Bill Clinton in Pyongyang

UPDATE: "Clinton Delivers" is the headline on the Drudge Report, with breaking news that in response to Bill Clinton's visit to Pyongyang, North Korea's Kim Jong Il has pardoned the two jailed American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. They are expected to be home shortly, and it will be a welcome relief when they are free of North Korea.

But the huge and disturbing question is, what else has Bill Clinton delivered? And to whom? The White House is calling Bill's trip a "private mission," but there are reports that Bill was met at the Pyongyang airport by North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator,  Kim Kye Gwan -- a curious choice of host if Clinton went only to discuss the two hostage journalists. Likewise, just how private is it when Clinton had a long talk with Kim Jong Il over a dinner hosted by North Korea's National Defense Commission.

Kim Kye Gwan and Kim Jong Il led the Bush administration on a merry dance via the Six-Party Talks of recent years, in which North Korea raked in concessions and aid from the U.S. -- and cheated, with the resulting collapse of the deal late last year. The same regime did the same to Bill Clinton when he was president in the 1990s -- talk, sign, collect, and cheat. North Korea's totalitarian regime is not a system in which morality, decency or human kindness figure as motivating factors. Kim Jong Il got something from the U.S. for those journalists -- the question is, did he simply get the already huge concession of a visit from a former U.S. president and husband of Obama's secretary of state? Or did Bill Clinton deliver a lot more to Kim, which we have yet to hear about?

More on the Pyongyang calculus below, as posted just after Clinton arrived in Pyongyang, but before the report that "Clinton Delivers":

Snatch two American journalists, get yourself a visit from an American ex-president -- with added payolas likely to follow.

That's the conclusion the strategists of North Korea's Kim Jong Il regime might reasonably draw, as Bill Clinton arrives in Pyongyang to navigate the release of the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were nabbed by North Korea, accused of trespassing on its turf and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. I use the word "navigate" rather than "negotiate" for whatever Clinton is about to do in North Korea, because his arrival there -- as ex-president and husband of President Obama's secretary of state -- is, in itself, already a U.S. concession to North Korea; a deal already struck, with more U.S. concessions likely to follow).

There's every reason for North Korea to be pleased with this arrangement. The last American ex-president to tread the corridors of Pyongyang was Jimmy Carter, who went to North Korea in 1994, while Bill Clinton was president. Out of that visit, 15 years ago, came the Agreed Framework nuclear freeze deal, in which North Korea was promised two modern nuclear reactors and a flow of aid, and got to store in-country its spent nuclear fuel (which later came in handy when Kim decided to reprocess it for nuclear bombs). On Clinton's watch, construction began on the reactors, the aid flowed, Madeleine Albright dropped by in 2000 in a propaganda coup for Kim -- and North Korea cheated on the deal.

The net effect was to help Kim Jong Il consolidate power and sustain his regime. Kim enhanced his missile arsenal, expanded his proliferation networks, starved an estimated million or so of his countrymen to death, and conducted nuclear and long-range missiles tests in 2006 and this spring.

Now Bill Clinton has come calling on Pyongyang. One can feel enormous sympathy for the two journalists whose release he's gone to obtain. It would be a very good thing to see them come home. But this is a terrible way to handle it, and the precedent now being set is monstrous.

What will be the real costs of this high-profile brand of ransom payment? It's not only the tyrant regime of Pyongyang that's noting the rewards of hostage politics --  which is becoming hard to distinguish from Obama's broad efforts in any event to engage with the world's most ruthless and manipulative tyrannies. Iran has just picked up three Americans accused by Iranian authorities of straying over the border from Iraq. Which ex-president should Iran now expect to come calling? Or, given the current calculus of hostage politics, and appeasement whatever the cost, should we expect that Obama will do it himself?