Washington, D.C. – Former President William Jefferson Blythe Clinton has now returned from Pyongyang with Al Gore’s employees, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The two women, reporters for Mr. Gore’s Current TV operation, were seized by North Korean border guards on March 17 along the frozen Tumen River — the border between North Korea and China.
On June 8, following a five-day “trial,” Pyongyang’s Central Court convicted the women of “Illegal entry to commit hostilities against the Korean nation” and sentenced them to 12 years at hard labor.
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On Tuesday, August 3, Mr. Clinton, accompanied by a doctor and his former Chief of Staff John Podesta arrived in Pyongyang aboard real estate mogul, Hollywood producer, and Democrat Party-donor Steve Bing's private jet. On arrival at Pyongyang’s nearly deserted Sunan Airport, they were met by Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s long-time senior nuclear negotiator. Twenty hours later, after what the North Korean media described as “exhaustive” talks with “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, the 67-year-old dictator issued a “special pardon” and Mr. Clinton headed home with Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee.
It is good that the women are now reunited with their families and loved ones. Their release is being hailed by the White House as a “great gesture” and kudos are being showered on Mr. Clinton for his “initiative.” The O-Team maintains that North Korean press reports of Mr. Clinton conveying a message from Mr. Obama “expressing apologies…profound thanks…and ways of improving relations between the two countries,” are untrue. Though the Clinton aircraft was re-fueled at U.S. Air Force bases in Alaska and Japan, the Obama administration insists that the former president and party were on a strictly “private humanitarian mission,” and that “there was no quid-pro-quo” for the release.
We all know better. The smile pasted on Kim Jong Il’s face in the “official photographs” taken with Mr. Clinton tell the story. A price was paid. The North Koreans know what it is. The Obama administration knows what it is. But the American people don’t — and we won’t unless transcripts of the Clinton-Kim Jong Il “conversations” are released. Don’t count on that happening soon. The administration that promised to be “the most transparent in history” has made secrecy in foreign affairs a way of life.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with democratic governments engaging in secret diplomacy. Ben Franklin’s covert negotiations with the government of Louis XVI resulted in the French monarchy becoming our ally in the American Revolution. FDR made clandestine arrangements with London to aid the British against Nazi Germany before the United States entered World War II. In these – and innumerable other cases – the U.S. has engaged in secret diplomacy with allies to confound common adversaries – and the American people are not told about it until years – sometimes decades later. But when our government conducts covert contacts with our opponents – even for a humanitarian purpose like freeing hostages – it nearly always blows up in our faces. I should know.
Here’s why secret government negotiations with “bad guys” like the regime in Pyongyang so often go wrong:
First, those who hold the “prisoners” or “hostages,” want something in return. When the captors get what they deem to be an acceptable offer, the captive will be released. The very process of negotiating a “price” or ransom for the life or freedom of an American citizen is a painful process. I know that too.
In the 1980s – when the Iranians controlled the fate of Americans being bludgeoned and battered in Beirut dungeons, the price was 500 Israeli TOW missiles. In this week’s case, the ransom may have been the Kim-Clinton photo-op, the legitimacy bestowed on the aging dictator by the visit of a former U.S. president, a sub-rosa “apology” and an implied commitment to open direct U.S.-North Korean “talks.” It may not be as tangible as money, but it’s still a ransom.
Second, in our government, nothing stays secret for long. The U.S. official “negotiator” and the captor may initially be the only ones who know what is being demanded and offered. But the USG is ultimately vulnerable to the hostage-holder’s decision to make public anything they want – true or false – about what the U.S. side was willing to give. Pyongyang has already disputed the O-Team version of what Mr. Clinton said.
Finally, when governments pay ransom – political or otherwise – they establish a precedent other adversaries will replicate. That’s why most “hostage negotiations” – like those for crews held captive by Somali pirates – are conducted by trusted private emissaries – not highly visible former heads of state. Plausible deniability really does matter.
Since the O-Team has apparently decided to forego all of these hard-learned lessons, perhaps they should try a similar gambit with Tehran. The Iranian regime currently holds three American hikers, Joshua Fattal, Shane Bower and Sarah Shourd for “illegally entering the Islamic Republic.” Sound familiar?
Bill Clinton, call home. Your wife wants to send you on another trip.