Published August 06, 2009
The release of the two journalists by the North Koreans this week was the result of a tour-de-force, trifecta combination of the three most talented and truly great political leaders of our times - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, her husband, former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.
Without the special talents and the synergistic magic of the three of them working together, I don't believe Euna Lee and Laura Ling would be back in America from imprisonment in the national prison called North Korea.
For reasons that are not yet clear, the two journalists were allowed to place themselves in great danger last March while working on a story on human trafficking for Current TV (co-founded by Vice President Al Gore). Either the two of them approached the China side of a shallow river between China and North Korea or they actually crossed over it, as the North Koreans claim. (It has been reported that Ms. Ling told her sister that they had broken North Korean laws, but it is impossible at this juncture to know whether that was a coerced statement. Two other colleagues fled and escaped arrest.)
The story of what happened and why remains to be told. Perhaps, now that they're home safely, we will learn why this trip was taken in the face of such obvious dangers.
But make no mistake: The North Koreans put the two through a mock trial and then levied the inhumane sentence of 12 years of hard labor for what was, at most- if at all - a border-crossing violation.
This inhumane and disproportionate sentence rightfully outraged most Americans, and certainly the Secretary of State as well as President Obama. It was clear that the secretary was not going to relent until these two young women were home safely. Initially, she expressed public dismay at their arrest, and even more outrage at the excessive sentence of 12 years of hard labor.
But soon, Secretary Clinton's expression of outrage and dismay could be seen to modulate. She was focused on the right strategy to get them home, and when Hillary Clinton is focused, she is really focused. She knew that the only strategy to free them was to find the right words and the right approach to allow Kim Jong Il to save face.
She knew it's all about face because she is someone who has the rare ability to know how to walk in other people's shoes and see the world through their eyes.
After initially declaring her dismay at the arrest and the sentence, she remarked that the two women felt "great remorse" and their families were "anguished." The shift in words could not have been accidental, and must have been noticed in Pyongyang. Then came the most significant shift, the secretary went from asking for their release for "humanitarian reasons" to requesting amnesty on their behalf.
Amnesty, she knew, would allow dictator Kim to claim the two were, in fact, guilty, but were being granted amnesty by his grace.
But words would not be enough. Kim needed to receive the recognition of a visit by a transcendent American leader, someone respected not only around the world but even within his own closed society of North Korea, a private citizen - since the Obama administration could not officially recognize this outlaw regime by dealing with it directly - but also a citizen of the world.
Enter former President Bill Clinton. No one else on the planet fits that description but Bill Clinton. While reports say that the deal to release Lee and Ling was already done before he left U.S. soil or the former president never would have gone to North Korea there was always a risk the erratic Kim could have changed his mind with one wrong word from Clinton.
But it was a safe bet that Bill Clinton would pull it off. And he did.
It took great self-confidence for Hillary Clinton to send her husband without worrying about the small, vicious people who would second- guess her decision to allow her husband to take center stage again.
But then, the third member of the trifecta had to be there - the foundation of making it all possible.
It also took Barack Obama, another leader with the great self-confidence (and self-comfort), to not feel threatened by putting Secretary Clinton and Bill Clinton out front to achieve this great diplomatic and human victory.
President Obama has once again shown the inner strength to follow in the footsteps of his presidential hero, Abraham Lincoln, in putting front and center his true "team of rivals" - with the result that Laura Ling and Euna Lee are now home safely, and this horrible nightmare is over.