America has just welcomed home two of its own, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, both of whom had been thrown in the slammer while visiting North Korea, and sentenced there to years of hard labor for acts that Pyongyang’s regime deemed “hostile.” We can celebrate their safe return.
But it would be folly to celebrate the manner in which it was accomplished. To bring them home, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper flew to North Korea, carrying what was reportedly a message from President Obama to North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un. State Department officials have been telling the press that Clapper’s mission involved no quid pro quo. A news story in the Wall Street Journal carries the subhead: “U.S. Didn’t Give Anything to Secure Release.”
That’s absurd. The visit to North Korea by America’s intelligence chief was, in itself, a form of tribute, in which the U.S. superpower stooped to beg a favor from Pyongyang. It was a ransom. A payola for North Korea’s hostage politics.
North Korea is an aggressive totalitarian state, which the U.S. — quite rightly — has never dignified with formal diplomatic ties and recognition. When high-ranking U.S. officials — or even former officials — go to Pyongyang to ask for something, they are supplicants. That is a concession to North Korea, all by itself, and in that spirit Pyongyang has long sought ways to procure visits by high-ranking American officials — or even former officials. That does not mean that North Korea’s regime harbors a latent affection for Americans. It means that Pyongyang benefits when high-ranking Americans are cast in the position of paying tribute.
Thus did North Korea’s previous tyrant, Kim Jong Il, back in 2000, demand a visit from President Bill Clinton as the price of a potential missile deal (Clinton did not go, Madeleine Albright and Wendy Sherman went instead). Thus in 2009 did Kim again demand a visit from Bill Clinton (that time, Clinton went) as the preferred emissary to come to Pyongyang to pick up two American employees of former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV station, Euna Lee and Laura Ling — who had been so foolish as wander across the border from China into North Korea, where they were arrested and sentenced to 12 years at hard labor. Clinton’s visit was the visible price of their “pardon” by Kim.
Now, by way of imprisoning Bae and Miller, and imposing sentences long and harsh enough to effectively transform them into hostages, North Korea’s current dynastic tyrant, Kim Jong Un, has summoned to his capital the head of U.S. Intelligence. That’s an in-your-face power play by Pyongyang that the rest of the world will understand, even if Washington does not. It’s unclear whether it was the U.S. that chose Clapper as the emissary, or North Korea that made the choice, and Washington said yes, he can. But the effect is the same. Clapper’s job is supposed to be collecting intelligence on such malign hellholes as North Korea, not serving as errand boy to satisfy the requirements of Kim Jong Un. If there is any notion in Washington that this might be the prelude to some sort of fruitful exchange with North Korea — more nuclear talks, perhaps — it is time to sober up. This was not a case of a penitent regime reaching out to James Clapper and his colleagues. This was extortion.
President Obama welcomed the return of Bae and Miller with brief comments, including “I think it is a wonderful day for them and their families and obviously we are very grateful for their safe return.” A wonderful day for the individuals involved, no question. But to whom or what is Obama grateful? To North Korea? As former State Department official Christian Whiton writes about this scene, it was “not cost-free.” And as long as the U.S. allows North Korea to profit so handsomely from extortion, we can expect lots more of it.