wife to take the two most powerful jobs on an alternate basis.
The couple is so famous in Korea that every Korean knows this joke about their success story: One day, the Clintons drive a car to a gas station in Arkansas and meet a former high school boy friend of Hillary, who is pumping gas.
Bill jokes, “Hey Hillary, you might have become the wife of a gas station attendant if you hadn’t married me.” Hillary retorts, “If I had married him, he might have become the President of the United States and you might have become a gas station employee.”
The couple has contrasting policies on North Korea. During the Bill Clinton-Kim Dae-jung presidencies in 1998 to 2001, detente on the Korean Peninsula seemed within reach. It was Clinton who stood behind Kim’s Sunshine Policy of engaging North Korea. Mt. Geumgang tourism was open to South Koreans by the time President Clinton visited Seoul in 1998.
In a Cheong Wa Dae press conference following a summit with Kim, he said, “What a fantastic idea for the two Koreas to open the Mt. Geumgang tour!” He said, “About North Korea policy, I will stand behind President Kim,” giving the liberal head of state a blanket endorsement on his approach to North Korea.
Construction later started for the inter-Korean industrial enclave in Gaeseong. And Secretary of State Madeleine Albright received the red-carpet treatment during her meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang.
The North’s top military leader Cho Myungrok visited Washington, and there was even talk of a Clinton-Kim Jong-il meeting to establish diplomatic ties. Pyongyang released two American journalists it held following former President Clinton’s visit last year. What is clear is that when Clinton talks, Kim Jong-il is ready to listen.
In hindsight, U.S.-North Korea diplomatic normalization might have been possible if the honeymoon had started one year earlier.
The dramatic developments stopped when conservative President George W. Bush took the oath of office in 2001. Bush described North Korea as part of an axis of evil, and cornered North Korea into going nuclear.
Kim Dae-jung, in the waning year of his presidency, was unable to persuade Bush to back his engagement policy with the North. The clash of policies over North Korea was apparent during the Bush-Kim era, and also strained Korea-U.S. relations.
In the latter part of his presidency, Bush took a hands-off policy and followed Roh Moohyun’s pursuit of engaging the North.
Hillary Clinton is to arrive in Seoul today following her meeting with Chinese leaders. She has made it clear that international sanctions on North Korea are inevitable, and she is taking a hard-line policy toward the regime there.
Why are the two Clintons so different over the same North Korea? It may be a foolish question. It was the North that made the wife of the former U.S. President get tough when it torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.
She can justifiably seek ways of asking the North to pay the price for the clandestine attack. If Bill Clinton were now the U.S. President, he might even be doing the same as his wife is now.
Then another question arises. Would North Korea have attacked the ship if President Lee Myung-bak had pursued an engagement policy with the North? In the real world, assumptions are assumptions.
Yes, President Clinton had thought of attacking the North in 1994 when it was developing nuclear weapons, but at the last minute, the plan was averted through the unscheduled visit of former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang for a meeting with then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.
Then opposition leader Kim Dae-jung should be credited for imploring Carter to mediate the dispute to avert a war on the Korean Peninsula.
The peninsula has been the place of extreme confrontations and rapprochement, and one thing is clear that Kim Jong-il still remains in this drama. The North Korean leader has been maneuvering a survival game for his regime with four South Korean and four American presidents.
In democratic societies, presidents come and go; in the dictatorial government, Kim will remain in the top post until he dies
He may be devising schemes to maneuver through the next South Korean and American presidents. Bill Clinton wrote in his memoirs that he was positive on Seoul’s engagement policy toward the North.
When Hillary Clinton writes her memoirs after retirement, will she criticize her husband’s North Korea policy? It will be interesting to note at least one of the two reflections on North Korea policy may be “wrong.” Will Kim Jong-il live long enough to read Hillary Clinton’s account?
Every American secretary of state wants to go down in history as a great one rather than a tough one. To become a great secretary of state, she must succeed in diplomacy. She must be able to resolve difficult issues of war and peace, including that of North Korea.
If she succeeds, she will have more accomplishments to write about.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. He can be reached at koreatimes.co.kr.